It was the second hardest thing I ever experienced in my life next to losing my mom, Johnson said. It was like breaking up with your first love. It was hard, unexpected. Never thought it would come.
When asked of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Penn State football team last fall, he describes it as aan unfortunate situation, but he returned for the spring semester, where he tried to win back his job and his way out of head coach Joe Paterno's dog house. Penn State said Johnson was suspended for the fall semester due to an unspecified violation of the school's code of conduct.
As Penn State won the Big Ten title, Johnson couldn't watch most of the games; seeing the Nittany Lions succeed without him became too much to bear. Instead, he confined himself to his weight room and the practice field of his high school.
At Crockett Technical in Detroit, he toiled as an assistant coach, working on the scout team as quarterback and wide receiver. He stayed away from his home position of defensive tackle or end.
No, I never got down in the trenches with them, he said with a laugh. They tried to test me a couple of times, they tried to call me out.
Crockett Technical went 10-2 and advanced to the state quarterfinals, while the junior varsity team went undefeated and took the city league title.
It was a rewarding experience. Johnson said he was happy to go back and contribute to the program that allowed him to earn an athletic scholarship.
But it also taught him accountability.
I always pride myself on being accountable for the actions I do, Johnson said. It's not so much what you do but it's what you don't do and you have to take those into consideration because anything can affect you.
Meanwhile, the Penn State program had undergone a change as well. The freshmen who sparked last season's Big Ten title run never really knew him and the seniors who played key roles in the turnaround had moved on as well.
The experts seemed to forget about him, too. They said the defensive line would be weakened by the departures of Scott Paxson, Matt Rice and Tamba Hali. Just Jay Alford returned to the unit.
Johnson had started in 2004, but he opted not to acknowledge the slight.
I never took it as personal, he said. It was true. They had three starters that were here last year and they were gone. Everyone knows I've been a starter since I've been here so it wasn't personal at all.
In the early part of this season, Johnson quickly stamped himself as an impact player.
Against Akron, he failed to bring down the quarterback in the backfield, but against Notre Dame, he got his first one in almost a year — for a loss of 11 yards. He's up to three on the year with 15 tackles heading into today's game with Northwestern.
His life and his football career are back on track.