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Life of a Saint: Johnnie Poe

Poe speaks about his early life, the ups and downs of his football career and how racism nearly cost him a chance to be drafted.

New Orleans Saints v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

Johnnie Poe had found his way onto that Superdome field many times before, but this was different.

On December 4, 2016, it was an ultimate honor making that trek from behind the black curtain out toward the fleur-de-lis that graces midfield. This time, the walk was earned as a result of a career of spectacular play and a consistent team-first mentality. The New Orleans Saints were announcing their All-50th Team to the 73,000 fans in attendance.

Poe once again took the field, this time with a humble grin and a fan-acknowledging wave of his left hand as the stadium announcer called, “Cornerback, number 25, Johnnie Poe.”

Life of a Saint: Johnnie Poe

Johnnie Poe, like so many of the kids in the East St. Louis, IL area, gravitated to sports at a young age. Poe shared, “We played street football. I was a receiver through the beginning of my career. If you ran a down and out, that down and out might have you between two parked cars. We had fun. We played in the snow. We loved playing snow football. We would get out there in the wintertime and, I mean, we’d have a ball.”

While his journey would eventually have football be his sports of choice, things weren’t always that way for Poe. “Track was actually my first love. Then, after the first track season I went to, I decided I would play football and basketball.” Poe then continued, “When I got to high school, I was running track and playing football. The next year, I added basketball. But I only played basketball for a couple of months. Me and the head coach didn’t see eye-to-eye because of ho he was playing the guys. So, I left the basketball team. Then my junior year, I played a little baseball. I didn’t like that because of the positions that they wanted to play me. Then my senior year, I went out for wrestling. The only reason I didn’t stay with the wrestling team is because they wanted me to drop weight. I was only 160 pounds. They wanted me to drop down to 149 to wrestle. When I got to Mizzou, I only weighed 178 pounds.”

Choosing Missouri

After a successful high school career, Johnnie Poe decided to take his talents to the University of Missouri. For Poe, the decision wasn’t a tough one. “I was looking at Illinois, but the biggest problem with Illinois is that Illinois did not recruit in their backyard”, Poe recalled. So, while Illinois was chasing 5-star recruits in California and Texas, they were missing out on local talent like Poe, Eric Wright, Kellen Winslow and many others.

While at Missouri, Poe mentioned that while he arrived at the school as a wide receiver, he and teammates Eric Wright and Cecil Holloway knew they could help the team by switching positions. He explained, “Each one of us were on offense and the defensive backfield at that time in Missouri had no speed. I mean, there was nobody in the defensive backfield that ran under a 4.6 40. So, we double trained every day during spring ball after our freshman year.’ We went to the head coach and said, ‘You know what? We’ll just switch over to defensive back.’”

Poe mentioned that while football is “more reaction than thinking”, he approached defense with a simple philosophy: “As you break the huddle as the defensive call is made, you’re saying to yourself, ‘What would these guys throw at me? What route would they throw at me that they think I can’t defend?’”

The decision would turn out to be a great one. Poe was doing great things at Mizzou and continued to feed off the support of family, friends and many of his coaches. And while they all played a part in his success, Poe cited two specific people as being vital in the eventual realization of his NFL dream.

“My cousin, Gary Harper, he pushed me to the point where I was able to shine on the football field and able to get offered college scholarships.” The other was Poe’s brother. When asked what his brother’s name was, Poe began to laugh. He then explained, “I’m laughing because my dad’s name was Johnnie Will Poe. My name is Johnnie Edward Poe. My brother’s name is Johnnie Earl Poe. So, growing up, me and my brother were called by our middle names. He was called Earl, and everybody called me Edward.” He then added, “And I went through all kinds of hazing in high school and college.”

Poe’s Unthinkable Draft Day Obstacle

Super Bowl XV - Oakland Raiders v Philadelphia Eagles
Johnnie Poe could have ended up an Oakland Raider in a different life.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Heading into the 1981 NFL draft, Johnnie Poe was projected to be selected as high as the fourth round. And while the draft is never a predictable event, the actions of a former coach would prove detrimental to Poe. The eventual 6th round selection recalled, “I wound up fading. Part of that wasn’t my fault. For some reason, the head coach and I didn’t see eye-to-eye after this big meeting that the black players had because they felt that a lot of black players weren’t being played (at Missouri). The secondary at that time was all white.”

That conversation had some long-term effects on Poe’s future. He continued, “So, my high school coach calls me during the draft. He’s like, ‘Johnnie, I just got a disturbing phone call.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ (Coach said) ‘Well, the Oakland Raiders were thinking about picking you up around the fourth or fifth round, but the coach at Mizzou told them that you don’t like white people.’ Half the guys on my team that were friends of mine were white.”

