LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) – Tank Johnson sounds like a man ready to put his recent troubles behind him.

The Chicago Bears defensive tackle thanked his teammates and the organization for their support and said he can’t wait to play against Green Bay on Sunday night.

Johnson returned to practice Wednesday after serving a one-game suspension against Detroit last week. That punishment came after he was arrested on misdemeanor weapons charges, and then went to a nightclub with a friend who was shot to death.

“Football is my focus,” Johnson said. “I’m excited about work today. I’m excited about learning more about the game this week. Having two weeks off just makes you want to go out and play even more.”

Johnson was charged with six counts of possession of a firearm without a gun owner identification card Dec. 14 after police found six guns in a raid on his home. His friend and bodyguard Willie B. Posey, who was living there, was also arrested on felony drug charges.

It was the third arrest in 18 months for Johnson, who publicly apologized the next day and got a warning from general manager Jerry Angelo. That night, Johnson and Posey went to the Ice Bar, a trendy nightclub in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, and Posey was shot to death.

Johnson was inactive for the game against Tampa Bay that weekend.

The Bears then suspended Johnson for one game, rather than cut him, on Dec. 19 for going to the club. Three days later, a judge ruled Johnson must stay at home except to go to work and needs permission to leave Illinois until it is determined whether he violated his probation on a 2005 gun charge.

Johnson still has two court dates scheduled:

– Jan. 9 in Lake County for the latest weapons charges, which carry up to a year in jail.

– Jan. 23 in Cook County on the probation-violation allegations.

He could also face punishment from the NFL.

“It feels great to be back here with my family, my teammates,” Johnson said. “It’s a good feeling to be able to put my hand in the dirt again and get dirty.”

Teammates rallied to Johnson’s defense the past few weeks even though Johnson’s latest brush with the law overshadowed the Bears’ accomplishments: a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Given that, it was no surprise they welcomed him back on Wednesday.

“We missed him,” cornerback Charles Tillman said. “I’m glad he’s back. (We’ll) get him back in the rhythm of things, the swing of things, get him a couple sacks, get him out of the house a little bit.”

How the fans, some of whom called for his release, react Sunday remains to be seen.

“I learned a lot about the character of my teammates,” Johnson said. “As far as the public goes, I really don’t know what to say about them. They make the judgment, and that’s what they go with. But as far as my teammates go, they’ve been wonderful. The organization’s been wonderful, and I’ve been very proud to be a part of this team.”

Defensive end Alex Brown said, “He’s a great player. He brings another dimension as a defensive tackle. When you take a good player out of a defense, it’s not the same.”

The Bears (13-2) have allowed at least 327 yards the past five games, and the defense has dropped from first to fifth overall. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris underwent hamstring surgery this month, and cornerback Nathan Vasher (hamstring) and Tillman (back) missed games recently.

Losing Johnson didn’t help.

Coach Lovie Smith was noncommittal when asked if Johnson would start Sunday, saying, “We’ll let the week play out and make those decisions a little bit later on. He’s not being punished or anything like that anymore.”

Johnson said he’s “ready to go” and “mix it up with the guys.” He said the team has lacked “a spark” the past few weeks, one that he provides.

“I’m a guy who gets the crowd going,” Johnson said. “I love to get the crowd pumped up and run around there and do goofy things on the field. And I think they missed that. Bringing that back this week is going to give us a huge lift.”

AP-ES-12-27-06 1849EST


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