Bucs QB Johnson paid to have footballs scuffed before SB 37

Brad Johnson, right, celebrates with teammate Roman Oben, after throwing a touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVII.
Brad Johnson, right, celebrates with teammate Roman Oben, after throwing a touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell in the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVII.
Published Jan. 21, 2015

Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon came face-to-face for a Got Milk? mustache photo shoot several days prior to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. At 34, Johnson had developed a few compulsions during his career long before he became the Bucs quarterback. He changed his socks and shoes every quarter, and over the course of a game, he replaced everything but his pants. Johnson always sweated profusely, and he liked the clean, dry feeling.

This was particularly true when it came to footballs. He had trouble gripping a wet football, a cold football or a new, out-of-the-box football.

It had been enough of a problem during the NFC title game in Philadelphia the week before — where it was 26 degrees at kickoff — that he was forced to wear a glove for the first time in his career.

"I wouldn't have been able to play without it," he said.

At the Super Bowl, the NFL had more than 100 game footballs. They were new, slick and supposedly under the league's watchful eye. Both Johnson and Gannon, the Raiders quarterback and a former teammate with the Minnesota Vikings, were concerned about losing their grip during the biggest game of their lives.

"Rich and I talked about it. The footballs needed to be worked in,'' Johnson said. "In years past, you heard Troy Aikman, John Elway and Steve Young complain about the balls being slick. Phil Simms, all of them. And basically we agreed on that if the balls could be - if we could work them in, we'd work them in.''

But neither player had any access to the footballs prior to the game.

"I never saw the footballs, I never touched the footballs,'' Johnson said. "I never got to touch them until game time. The first possession is the first time I touched the ball.''

But leaving nothing to chance, Johnson made sure the balls were scuffed and ready well before the Dixie Chicks sang the national anthem.

Johnson said he paid two ballboys working for the NFL a total of $7,500 to make sure the footballs were scuffed and broken in before the Super Bowl and they obliged. Johnson first revealed the secret payment to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, just prior to the 10-year reunion of the Bucs' Super Bowl championship team.

Although neither player gained an advantage in this case, Johnson's admission shows to what length a quarterback may go to ensure the football meets his specifications prior to a big game.

The NFL is investigating why 11 of the 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots in Sunday's 45-7 win over the Colts were found to be inflated below league standards, accordiing to a report by ESPN.

Johnson's story began trending Wednesday when it was repeated on the Times website.

"The refs never complained about the footballs, the league never complained about the footballs,'' Johnson said Wednesday. "Rich Gannon never complained about the footballs. I talked to Rich this morning and he and I laughed about the whole thing being blown out of proportion.

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"Somebody said, "Hey, we can work in the balls,' and I said, "Let's do it then. Work them in and prepare them the way you would normally prepare them. That was my only concern. Was the ball slick? Or could it be (broken) in.''

Co-hosting a show on Sirius XM NFL radio Wednesday, Gannon said that since Super Bowl XXXVII the league has allowed quarterbacks to practice with the footballs prior to the NFL title game.

"I think Peyton Manning and Tom Brady convinced them to change this (policy),'' Gannon said Wednesday.

Johnson said he had no preference about the inflation level of footballs during his career.

"I don't know anything about that. I don't know how that works,'' Johnson said. "You've got cold weather versus hot weather -- I don't know.

"I preferred to be in nice weather. I all was concerned about was is it raining and can I hold onto the ball? The first time I played with the glove was the (NFC) championship game. I played with a glove five times in my career and all of them were cold weather games.''

When Johnson began his career in the '90's, the home team controlled the footballs for regular-season games.

"Back in '95-96, if you went to play Kordell Stewart (in Pittsburgh), the balls were real slick,'' Johnson said. "If you played in St. Louis against Kurt Warner, the balls were real slick. If you played at Green Bay, the balls were worked in the way I loved them. If you played in Minnesota where I played, the balls were worked in. Those were the rules and they're still the rules. But back in the day, when you played at an opponent's field, you had to play with the balls the way they like them.

"When you play a regular season game, they just put a black dot on it with a Sharpie. And you play three games with the ball and then they discard it. You have 12 footballs and they have 12 footballs in the regular season. And then when you play in the Super Bowl, there's over 140 balls I think and no one got to see them. No one touches them and that's where it's at.''

The Bucs beat the Raiders 48-21 to win Super Bowl XXXVII. Johnson threw a pair of touchdowns to Keenan McCardell. Gannon was intercepted five times.

"I paid some guys off to get the balls right,'' Johnson said. "They took care of them.''