Coming out of California University of Pennsylvania in 2010, Johnson signed as an undrafted free agent with New England. It was an unheralded entrance to the league, and an injury ended the opportunity.
Johnson found his way to the Indianapolis practice squad with two games remaining in the same season. The Colts were going through injury problems at that point and needed a fresh player to help field a healthy team competing for a division crown.
The 5-9, 190-pound cornerback filled the spot on the practice unit, then signed again with the Colts as a free agent early in 2011 as he continued looking for a future.
Johnson is one of many free agents across the league who have had to seek opportunity in more than one city. Many undrafted free agents like Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt found a home with the Colts, and Johnson is trying for that kind of extended career, too.
He stayed with the club for the entire 2011 season, opening two of 10 outings. It was a rewarding and challenging year, and now he is gunning for another chance in Indianapolis.
Johnson started one of eight appearances during the first half of last season. The start came on September 25 against Pittsburgh on national television. Friends and family in Braddock, a town on the Monongahela River just east of Pittsburgh saw him square off against the Steelers. Johnson had five solo tackles as Indianapolis nearly pulled off a victory.
Johnson battled as long and hard as he could last season, but he missed two games just after the mid-point of the year with an ankle injury. After two more outings, including a start in a five-DB alignment against the Patriots, Johnson spent the last four games on injured reserve with a forearm injury.
Johnson had 33 tackles last year, 25 solo, including a high of eight stops at Tampa Bay in the fourth game. Johnson was not alone as a young member in the Indianapolis secondary. He was one of five Colts who made first career starts on the unit during a difficult season. Johnson was joined by
“Last year was basically my rookie season with my first time playing. I had a lot of ups and downs during the year, but I learned a lot by being on the field,” said Johnson. “I did benefit from being put out there, just like the other young guys did. You could say it was being thrown to the sharks and wolves, but it was a good learning experience, and you had to learn quickly. It was helpful technique-wise and for game experience. It gave me a better understanding of the league and how to prepare, and I was learning like the other young guys were.”
Indianapolis is undergoing a defensive transformation in 2012. Gone are many players from last year, and this year’s defense is trending to a 3-4 look. Johnson is doing all he can to solidify a spot in the secondary.
“Now, I have a better feel for what we’re doing and a better feel for the game,” said Johnson. “I think I’m taking a few more educated steps now. We do have a new defensive style this year. It’s more aggressive and less playing back in coverage. It’s early in the year, but I like what we’re doing, and I am looking at this season as a chance to contribute.”
While playing for the Colts now is a professional pursuit, Johnson has had an interest in the Colts for years. Despite local passion for the Steelers, Johnson turned his rooting interests to the Colts around 1998. He did so in earnest when the Colts landed running back Edgerrin James in the 1999 draft.
“I’d probably say the year prior to Edgerrin coming I was kind of following the Colts a little, but that year he came I was just sold. I was sold,” said Johnson. “I actually kind of followed Edge in college a little. I thought he was going to come in and make a difference for the team. He made a huge difference, and he was fun to watch. The first year I saw Edge, I really accepted the Colts. I lived in Pittsburgh and everybody was a Steelers fan, but I didn’t care.”
Johnson has lived the realities of the NFL in a short time, knowing a career is not promised and it can be elusive. He remembers the moment fondly when the Colts called.
“I was injured all through camp (with New England in 2010), so I was out from August to December (before joining the Colts). At that point in time I was really just looking for anything. I was down for about two and a half months with a hamstring. Once I was able to start sprinting is when I got a call from Indy. I was really excited because I really had been a fan of the Colts for about 13 years. Actually, I think I really teared up the night they called me.”
Johnson was more than just an Edgerrin James fan. With his knowledge of the franchise, he may have felt at home in the hallways of the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center quicker than other players who join the team. On a wall by the locker room are team pictures of Colts squads that made the playoffs. Johnson’s long-time passion for the team meant he saw a lot of familiar faces as he walked past the long display of pictures.
“I do remember a lot of these players because I followed the team closely,” said Johnson. “I go back to at least the 1998 season and I can remember half the squad at least. I go past and look and think, ‘Yeah, I remember him.’ There were a lot of great players who came through here, and I was able to even play along with some of them when I came here. It was a great moment last year to be in the team picture.”
The chance to wear an NFL uniform can be a source of pride and emotion for a player. That Johnson is pulling on the jersey of team that meant so much to him from a formative age is special to the second-year performer.
“Being here is more than being a player, it’s being a fan also,” said Johnson. “I wear the jersey with pride because I followed the team for years. People I knew around home weren’t Colts fans, but I didn’t care. I was a fan. I still remember the old Tennessee games, the Patriots games, a lot action-packed games the Colts played in. It’s fun now being a part of it.”