SEABROOK – On the day his football future came to fruition, John Johnson couldn’t help but think about the past.
Johnson had been more interested in basketball upon entering Northwestern High School. He was at the pool with some friends shortly after the end of his eighth-grade year when football coach Bryan Pierre called to convince him to join the Wildcats for summer workouts.
That conversation was on Johnson’s mind when the Los Angeles Rams selected him on April 28 in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Without Pierre’s coaxing, the former Boston College safety might have never started his journey toward a pro career.
“They dragged me out there, and it ended up paying off,” Johnson said.
But Johnson put in the work to earn this chance.
It all started at Northwestern with the many weekends he spent on the road going to 7-on-7 competitions and college camps, hoping to get noticed. He gave up basketball his junior year to concentrate on his football training.
A 3.2 core grade-point-average and solid SAT score helped make him even more attractive to Division I suitors. That path led to Boston College, where he got on the field right away as a freshman. He emerged as a pro prospect during his junior season when he made the move from cornerback to safety.
During the position switch, Johnson used fellow safety Justin Simmons as a measuring stick. Together, they helped the Eagles put together the nation’s No. 1 statistical defense.
When Simmons went to the Denver Broncos in the third round of last year’s draft, Johnson figured he was on the right track.
“That’s when I knew it was real,” Johnson said. “I knew if I just put together another good year on tape I could easily get drafted.”
Johnson was a captain at Boston College last fall. He started every game and recorded 77 tackles with a team-best three interceptions and nine pass breakups while leading the team to a 7-6 record and a Quick Lane Bowl win over Maryland. He also received invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.
Johnson spent most of the spring in Florida preparing to audition for pro scouts. On trips back home, he worked out with Bowie State defensive backs coach Melvin Coleman.
Johnson is eager to see how Coleman’s painstaking drills will translate to an NFL field.
“He’s taken me a long way from a technique perspective,” Johnson said. “Just honing in on the small stuff that I had no idea about.”
Johnson was initially projected as a mid-round pick. Most reports praised his athleticism and experience in coverage as a corner as well as his ability to help on special teams, even though his 40-yard-dash time was slower than expected.
Johnson wasn’t sure if he would get picked in the third round or have to wait until the fourth through seventh rounds. He spent the night watching the broadcast on campus at Boston College with a few teammates and his girlfriend. His parents, John and Tanya, checked in frequently via FaceTime.
The wait ended with a phone call from Los Angeles General Manager Les Snead. Johnson knew the Rams were interested because they were the only club that had sent a scout in person to visit his coaches at Northwestern.
Soon, Johnson was chatting with first-year head coach Sean McVay and veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Understandably, they did most of the talking.
“I was kind of speechless,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what to say. I was just excited that they sounded excited about it. They were fired up and ready to go to work, so I had to display the same enthusiasm.”
Back in Maryland, Steve Rapp spent the night watching every pick of the draft with his wife and daughter. The former Northwestern assistant had been Johnson’s chauffeur for many trips as he tried to prove that he was worthy of a college scholarship. Seeing Johnson’s name finally pop on screen had him reminiscing, too.
“Honestly, it brought a tear to my eye,” said Rapp, who is now on the coaching staff at Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School. “It was kind of like the struggle and the process was all worth it. I am just happy for him, his family and even Northwestern as a whole. To be able to say that when you go through the process the right way you can reach the top of the mountain is special.”
Now, Johnson can turn his attention to the next step. The situation in Los Angeles reminded him of his start at Boston College: he came in there with a new coaching staff and parlayed the program’s clean slate into early playing time.
The Rams hired the league’s youngest coach in McVay, who is just 31 years old, to lead the rebuild. The team has accumulated a slew of young players to grow, along with quarterback Jared Goff, the top overall pick in last year’s draft. The team does not have a ton of depth at safety either, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Johnson to earn his way into the mix.
“We liked his approach to the game, his physicality, and his toughness,” safety coach Ejiro Evero said on the Rams’ website. “I think the guy just wants to go play football and compete.”
The process started with rookie mini-camp on May 12 and continues throughout the summer workouts. That sounds just fine to Johnson, who’d rather be on the football field than at the pool these days.
“I love it,” Johnson said. “First round guys have huge expectations. Seventh round guys are kind of fighting for their lives. Right in the middle is where I fall. I think I’m a solid pick. I believe that you can’t miss with me. There’s a lot that I can bring to the table. I just want to live up to the expectations.”