Travonti “Tuff” Johnson is indoor football’s elder statesman. At __ years old (he wouldn’t tell me), he’s been everywhere and done everything. He was the IFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in the league’s first season. He’s played everywhere in the arena leagues, plus had two camp stints with the NFL’s New York Giants (this is his second tour of duty in Cedar Rapids). He’s a fan favorite everywhere he goes, and it’s easy to see why — our conversation starts with him asking after my kids.
“Tell them I want a rematch!” he laughs.
We’d taken the kids to the Friday walk-through before the home opener against the Storm. It was controlled chaos at the Cell Center, but the team was kind enough to let the kids run around on the field for a bit. Tuff immediately came out and challenged the girls to a foot race. They’re pretty fast for three year olds, but he let them win, making two lifelong fans in the process.
“It’s all about the fans,” Johnson says. “I’m an entertainer. I’m a player, yeah, but I’m an entertainer. I love being out there where you’re close to the fans, interacting with the fans. Just putting on the best show.”
In a way, he’s an ambassador for the indoor game. “It’s so much faster here. That’s the one thing I’d tell [potential fans],” he says. “You watch indoor for a while, and the outdoor game seems so slow. There’s enough room that you can take a wrong step and recover. Indoors, one wrong step and boom, you’re beat, it’s a touchdown.”
Like all defensive backs, Johnson has taken a wrong step or two over the years. “You’ve got to have a short memory playing defense. Got to. I’m the first guy to tell someone he made a good play, but I’m also the first guy to tell someone ‘Hey, it’s no big deal you made a bad play. You know what to do now, so you’ve got to just let it go.’”
I ask him about his coaching technique, and he laughs. “The guys on the team call me ‘Grandpa.’ That’s what they call me, because I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been where they want to go. Maybe it’s a bit intimidating, I don’t know, but I’ll help anyone however I can.”
He’s certainly intimidating to opponents. “He’s too aggressive,” he says when I ask him to scout himself. “Look, you’ve got me talking in third person now, but that’s how you attack Tuff Johnson. He’s always looking to hit somebody, so keep your head on a swivel.”
Tuff Johnson and the River Kings are back in action this Saturday night, March 30, against our in-state rivals the Iowa Barnstormers. Kickoff at the Cell Center is at 7:05.
 Because they just turned three, they’re not quite clear on the whole “team” concept. I’m pretty sure they think Tuff is Leo the Lion. They’re still a little scared of the actual mascot.