Vaughan Johnson comes full circle from the Dome Patrol to the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
The linebacking corps of the New Orleans Saints in the late 80’s and early 90’s was known as the Dome Patrol, recognized as the best collection of talent at that position on a single club throughout NFL history. The most physical of the quartet was Vaughan Johnson, a 6-3, 235-pounder who packed a wallop on any runner who might venture into his territory. He was quoted as saying, “I like to see their eyes roll back,” concerning any unfortunate ball carrier to make contact with the four-time Pro Bowler.
Johnson, who spent eight seasons in the Black and Gold from 1986-1993, and fellow inside linebacker Sam Mills were flanked by Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson on the outside as they formed the Dome Patrol. As a group, they made 18 trips to the Pro Bowl.
Johnson’s lifetime best athletic performance came against the San Francisco 49ers, a longtime Saints nemesis. “I made a lot of tackles (669 stops for his career), but against the 49ers, I had 28 tackles in one game,” he chuckled. “[Defensive coordinator] Steve Sidwell told me, ‘I don’t know what you ate before the game, but I hope you eat it again.'” What the jaw-breaking tackler ate game day was QB Joe Montana, RB Roger Craig and FB Tom Rathman.
Although excelling at the highest level in football, baseball and basketball were his first love. “I was a power hitter, played catcher,” he said. “My dad was a great hitter as a baseball player. He was a star. Baseball was big in Moorehead City, North Carolina.”
It didn’t take long for his hitting to transgress from the baseball diamond to the gridiron.
When it came to choosing a college destination, he wanted to stay close to home so his family and friends could watch him play, so he whittled his college football choices to North Carolina, East Carolina and North Carolina State. “I was real close to deciding on East Carolina until I visited North Carolina State. It felt like home.”
Playing for the Wolfpack, he sharpened his skills while taking his game to the next level under linebackers coach Greg Robinson. “He was one of the toughest guys, very demanding, always pushing me to be the best,” Johnson declared. “He taught me a lot about football, about being physical. In high school we only played three defenses. In college, we had 33 different defenses. I give him credit for my style.”
Vaughn held a pair of recognizable athletes in high esteem, both possessed the style that he admired and would strive to emulate, Steelers LB Jack Lambert and Muhammad Ali. “I loved the way Jack Lambert played,” he said. “Tough, hard-nosed, always kept his nose right in the middle of things. Wherever the ball went, he was there.
“Muhammad Ali, his confidence. He not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. He believed in himself. He said what he meant and meant what he said.”
The hapless Saints had been the league’s punching bag since their inception in 1967. The arrival of head coach Jim Mora in 1986 signaled the beginning of the team’s success.
In 1987 the franchise reached a milestone with a 12-3 record and the first winning mark in team history. One game on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 29, 1987 was a turning point.
The Saints defense held firm on a pair of magnificent goal-line stands in the fourth quarter to hold off the Steelers 20-16. It represented the fifth consecutive victory en route to a nine-game streak to end the campaign. “That was my fondest memory as a Saint,” Johnson said. “The team’s first winning season. To share that with the coaches and players was special. It took a lot of hard work to get there. That win was for the city and team history.”
The Dome Patrol stands as the NFL standard for all NFL linebackers. All four were selected to the 1992 Pro Bowl, the only time all four linebackers from the same team were so honored. “That was something special,” Johnson remembered. “To be a part of that, great football players, great men. To be a competitor, to be a winner. The sacrifice it required. You didn’t want to let those guys down. We took pride not allowing opponents to score.”
Sam Mills was recognized by many as the leader of the Dome Patrol, an undersized middle linebacker with an over-sized heart. He proved the perfect on-field partner in the middle of the Saints defense for Johnson.
“We both played in the USFL and arrived in New Orleans at the same time. We were roommates and were always together. He was a great player and a God fearing man,” Johnson remembered.
Perhaps the best natural athlete of the Dome Patrol, Pat Swilling provided the blinding speed off of the edge as a pass rusher for the quartet. “Speed, toughness, so quick,” Johnson said. “People don’t realize how strong (Swilling) was in the weight room. You couldn’t block him. They’d just chase him.”
Of course, Rickey Jackson could do it all, playing his way through a brilliant career into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Although Mills was seen as the linebacking leader in New Orleans, Johnson gives that nod to Jackson.
“(Jackson) was the leader of the defense. He played his best game against the best competition, best in big moments. Great player, better person off the field,” said Johnson.
Prior to his arrival in the Crescent City, Johnson’s knowledge of the city was limited. “The only thing that I knew was that the fans wore bags over their heads,” he said with a hearty laugh. The charm and ambience of the city soon became obvious. “From day one, my family and I have been given respect. They appreciated the way I played. I never complained about my contract. The Saints fans are very knowledgeable of the game. They are behind their team 100 percent.”
Johnson has been recognized in other Halls of Fame, but feels the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame is special. “This is a tremendous honor to be selected. I never thought that I had a chance at this. I want to thank the fans. From the moment I stepped foot there they respected and embraced me. What an honor! Go Saints!”
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…