DALLAS Johnson’s head is jolting to the right at one second intervals as he talks.
We are sitting in the somewhat sterile surrounds of the media conference room at the North Queensland Cowboys’ club offices. I have just asked the decorated-but-battered international back rower if he has any side effects from the “four or five” times he has been knocked out playing our game.
“You mean besides the twitch?” he says, as his head returns to its natural resting place for the third or fourth – but final – time. Johnson then steadies himself and grins broadly. “Nah, I’m fine.”
Johnson, the 29-year-old former Melbourne and Catalan forward, doesn’t do many interviews. When we tried to pin him down for A-List upon his return from France at the start of last year, the message we got back was to wait until after State Of Origin. Origin passed, Johnson didn’t play in it, and this year it passed again.
He was 18th man for one game. “… fair warm-up,” he tells me. “Best warm-up you’ve seen.”
Dallas, apparently, just doesn’t like talking about himself. But when he does, the Atherton product speaks like he plays – directly. His comments on the topic du jour, concussion, are disarmingly forthright – but let’s start with State Of Origin, which he graced 12 times between 2006 and 2009.
How many times have you heard a player say that making representative football is a “bonus” that will “take care of itself”? Here’s what Dallas, who cut short by two years his stint in Perpignan to join the Cowboys, has to say on the topic:
“That was probably a fair factor in coming home. I missed that Origin arena. To come back … it didn’t happen. It was a fair risk, coming back. Once you’re out of that side … over the last seven years, there’s been not many players go through there and once you’re in, they show a bit of loyalty.
“… it didn’t happen, so… it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. I suppose I tend to worry a fair bit. Life after football was a factor as well.”
Later, when I ask him what his goals in rugby league are, he opines: “That’s a good question. My goals kind of went out the door…..”
State Of Origin clearly meant everything to Dallas Johnson, a self-confessed worrier as well as a warrior. He sees no point in pretending otherwise. He’s the same when asked about the times he has been knocked out, the research that has been done in the US into the long-term effects of such injuries and the NRL’s crackdown on head knocks.
I ask him how many times he has been knocked out. “It’s probably been four or five times in my career,” he answers.
“Obviously it concerns you. You do worry about life after footy and 20 years down the track, how you’re going to be. I think the new rule they’ve brought in is good, personally. If you get knocked in the game and get a bit of concussion, I don’t think you should be allowed back on.
“But in saying that, to tell me in an Origin game I couldn’t go back on – I would have been filthy. The player always wants to go back on and do the best for the team but I think you do have to take it out of the player’s hands and the medical staff has to say ‘no, it’s for your safety’.”
When he did go back on in a 2007 Origin game after being knocked out cold, he says, the right procedures were followed.
“Roy Saunders was the doctor,” he recalls. “From a medical point of view, I’ve never been through a more strenuous test off the field to get back on. He did the right thing. He deemed me fit and I thought I was capable of going back out there and contributing and I suppose I did.
“I’m fine at the moment. I don’t want to go too much on about it – these things happen in footy because it’s a contact sport but you don’t like to see a head knock and you don’t want to get a few.
“… the shoulder charge is a pretty … it’s a tough one. I don’t think a shoulder charge is a good tackle anyway. I don’t use it. I’d fly 10 metres back trying to do one. There are height differences, blokes are going down as they’re coming through …. it’s not for me to… that’s why you’ve got the judiciary. They can sort out whether they meant it or not.”
Dallas Johnson once made 62 tackles in a State Of Origin game. The cliché about “playing above your weight” (93kg) was just about coined for him. “I’m a defender. That’s what I do,” he says when asked an unnecessarily complicated question about his role.
But off the field, Johnson is thoughtful and – as you might gather from a couple of the quotes above, witty. Like fellow A-Lister Matt King, he was on the other side of the world when two premierships were stripped from him for reasons which challenged his intellect as much as his emotions.
“It was really shattering,” he nods. “None of the players … well I definitely wasn’t aware of what was going on, whatever did go on. I’m a life member of that club. It will always be deep in my heart.
“In my mind, I’ve still got two premiership rings sitting on my table at home and I know how much hard work went into going to those four grand finals. I know how much hard work it was to get there and I don’t really care what people say, really. We won two and went to four. What’s in the record books is unfortunate….
“In my heart, and everyone that played and everyone involved in that club…”
Is he angry at the administrators who perpetrated the salary cap rorts? “No comment.
“You have to move on I suppose but, well, yeah…”
As it turns out, Dallas does have goals aside from playing State of Origin again. He’d like to do something like, oh, win a comp for instance….
“Last year there was a massive changeover of players (at the Cowboys). I think there were 14 or 15 players come in. That’s half your squad. I suppose the guys have got to know each other a lot better this year. As in playing, we’re still a little bit hot and cold. We’re still learning.
“We had a decent season last year. The end is what hurt us, going into the finals was what hurt us. We had no momentum going in there and I think we’ve learned from that. Well, hopefully we’ve learned from that and we can push on a bit more this year….
“I’m sure we can. We’ve got combinations shored up a little bit. I think, on our day, if we get a bit of momentum, we can beat anyone. “
When Johnson was chosen in first grade for the first time in ‘03, a colleague said his name evoked “the drummer in Rose Tattoo or something”. It’s a tough name to live up to, Dallas, but he’s done it. He says he’s had help.
“Craig Bellamy’s been the greatest. I think, without him, I probably wouldn’t have played NRL.
“Everyone that’s involved with him has got a huge amount of respect for him. I know that I do. I suppose that’s the thing out on the field: you don’t want to let him down.”
Johnson has great memories of his childhood in north Queensland. “I remember playing against Matty (Bowen) when i was 15,” he smiles.
“I was playing for Atherton in the tablelands and he was playing for Abergowrie. He beat us by himself, four tries that day. And playing him away, playing against him up here, you’d see him coming, hang both arms out and hope you caught him because he’s that bloody good on his feet.
“He’s getting back to that form now.”
But Johnson’s fortunes were soon tied to another custodian of some repute, Mr William Slater. “We just both went down (to Brisbane Norths) for the pre-season … there were a few spots there and they had a few spots open and they kept us on,” he recalls, not a touch of irony in his delivery.
Two great careers, born because a Brisbane club had “a couple of spots open”. Dallas is not likely to put out a tell-all biography any time soon, so this story will have to do. We finish by asking him how he’d like to be remembered.
“I guess to be known as a consistent and respected player that’s been around for a while …”
They always said Dallas Johnson aimed too low….
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK