When Chargers Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman finished the regular season with 17 sacks, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson breathed a big sigh of relief back home in Bossier City, La..

Johnson, for at least another year, still holds the Chargers’ record for sacks in a season with the 17 and a half that he recorded in 1980 for the AFC West champions.

“I’m glad I still have the record,” said Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler for the Bolts. “It’s always good to have a record to be remembered by.”

Johnson works as an executive host greeting patrons at the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City, where he grew up before he became a first-round draft pick by the Chargers in 1975 out of Grambling State. He reminded me he was a defensive tackle playing inside in a 4-3 defense, while Merriman plays outside in a 3-4.

“What you have to understand is all my sacks came up the middle,” Johnson said. “I had people double-teaming me. He’s coming around the corner against a tight end, a slow offensive lineman or a small running back.”

Johnson is coming to San Diego to be inducted Feb. 13 into the Hall of Fame at the Hall of Champions, my day job, so I had been talking to him about his Air Coryell days. Johnson loves talking about the Chargers — he says everyone at the Horseshoe wants to talk to him about LaDainian Tomlinson — but for a moment I feared he was one of those old athletes who don’t recognize the talent of athletes today.

“Oh, Merriman is a great player,” Johnson said. “He’s 6-4, 270 and he comes around the corner fast. I wouldn’t want him breathing down on me. But I’ve still got the record, and next year he has to start all over.”

— TOM SHANAHAN

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