Football

Pepper Johnson: Life after coaching by HWTP Sports Talk

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I didn’t want them to jeopardize their careers...”

Johnson on concerns that players would turn to steriods.

By Michigan State University alumna and HWTP editorial manager Laina Stebbins

If you’re a longtime fan of the NFL, it’s a safe bet to assume you’re familiar with Pepper Johnson.

Thomas "Pepper" Johnson has quite the track record: 13 years playing football, 16 years coaching it, with five total Super Bowls under his belt (two as a Giants player; three as a Patriots assistant coach). He’s essentially lived and breathed football since 1986.

Golf, on the other hand? – Not so much.

“I gotta up my game,” Pepper said, who I spoke on the phone with as he made his way back from a golf outing with a friend. “I lost...He has bragging rights.”

Where he is now

Just shy of his 54th birthday, Pepper is back living in his home state of Michigan. He is a year removed from his last assistant coaching job, when a New York Jets coaching shakeup in early 2017 saw six members of the staff – including Pepper – dismissed from the team.

Since then, aside from honing his golf skills, Pepper has been working with USA Natural Patches as the company’s VP of Sports Marketing. The company sells customizable patches that stick to the skin and administer 75 mg of pure thiamine (vitamin B1) to the user’s system.

Vitamin B1 is an essential micronutrient which Pepper says is proven to provide a boost of energy and help the body with overall function. Unlike having to take the vitamins orally or taking shots, “you stick the patch on, and you go,” he said.

Pepper first got into the vitamins business in 2016 when he was still coaching for the Jets. It may seem like a random business venture at first – he said his son was “surprised” when he learned his father was in the vitamins business – but the B1 patches have been quite relevant to his career in the NFL.  (Click on the photo below to navigate through the photo slide: Former NY Giants David Diehl, Lawrence "LT" Taylor and former NBA player Jayson Williams)

While coaching for the Jets, Pepper said he would approach the players about wearing the patches in part because he was concerned that they might turn to steroids instead for enhanced performance and energy.

“I didn’t want them to jeopardize their careers,” Pepper said.

He steered them toward the vitamin patches instead, which he said give players the boost they need while keeping them healthy.

Vitamin B1 is also beneficial for brain health – a particularly important component for football players, who are more prone to concussions and long-term brain damage. Pepper said he’s talked to plenty of ex-players who fret about the potential damage they have sustained.

“We’re bringing more awareness about what B1 does for your mental health,” Pepper said.

“We are talking to the NFL and the league officers and trying to get awareness of vitamin B1 with the concussion protocol,” he said. “That’s going to be huge.”

The NFL concussion protocol was established a decade ago in response to calls for the league to better address the diagnosis and management of concussions. The protocol has undergone many adjustments since then, as football-related head injuries have been further thrust into the national spotlight and more has been discovered about their long-term effects.

In addition to raising awareness of the importance of brain health for football players, Pepper is in the process of testing the patches to gain an official “stamp of approval” from the NFL. If the B1 patches are approved, the league’s trainers and nutritionists would be able to supply them to players directly.

Pepper said after multiple practices and meetings in a single day that often run into the evening, it can be difficult for players and coaches alike to keep up their energy levels and stay focused.

“A lot of guys are humdrum in those practices,” Pepper said, but they “could come back to those night meetings and still be energetic" when they were wearing the B1 patches.

“For me, I would put the patch on and I’d go out to practice...when I came back in, we would have the meetings with the players, and then we’d have more meetings with the coaches, and that’s when I really felt the results of the patches and what they do,” Pepper said.

On his transition from player to coach

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“The transformation, it wasn’t an easy one.”

Johnson on wearing a coaching uniform standing on the sidelines.

Pepper played his first seven seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants, followed by three with the Cleveland Browns, one with the Detroit Lions, and his last two seasons with the New York Jets before officially retiring as a player.

Two years later, through the NFL internship program, Pepper found himself as an assistant linebackers coach under Bill Belichick for the New England Patriots.

This was not something that Pepper had planned for.

“I wanted to come back to my high school and coach my high school,” Pepper said, who had grown up in Detroit and attended Mackenzie High School.

But after the program was over, he was approached by his former coach. “Coach Belichick asked me if I could stay,” Pepper said.

“I had two people I had to get permission from: my mother, and my son.”

Both gave him the green light, evidently, but the transition from player to coach did not prove to be a very smooth transition.

“It was really rough,” Pepper said, explaining that this was largely since his very first season with the Patriots was a difficult year for the team. He was also hyper-aware that being a new coach meant it would take time for older players to listen to him and for younger players to trust him.

He also missed playing the game himself.

