BEREA, Ohio – Apparently not a day went by without D’Ernest Johnson not upsetting Tim Ruskell, who had just taken over the leadership of the Orlando Apolos of the newly formed American Football League Alliance.
“I know he kept getting tired of me calling him,” Johnson said. “They already had all their corridors. But he kept calling. Every day, ‘Did something change? Do they need a broker? The same thing.”
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Johnson had just spent the last few weeks in 2018 making a living fishing for mahi-mahi off the coast of Key West, Florida, selling fish and taking tourists on fishing excursions.
Despite an outstanding college career in South Florida, Johnson had not been drafted and then not signed by the NFL, due in part to a rather slow 40-yard time in a 4.81-second rush.
Johnson, however, was unwilling to give up football, even when it seemed that football had abandoned him. Unable to get his own agent to call him back, Johnson began posting messages to the social media accounts of AAF teams, including the Apollos.
Then, through a college teammate who had been invited to play for the Apollos, Johnson obtained Ruskell’s phone number. Ruskell, who had been the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks from 2005-2009, was already being inundated with calls and messages from players looking for a final shot. But, as Ruskell puts it, Johnson’s persistence in asking for a test “was on another level.”
“That persistence gave him the training, for sure,” Ruskell recalled. “I said, ‘This guy wants this too much, we have to do something.’
That persistence led Johnson until last Thursday night.
My favorite story about D’Ernest.
He texted all AAF teams in 2018 asking for a test. Made the Orlando team. Then it appeared.
Kid has worked hard. He has earned it.
(Of course I saved the screenshot). pic.twitter.com/015PmctLcc
– Courtney Kramer (@ CourtKramer39) October 22, 2021
With the Cleveland Browns without star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt due to calf injuries, Johnson rushed for 146 yards in the first start of his NFL career, propelling the defeated Browns to a 17-14 victory over the Los Angeles. Denver Broncos in Cleveland.
Johnson scored a touchdown in the opening series. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he finished off the Broncos with a first-down run at third and long that secured the game and broke the tackle.
“For me, D’Ernest Johnson is a warrior and a great teammate,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski, who handed the ball to Johnson as his teammates hounded him in the postgame locker room. “What he’s fought for in his career and then have a night like that and finish like he did. … I thought it was just exceptional. “
To Johnson, the whole night still seems surreal. His childhood idol was LeBron James. During his post-game interview, Johnson still didn’t realize that James had tweeted about him. He was speechless – “Lebron? Lebron James? “He kept repeating. Now, he plans to pop a copy of the tweet to frame it.
“That night, I was in shock,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t sleep until 5 am due to adrenaline. “Like, did all of this really happen?”
Johnson’s disbelief is understandable.
“I’m so proud of you guys for fighting … for 60 minutes.”
🗣 Kevin Stefanski pic.twitter.com/ilb1RqeNKe
– Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 22, 2021
After getting off the fishing boat in August 2018, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and got a job as a personal trainer, so he could work out at the same gym. While Johnson and his girlfriend were messaging the AAF team accounts, his mother randomly sent emails to people connected to Canadian Football League teams.
When Johnson arrived at Apollos training ground in January, he was the fifth-row running back. But his toughness, versatility and hands quickly caught the attention of head coach Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida Gators coach. During one of the first practices, Spurrier summoned Johnson.
“He was like, ‘What’s your name?’ He didn’t know my name or anything, ”Johnson said. “I told him and he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to call you Ernie, good job, Ernie.’
Johnson made the Apollos his third running back, but eventually became one of the best players in the league.
“He may not have a good 40, but his blast was as good as anybody’s,” Ruskell said. “And every time they called him by name, whether in practice or anywhere in the game, he did something. It just stood out. “
The AAF would close eight weeks after the season. But Johnson had enough tape for his new agent, Aston Wilson, to take another look at the NFL and ultimately Cleveland, whom he signed as a free agent in 2019.
Johnson now has a motto that he lives by and calls “the slow grind.” Nothing is easy and nothing is fast. The fishing boat. The calls to Ruskell. The past two seasons they endorsed Chubb and Hunt, coached special teams, and held onto that tenuous spot on the list.
Before the Denver game, Johnson contemplated that story and even observed his mini-documentary. And he knew his slow routine was going to come full circle. Persistence was about to pay off.
“To see how far I got and find out what it took,” Johnson said. “The slow grind, you have to trust the process no matter what you’re going through. … and believe in yourself. “