Carl Johnson: Improbable Odds

Attention to detail can make the difference between a win and loss in the NFL. For some, it can determine whether you win the Super Bowl.

“As a referee, we try not to be the difference between a win and loss in those types of games,” said 19-year NFL Line Judge official, Carl Johnson. “There’s pressure doing this job because we have to be right. Getting 95 percent of calls right gets you fired in the NFL; 98 percent or higher is where you want to be. The way I handle the pressure is to let my training take over and if I mess up on something, I can look back over it on the plane ride home because they give us film to look at.”

Johnson is one of the best and most respected officials in the NFL. But before he would be on the field making tough calls in the playoffs, including two Super Bowls, he was being told he could not be on the field at Nicholls.

Johnson grew up in a discipline household as the son of a Korean War veteran and a homemaker. His parents emphasized the importance of an education to Carl and his brothers, Clarence Jr. and Perry. They told them that was the one thing nobody could take from them.

A dual-sport athlete in football and baseball at Thibodaux High School, Johnson’s first love was football. He earned a baseball scholarship to Nicholls State University but wanted to continue his dream of playing football. However, then coach Bill Clements had him thinking otherwise.

“I’ll never forget this and I thank coach Clements for this, he told me, ‘Carl, I have 12 guys who are just like you – 5’10 150 pounds and run a 4.5 40-yard dash. I do not need anymore,’” he says. “That made me realize playing in the NFL will not be possible for me, but officiating gave me a way to stay close to the game.”

After he left Nicholls, Johnson accepted a job at a Coca-Cola distribution factory in Harahan. It was then he would get a call from a friend in need of a favor.

“He happened to call me and ask if I can stand in for one of his officials who wasn’t going to be able to make it. Initially, I did not want to do it,” Johnson says. “I did not have any officiating clothes, and he told me I’ll have a shirt for you, just show up in black shorts and white t-shirt. After that game, it brought back that feeling I had from playing the game being that close and personal to the game.”

“Over the years people can see how the game is safer and does not take away from the aggression and physicality of the game.”

Over nearly two decades, Johnson worked his way up from officiating Pop Warner and local high school games to the NCAA, Arena Football League, NFL Europe and, finally, to the NFL. When he arrived at the sport’s highest level, it was still only a part-time job. That meant he had to split time between his job at Coca-Cola and the NFL.

“It was difficult to balance at times,” he says. “The NFL would accommodate all of our needs. We flew into the city the day before the games and went back home right after
the game.”

Johnson’s hard work earned him a promotion in the NFL as the Vice President of Officiating in 2010. It was his first full-time role in the NFL, which ended a 29-year career with Coca-Cola. Over the next three years, Johnson would oversee major shifts in the industry, including new rules to make the game safer and a referee labor strike in 2012.

“We wanted players to play longer and feel safe,” he says. “Over the years people can see how the game is safer and does not take away from the aggression and physicality of the game.”
But through it all, he also had the itch to get back on the field. On March 1,2013 Johnson became the NFL’s first full-time referee.

“It was rewarding because I wanted to go back to the field and commissioner Roger Goodell and my immediate supervisor, Dean Blandino, were all for it. It meant a lot that they entrusted me with that position knowing the work that I put in,” he says. “I loved my time in New York and worked with some great and talented people, but I was ready to go back to the field and be in the action.”

Johnson has had a career full of memories, he has made his mark on the NFL by improving the safety of the game many Americans love and he is showing no signs of stopping. Johnson’s only goal now is to referee week one.

–Leroy Triggs (BA ’19)