“Deep down inside, I still wanted to get out there and play a little more,” Pepper said. “It was rough being on the sidelines while other people were having fun.

“The transformation, it wasn’t an easy one.”

Despite the rocky start, Pepper found his niche in the team and gained the trust of players, even implementing a new team tradition that was a first for the league.

Prior to the 2002 Super Bowl, individual player introductions were the NFL standard for a team’s entrance onto the field. The Patriots turned this on its head when they instead made the decision to run out of the tunnel and onto the field together.

“That idea to come out together, not individually...that was my idea,” Pepper said. “I had told them, ‘we need to focus and get more together.’”

The Patriots won that Super Bowl, and the practice has since all but replaced the previous league standard.

On working with coach Bill Belichick

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“He’s no tougher than [Bill] Parcells.”

Johnson on Belichick's coaching style

In addition to coaching under Bill Belichick for the Patriots, Pepper had previously played for him during his time with the Giants, Browns and Jets.

Belichick is known as a notoriously tough coach to play for.  49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh recently described playing for him as a rather unpleasant experience, saying, in part:

“They don’t have fun there [in New England]...There’s nothing happy about it. I didn’t enjoy any of my time there...It made me for the first time in my life think about not playing football because I hated it that much.”

Pepper, having either played for or coached under Belichick for the better part of 28 years, has a different perspective.

"It’s tough to try and label Belichick as a ‘tough coach’ or anything like that, because in my day, all the coaches were tough like that,” Pepper said. “He’s no tougher than [Bill] Parcells.”

“I think in this day and era, a lot of the coaches are just more lenient."

Regardless, Belichick’s notorious coaching style has led many to believe that it may be the root cause of Tom Brady’s recent string of absences for the Patriots’ off-season program. Brady has been working with Belichick for nearly two decades, so there is plenty of speculation that he may have finally had enough of Belichick, and is yearning to leave.

A fair assumption to make?

Pepper Johnson disagrees.

“They have been doing this for a very long time together,” Pepper said. “I’m quite sure [Brady] feels comfortable in the system that he has to work with.

"I don’t know how much of a concern Bill Belichick has with him not being there. It’s just people trying to write stories and screw up something and trying to break all this winning up,” he said.

"I think all of this stuff is being blown out of proportion.”

Pepper also noted that Brady being absent on the field for the time being is likely giving newer players more of a chance to show their stripes, if anything.

“After so many years, really what do you want from that guy?” Pepper said. “What more can he do there?”

On the NFL national anthem controversy

Speaking of things that Pepper believes are being overblown by the media: "The whole national anthem thing, I don't like talking about it much because that’s another one of those things that is blown way out of proportion,” he said.

The NFL’s controversial new national anthem policy was rolled out early last week following pressure from President Trump, who had been publicly calling for fans to boycott the NFL if players continue to kneel during the national anthem.

The new policy states that players must stand during the anthem, stay in the locker room if they do not wish to, and face fines and/or penalties from the league if they choose not to comply.

"Once upon a time, you had the choice if you wanted to go out and do the national anthem or stay in the tunnel and come out after the national anthem. And so many games, we stayed in,” Pepper said, speaking to his experience as a player in the late 80s and the 90s.

Pepper takes issue with the assumption that standing for the Star-Spangled Banner makes you patriotic, whereas choosing not to stand makes you unpatriotic and disrespectful.

"The cameraman isn’t standing at attention, the hot dog man isn’t standing still,” Pepper points out. “And what is more disrespectful – someone sitting down, or someone who is getting ready to sing the national anthem and don’t know the words?"

As for those who protest during the anthem: "I’m quite sure the majority of any athletes that in the past have chosen to do whatever during the national anthem [were] not spitting in the face of our troops,” Pepper said.

Regardless, Pepper feels strongly that politics have no place in football – or any sport, for that matter.

“I don’t think sports and politics mix, period,” Pepper said. "I don’t wanna sound negative toward athletes, but I don’t think that’s a good place for politics…and I don’t just mean the national anthem.”

On his past and future

It’s been a little over a year since Pepper was a defensive line coach for the Jets, and he’s itching to get back into that world.

“When you get out of the league, it’s hard to get back into the league,” he said.

Either way, Pepper says he feels fortunate to have played a positive role in the careers of players he’s been able to engage with and help over the years as a coach.

“It’s about talking to people and understanding them and not coaching them all just the same,” he said. “I coach every one of my players individually.”

Pepper said he was always getting told to “stay in his lane” for taking his individualistic approach to coaching. “I have a real problem with that, because I have always been that person that likes to help people,” he said.

I asked Pepper where he sees himself in a few years.