Poe also mentioned a time when that same coach falsely accused him of smoking weed. Poe was known as one of the cleanest players on the team; he didn’t do drugs, smoke or drink. Poe had to be calmed down as a result of that accusation. Poe said, “After that, I guess he figured, ‘I’ll see that he doesn’t make it to the NFL, or if he does, it’ll be in the late rounds.’”

Poe hasn’t shared this story publicly until now.

“You’re probably the first person other than some friends of mine that I’ve actually let this out to. I’ve kept it in me for years and years. The reason it’s coming out is, we were on a Zoom call the other day with some other guys that played in Mizzou. We found out that our coach is going through dementia. I felt bad for him. One of the guys said, ‘You felt bad for him? Because I know what happened between you and him.’ I said, ‘I actually do. I actually feel bad for him.’”

Heading Down the Mighty Mississippi

Despite the obstacles Poe faced during the 1981 NFL Draft, he was eventually picked in the sixth round by the New Orleans Saints. Poe recalled how the connection with a former foe turned out to be a friend in the draft process.

“The coach that called me, the defensive backs coach, he was actually defensive backs coach at Nebraska. In the Big Eight, we played Nebraska every year. That’s kind of how he knew about me, from playing against Nebraska every year. He gave me the call and I was elated.”

Johnnie Poe was a Saint. He had realized his dream and was all in to prove himself to his new coaching staff, knowing his roster spot was not guaranteed. “After I got there and we started going through practice in Florida, I kind of felt like I had a shot of at least being the nickelback.”

Poe would make the roster and his impact on the field would be realized, immediately.

Poe’s Early Impact

It took all of one game for Johnnie Poe to find the field. It wasn’t exactly the way the Saints drew it up in preseason, But Bum Phillips and his crew would roll the dice early on their new acquisition.

Poe shared, “I got thrown in on the sideline of the first game of the season, playing against the San Francisco 49ers. There was a pass route ran out there on the field. The right corner, named Ricky Ray, missed a tackle. The receiver went for like 78 yards for a touchdown. They benched him and put me out there right after that play.” Poe made the most of his opportunity and would not relinquish that corner position for years.

Despite being a new starter and accepted by his teammates, Poe admittedly spent most of his time at home with his wife and daughter. “I’ve always been a home guy. I went to practice, and I went home to my wife and kids. Guys would invite me if there was a basketball game, we were gonna play or something. But I really didn’t go out of the house.”

1983

In 1983, it all came together for Johnnie Poe. Poe started all 16 games at right corner and amassed 7 interceptions. When asked why it all clicked in 1983, Poe offered a few explanations.

“Confidence. They gave us tests on the plane to away games. Then, for the home games, in the hotel rooms they’d give you tests. All the defenses that you were gonna run that game, you went through them all that week. Then the defensive coach would give you this test on where the defensive backs were supposed to be for that defense. I was probably the one defensive back that could name the defensive backs, where they were gonna go, the linebackers and the defensive line. I got to the point where I got so good at it that my confidence grew on the field also because of it. I knew that if we were running this blitz, going from my side, I knew I had the opportunity to take a chance if it was a quick route.”

Poe also admits that it didn’t hurt to be playing behind the Dome Patrol. “That was a great thing playing in the secondary behind them. You had the opportunity to take chances because you knew between Pat, Vaughan, Rickey Jackson, you knew somebody was gonna get to that quarterback in a rush and they would have to get rid of the ball. You had the opportunity to play tight defenses where you could take chances. We had a great defensive line also; Frank Warren, Jim Wilks.”

The Polarity of 1987 for Johnnie Poe

The transition from 1985 to 1986 in New Orleans couldn’t have been more extreme. Gone were the days of the Club Med life with Bum Phillips and in came the more regimented Jim Mora. Despite both being former members of the US military, their approaches to coaching could have been more different. The change was apparent with the fans, upper management and, most of all, the players.

Phillips had created a great nucleus prior to his departure. Mora added all the right pieces early in his tenure in New Orleans to see the Saints finally take steps not yet seen in the Big Easy. The Saints were 5-11 the year prior to Mora’s arrival and 1986 saw that record move to 7-9. Then the team that had never had a winning season in their history made the dramatic leap to a 12-3, a leap that also brought them their first playoff appearance.

When asked what was different about that ’87 team, Poe offered, “Putting everything together. Coach Mora did not have to worry about the quarterback position. You get Bobby Hebert, finally. You’ve got a defense that, really, has been put together since ’83. A few little knick-knacks here, a few little knick-knacks there. The defense was doing pretty good. Then, we got a couple of new offensive linemen. It was finally where we had the personnel.”

