Instead of scoring what would have been a walk-off touchdown in overtime, Johnson was tracked down by Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan – a 335-pound freshman – 13 yards short of the goal line.
“That played in my head for two days in a row,” Johnson said. “I should’ve just cut up the field. I tried to avoid the quarterback for a while. I should’ve just ran and out-ran him. But I’m thinking in my head the whole time, ‘This lineman is not going to catch me.’
“But he ended up getting a hold of the ball and spinning me out. It was in my mind for two days.”
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Johnson reached out to Curhan on Instagram to congratulate him on what had been a game-saving tackle at the time.
“I messaged him that I respect him to death for that,” Johnson said. “We’ve messaged and chatted back and forth about that play.”
In the end, Johnson can take solace in the fact that TCU went on to win the game 10-7. Johnson also earned AP All-Bowl honors for his performance in the game, leading the Frogs with seven tackles.
Now Johnson is focused on pursuing a professional career. He is taking part in the College Gridiron Showcase this week at McNair Stadium in Fort Worth.
Johnson is hoping to show pro scouts that he has what it takes to play at the next level despite being an undersized linebacker at 5-foot-11. During Monday’s practice, Johnson played all three linebacker positions and held his own.
“I feel like I’m really slept on in this draft class,” said Johnson, who played high school ball at New Boston. “I know what I can do and I’m trying to show what I can do.”
Johnson had a solid season in his lone year with TCU as a grad transfer from Northern Illinois. He finished with 71 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss, one interception and two fumble recoveries.
Johnson’s snap count increased as the season progressed and he became more comfortable in Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 scheme. He had consecutive games with 10 tackles against Kansas and Kansas State, and then had a season-high 12 tackles against Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale.
Playing in the Cheez-It Bowl wasn’t the desired destination for Johnson and the Frogs, but he leaves with no regrets.
“I can’t say it was everything I wanted, but it did what it was supposed to do,” Johnson said. “I wanted to learn. I didn’t think I got the learning that I needed at NIU. They had great coaches there, don’t get me wrong, but I just couldn’t find the ‘whys’ of certain defenses.
“So my biggest thing moving was to learn. I knew Coach P was a great defensive mind. I wanted to move somewhere I could learn. My football IQ was not as good, but now I can say I really got a better understanding of football. That was the purpose of this – to get exposure and to learn the game even more.
“It wasn’t a dream senior year, but we finished strong and that’s all you can wish for.”
Patterson appreciated what Johnson brought to the team as well. He mentioned late in the season that he had “a special place in his heart” for players such as Johnson, a guy who joined the program in hopes of competing in a New Year’s Six bowl but didn’t sulk once that dream faded midway through the season.
The feeling is mutual.
“I used to think Coach P didn’t like me,” Johnson said, smiling. “He coached hard. I wasn’t used to that at first, but then I got used to it. Coach P and [defensive coordinator Chad] Glasgow really taught me a lot. They pushed me to be the best I could be.”
Now it’s on to chasing his professional dreams. Johnson is training for his pro day at Six Zero Strength in Colorado, and is just hoping for a chance. The dream is the NFL (Johnson is a long shot to get drafted) but he’s open to pursuing opportunities in startup leagues such as the AAF and XFL too.
“My mind is to get a shot from someone and I’m going to take that and run with that,” Johnson said. “I know I can be great on special teams, too, so I’m not just banking on linebacker. I can play special teams and work my way onto the field that way.”
Johnson has overcome long odds before. He grew up in East St. Louis, one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, and ran around with the wrong crowd.
Johnson found himself getting suspended from school often. So, once his mom lost their home in East St. Louis, they uprooted to New Boston.
“We just upped and moved. I was just doing things where you’d say, ‘He’s going down the wrong road,’” Johnson said. “Moving to New Boston was the best thing that could’ve happened to us because, if not, I would’ve never played football. I would’ve been dead or in jail, so I’m thankful for New Boston. What was cool in East St. Louis wasn’t cool in New Boston. Playing football was cool in New Boston.”
Johnson happens to be pretty good at it, too.