“I would love to be coaching,” Pepper replied.  Johnson finally made it onto social media! You can follow him @PepJ52 on both Twitter and Instagram.

By Michigan State University alumna and HWTP editorial manager Laina Stebbins

The ReCap by Laina Stebbins: 5.30.18 Podcast by HWTP Sports Talk

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“This whole movement has been hijacked”

George Martin told HWTP Sports Talk regarding the NFL national anthem controversy.

Former NY Giants defensive end George Martin joins HWTP Sports Talk with David Weinstein to discuss the ongoing NFL national anthem controversy. The result is a thorough, engaging discussion about social issues in America and where the NFL may be falling short in addressing them.  A must-listen!

Later, Michigan State University alumna and HWTP editorial manager Laina Stebbins speaks with David about the recent settlement agreement between MSU and Nassar victims, and the troubling First Amendment implications it may have for future sexual assault cases. Stebbins also discusses her interview with former NFL linebacker and defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, which will be available on the HWTP blog by Monday.

George Martin: “This whole movement has been hijacked”

The NFL’s new national anthem policy dictates that players must either stand for the Star-Spangled Banner on the field, stay in the locker room if they do not intend to stand, or face a fine and/or penalties from the league. George Martin, a former New York Giants defensive end and Super Bowl champion, offers up his thoughts as a former player who has seen the norms surrounding the national anthem at NFL games evolve over the years.

David points to widespread misconceptions in the public narrative about what the national anthem stands for, why players kneel in the first place, and how those protests should be interpreted.

In these misconceptions, Martin says, the original message behind the protests has seemingly been forgotten.

“I'm greatly disappointed that the narrative, that this whole movement has been hijacked,” Martin says. “It was never an intent to disregard the national anthem.”

“The issue was the infringement and the deterioration of the rights of People of Color...they used the national anthem to bring that to the forefront,” he continues. “That has been forgotten in this whole discussion, and to me, that is the whole shame of this whole situation.”

Speaking on his 14 years in the league, Martin says as a player he cannot recall there ever being a discussion about what to do during the national anthem. He and his teammates always stood proudly to “acknowledge the country in a patriotic fashion” – but Martin also says that this was never forced, always voluntary.

“I have a very, very staunch and very strong commitment to patriotism,” says Martin, whose father served in the military during WWII. “And at the same time, I know what patriotism stands for, and it can't be mandated. It can't be forced upon you.”

He adds that the American right to protest is also spelled out in the US Constitution – another reason why the mandate does not make sense to him as a measure of patriotism.

David also points out that the NFL Players Association seems to have been left out of the discussions prior to the league implementing the new policy.

“To implement a unilateral decision without the input the NFL Players Association, I think it's just totally misguided,” Martin says. “I think that they come together initially and sat down collectively, as our bargain agreement suggests and recommends.”

Had this procedure been followed initially, Martin contends that “a lot of the harsh rhetoric and language and conflict could have been avoided.”

HWTP’s Laina Stebbins on the ongoing mess at Michigan State

As David rightly puts it, the situation at Michigan State University regarding the Larry Nassar sexual assault case is “something that is simply not going to wash itself away.” It continues to spiral outwards, and has potentially far-reaching implications.

MSU recently entered into a $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims. Many are now saying that although this number accurately reflects the great magnitude of damage done by Nassar, a portion of the settlement may unfortunately set a troubling First Amendment precedent by stifling the rights of victims and victims rights advocates to speak out about sexual assault and advocate for legislation pertaining to it.

Another new MSU/Nassar development – on Wednesday, former MSU president Lou Anna K. Simon was served with a subpoena at her vacation home in Traverse City. She is being compelled to testify before a Senate subcommittee about the Nassar case, and initially declined to do so because the new hearing date conflicted with her vacation time.

Simon resigned earlier this year under pressure from state legislators, MSU students and more following her apparent mishandling of the Nassar case and sexual assault in general at the university. Her interim replacement, former Michigan governor John Engler, is not faring much better and has been garnering controversies of his own with his words and actions regarding the Nassar case.

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Also...

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to interview former NFL linebacker and assistant coach Pepper Johnson.

Johnson has been involved with an organization called USA Natural Patches since 2016, selling patches of vitamin B1 that he says aid in bodily health and function when worn on the skin. He is currently in the process of obtaining the NFL's official approval for them. Once approved, the league's trainers and nutritionists would be able to directly supply the B1 patches to players for a boost of nutrition and energy without the use of steroids.

Other topics of discussion include: Johnson’s transition from player to coach in 2000, his take on the recent speculations surrounding Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, his views on the NFL national anthem controversy, his thoughts about politics in sports, and more.