That defense, which is still the measuring stick in New Orleans, was led by what many believe to be the greatest linebacking corps in NFL history, the Dome Patrol. Being in the secondary, Poe had a great vantage point of those four legends and was able to reap some benefits from their elite level of play. “That was a great thing playing in the secondary behind them. You had the opportunity to take chances because you knew between Pat, Vaughan, Rickey Jackson, you knew somebody was gonna get to that quarterback in a rush and they would have to get rid of the ball. You had the opportunity to play tight defenses where you could take chances. We had a great defensive line also; Frank Warren, Jim Wilks.”

Despite success finally finding the Saints, 1987 would prove to be a trying year for Poe personally. Poe explained when things started to change: “I believe it was the game we had against the Dallas Cowboys. There was a pass thrown in the end zone and it was over everybody’s head. I’m running at it. The wide receiver from Dallas was running at it. He ducks and I jump. I get flipped over and land on my back. That next week, we go to practice. I was probably one of the most flexible guys in there. Now, I can’t even reach down and touch my toes. I found out later on that I had two ruptured discs in my back, which would call for surgery.”

Poe opted to not have surgery, hoping the problem would work itself out. The nagging injuries resulted in Poe seeing it effect his role on the field. “So, they went ahead and moved me to backup free safety and put Van Jakes out there in my corner. Did it go well with me? It was hard to swallow. It was hard to swallow starting that long and then wind up having to come in on nickel and dime situations.”

Leaving New Orleans

After the 1987 season, Poe was released by the Saints. And while his body was telling him one thing, Poe wasn’t ready to walk away from the game. “I think a lot of people don’t realize this. I actually worked out for Green Bay, Atlanta, San Francisco and the Giants, and the Cowboys, I think. I wound up getting picked up by San Francisco. I went out to San Francisco and their corner, Eric Wright, had torn his pectoral muscle. That’s the reason they were looking for a corner.”

Poe continued, “So, I got out there and when myself and San Francisco talked, I talked to them about playing safety. And they were, ‘Yeah, ok, we’re gonna bring you out, take a look at you at safety.’ When I got out there, they stick me right back at corner. I played corner for three pre-season games. And going into that third pre-season game, something locks up in my back. We were getting ready to go out for practice that morning. I can’t move. They call the doctor. The trainer comes in. Everybody is trying to see what’s going on. Ronnie Lott was my roommate. I actually could not move. It freaked me out so bad. I told my wife about it and everything.”

Poe’s wife simply said, “I wish you would retire. I don’t want to push you in a wheelchair the rest of your life.” Poe listened.

Life After the NFL

“When Coach Mora called me to the facility and told me that they were releasing me, at that point, the one thing that ran through my head was to ask him about coaching. I really wanted to get into coaching. I really did. I guess the anger in me caused me to just get up, say, ‘Thanks for what you’ve given me and everything we went through. Have a good life.’ And I walked out the door. The whole time I’m driving back home is, ‘You should have asked him about coaching.’ That was the one thing I felt was the biggest mistake that I made.”

Poe would eventually coach, but not with the Saints. He found his way back home at East St. Louis Lincoln as their defensive coordinator. Poe took a hiatus from coaching for a while but got back into it recently.

Also, shortly after retirement from the NFL, Poe got involved in the restaurant business. He is also a manager at a local casino, a position he’s held for nearly 25 years. And just like in 1987, his wife wishes he would retire. Poe once again sees her point but knows he would have a hard time sitting still, or “stiffening up”. Poe shared, “I am a grandfather. I have been. One of my grandsons is 25. I’ve got a 19-year old granddaughter, a 15-year old granddaughter and I just had a newborn great-grandson.”

Poe’s Legacy

That day, December 4, 2016, was a memorable one for Johnnie Poe. Amongst the rest of the Saints All-50th Team, Poe rehashed the day and what it was like to be honored by the franchise for which he had played his entire career.

Poe earned the honor. He still sits 4th on the Saints All-Time interception leaders board, trailing only Sammy Knight, Tommy Myers and Dave Whitsell. All three of those players are currently in the Saints Hall of Fame.

When asked if someday becoming a member of that exclusive club was important to him, Poe answered, “Would I like to be in the Saints Hall of Fame? I really would like to get in there. I really would.”

If he is to someday be honored by the Saints Hall of Fame, it’s safe to assume it’ll be with the grace and appreciation for the game that we’ve come to expect from, “Cornerback, number 25, Johnnie Poe.”


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