Look for my full interview with Pepper Johnson on the HWTP blog this Monday, June 4.

The ReCap by Laina Stebbins: 5.23.18 Podcast by HWTP Sports Talk

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This week on HWTP Sports Talk, David has a conversation with author Jesse Berrett about American politics and the NFL. He also speaks with USA Today Sports writer Nancy Armour about policies regarding maternity in women’s tennis, and with Washington Post writer Jerry Brewer about the NFL’s new policy targeting athletes who choose to kneel during the national anthem.

Jesse Berrett – on where and how the NFL fits in with American politics and culture

Jesse Berrett, a teacher and historian in California, published a book this month called “Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics.” In it, Berrett explores an especially heightened era of football and politics in the 1960s.

“People don’t want to think about sports as being political,” Berrett tells David, but he explains that his book illustrates how the NFL has always been interwoven with American politics and culture.

In this particular decade, Berrett says, the NFL began to market itself in a particular way which politicians, former players, etc. picked up on. They chose to further that image the NFL was selling “and used it politically, because the NFL seemed so powerful and useful and appealing.”

Berrett’s book also explores how the NFL as a franchise made its way into the mainstream – a fascinating history that not many Americans are familiar with.

Read more about Berrett’s book, “Pigskin Nation,” and purchase it here.

Nancy Armour – on Serena Williams being denied a seed in the French Open following the birth of her baby

Sports writer Nancy Armour also joins David on the show to discuss her latest article for USA Today Sports: “Is French Open punishing Serena for having a baby?"

Williams, often regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time, was not given a seed for the upcoming French Open. Officials say this is because they awarded seeds based on rankings, and Williams did not qualify for one at No. 453.

Why the low ranking? – Williams recently had a baby. She had announced her hiatus from tennis because of pregnancy on Apr. 19, 2017, and gave birth on September 1 that year. She had many serious complications, which resulted in Williams having a cesarean section.

The birth of her daughter “literally almost killed her,” Armour says. “This was not a simple delivery by any means.”

In her article, Armour argues that the French Open is essentially punishing Williams as a professional athlete by not offering her a seed because she chose to have a child. “Williams obviously could not play tennis during that time, so an exception should have been warranted,” Armour tells David.

“You are asking these women to either put your career on hold and have a baby, or keep playing and hope that you will still be able to have a child when you want to,” Armour says. “To me, that’s not fair.”

“If you have a child, you should be able to do so without penalty,” she adds.

Jerry Brewer on the NFL’s new anthem policy

David also caught up with Jerry Brewer, a Washington Post sports reporter, about the NFL’s new mandate that players must stand for the national anthem if they are on the field or face fines and/or other penalties.

The statement from the NFL reads, in part:

“This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the Anthem may stay in the locker room until after the Anthem has been performed.”

In Brewer’s view, this shows yet again that the NFL’s management is willing to sacrifice ethics when their bottom line is at stake.

The socially proper thing to do during the national anthem is obviously to stand, Brewer says, which is exactly the point – the act of kneeling instead is meant to garner attention so the players can deliver a message to the American public about police brutality in this country. The NFL’s new policy will take away players’ freedom to peacefully protest for their cause, he says.

We are a republic that is supposed to show respect for each other [more than] symbols” like the American flag and national anthem, Brewer tells David.

"It’s very dangerous in this country when you start dictating to Americans what is American and how they should be expressing their patriotism,” he adds.

The ReCap by Laina Stebbins: 5.16.18 Podcast by HWTP Sports Talk

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This week’s featured guest is Laura Okmin, an NFL reporter for Fox and the founder of GALvanize. She speaks with David about her organization and its upcoming bootcamps for young women in sports broadcasting.

Earlier in the show, reporter Brian Murphy of The News & Observer discusses the prospect of allowing college athletes to profit from their names. USA Today reporter A.J. Perez also joins David to analyze the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week to let states regulate sports gambling.

Brian Murphy on letting college athletes sell their likeness

In college sports, the contentious debate over how student athletes should be treated is nothing new – but the question of whether students should be allowed to make some money from their collegiate athletic careers has seen recent escalation.

Brian Murphy covers the Washington, D.C. beat as a correspondent for The News & Observer and McClatchy. In an article earlier this week, Murphy writes about a Republican Congressman from North Carolina who recently threw his own powerful opinion into the ring by penning an opinion piece for The News & Observer.

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker “basically threatened the NCAA with legislation that would allow players to use their name, image and likeness while in college,” Murphy tells HWTP Sports Talk. “Right now, those rights [belong to] the schools and conferences.”

David points out that this is difficult to balance with the fact that Walker is simultaneously against the idea of paying the student athletes.

It may seem arbitrary, Murphy says, but “the NCAA and many have drawn a line between name, image and likeness [versus] paying players for their performance” nonetheless.

Murphy explains that although the Congressman does not favor paying the players directly, he believes that they should still be able to enjoy the same or similar financial rights as Olympic athletes currently do. The “Olympic model” allows Olympians to earn compensation for selling their image, name and likeness.

“That’s one reason why [Olympians] have longer careers; because they can make money off of being athletes,” Murphy says.

Murphy says the Olympic model is gaining steam as one of the possible solutions being floated in the NCAA debate.

“Some of these athletes in college produce way more value than a scholarship,” Murphy says, and produce so much “surplus value” that colleges are able to make millions off of them every year by not paying their players anything.

Proponents of financial rights for college athletes say the compensation would appropriately reward their achievements, serve as an incentivize for them to finish school, and put them in a better position to have the future they want.

Any kind of big move on this issue by the NCAA will likely need to involve legislation, David speculates.

Murphy says we should keep an eye out for such legislation “later this summer.”

A.J. Perez on the legalization of sports gambling

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down an important and long-awaited decision: federal limitations on sports betting, it ruled, are unconstitutional.

A.J. Perez, a sports reporter for USA Today, has been following this story’s progression for the past decade. Back then, he reported on Delaware’s attempt to circumvent the sports betting limitations. Fast forward about ten years, and Perez was able to report on Monday’s momentous court decision.

“It finally happened,” he said.

Perez says that many felt as though it was only a matter of time, comparing it to states gradually warming up to the idea of marijuana legalization. But he had no idea when or how it would happen – until this Monday, when “Jersey won out.”

New Jersey will be the first to offer sports betting within the next week, with others – e.g. West Virginia, Mississippi and Delaware – to follow close behind.

David and Perez discuss the potential pros and cons of the court’s decision, as well as the merits of federal oversight.

States will choose how much they want to tax the newly-legalized pastime, which is something that will likely deviate widely from how Nevada (the only state in which sports gambling has already been legal) has been operating.

“They’re all taxing more than Nevada,” Perez tells HWTP Sports Talk. He notes that Delaware’s state taxes are already extremely steep, for example, and that Pennsylvania is looking into demanding large sanctioning fees on top of their similarly high state tax.

Perez says that with the exception of a small handful of states, he expects that most others will leave it up to their state lotteries or a gaming commission to finalize specific betting rules and guidelines.

Laura Okmin on her GALvanize bootcamps for young women in broadcasting

For over 20 years, Laura Okmin has been at the forefront of professional sports broadcast media. She has hosted, anchored, reported, produced – you name it, she’s done it. Currently, she works as an NFL sideline reporter for Fox.

A few years ago, she also followed her passion to become the founder of an organization that teaches and empowers young aspiring female broadcasters.

Okmin’s organization is called GALvanize, and is geared toward young women who want to gain the experience and confidence necessary to succeed in the male-dominated field of sports broadcasting by providing intensive two-day “bootcamps” around the country.

When GALvanize hosted its first seminar about five years ago, Okmin’s sole focus was on training the young women. She was also working as a media trainer for NFL teams and major league baseball teams at the time. She realized that she was coaching players on how to interact with the media while simultaneously training aspiring reporters about interacting and connecting with those same players.

“I’m sitting here at this beautiful intersection,” Okmin recalls thinking. “How can I get these two sides together?”

Quite easily, apparently, when you have Laura Okmin’s connections; today, all bootcamps are in partnership with NFL teams.

“The [Buffalo] Bills, the Jaguars, the Falcons and the Chargers, they give us our rookies,” Okmin says. “The players AND the women are getting coached.”

Day one of the bootcamp is Okmin’s educational session with the young women, in which she teaches them everything from interview techniques to dressing professionally to building relationships.

Then, on day two: “We are with the rookies, interviewing each other, empathizing with each other,” Okmin tells HWTP Sports Talk.

While the young female reporters are being given the tools to perfect their researching and interviewing skills and build up their confidence, the male players learn to open up and push through nervousness to tell their story and be vulnerable. Both sides learn how to listen and empathize with the other.

“I wanted the men to understand the power that comes with the platform once you learn how to use it, and I want the women to understand the responsibility and the weight that comes with helping somebody share their story,” Okmin says.

“So this way, it’s both sides really helping each other with that, which is wonderful.”

Okmin has three bootcamps coming up, all of which are sold out: two more this month in Jacksonville and Atlanta, and another in L.A. this June.