After sitting out a year to be with his ailing father, he stumbled upon Grand Valley State via a Google search.
To learn about Green Bay as he was traveling to the city for his predraft visit with the Packers, he struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to him on the plane. Among the nuggets he learned, the franchise is owned by the fans and "everybody knows everybody,"
"And then she told me about the bike thing that they do (during training camp) and I said, ‘Dang, that's cool.' She told me about a lot of things; we talked for a while," Johnson said.
And now that he's a seventh-round draft pick trying to win one of at least two vacant roster spots at wide receiver, he said he was up past 2 a.m. trying to get a handle on the playbook for this weekend's rookie camp.
Johnson's been through a lot in his 24 years. He had committed to Louisville but the offer was pulled when he hadn't qualified by signing day. He played at Eastern Kentucky as a true freshman but wound up transferring to Antelope Valley Community College in California after a stolen laptop was found in the dorm room shared by Johnson and a friend from high school. After a year there, Johnson went home to Elsmere, Ky., be with his father, who had colon cancer, heart disease and the autoimmune disorder scleroderma, as detailed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Fred Johnson survived a trip to the emergency room one night but was given six months to live.
Instead, four years later, Fred Johnson and dozens of friends and family watched two weeks ago as Charles Johnson picked up the phone to speak to his new employer.
"It's real special," Johnson said in the Lambeau Field locker room on Friday. "I've been through a lot of trials and tribulations and obstacles but I continued to work and I never gave up. I got drafted and it feels like I've done something. All the hard work has paid off and I'm able to do what I wanted to do. I love playing football. I'm doing this for my father and myself, as well. I feel like I've accomplished something now."
In between that lowest-of-the-lows and highest-of-the-highs, Fred Johnson's health improved so much that Charles Johnson took his life off hold. The NCAA said he could play one year of Division I but two years of Division II. So, Johnson did a Google search for top Division II football programs. Grand Valley State popped up, and Johnson gave the coaching staff a call.
He redshirted in 2010 and tore it up in 2011 and 2012. Earning All-America honors both seasons, he caught 56 passes for 1,030 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior and 72 passes for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012. A selfless player, he played some kickoff coverage and blocked for kickoff returns, and he routinely deflected media attention to teammates even though Johnson was the star of the show, according to Grand Valley assistant Jack Ginn.
Then, events unfolded about as fast as Johnson can run 40 yards. He had a blowout pro day workout, took a predraft visit to Green Bay and became the first player from Grand Valley State to be selected by the Packers.
"I tried to be not as excited because I had gotten a few calls from teams checking in beforehand," Johnson said in recalling the draft. "I was just like, ‘Oh, they're checking in.' I tried to keep the same actions when I was on the phone when they told me, ‘We're going to pick you.' I was just sitting at the table talking to them and (my friends and family) knew, ‘He's talking for a long time.' When they picked me, they went to commercial so they didn't get to see it. When it came back on, there was a ticker saying, ‘Charles Johnson' but they didn't know which team. Then they showed my clips and everybody got really excited. My sister came over and was crying, which made me cry. It was great. I really enjoyed that moment."
In 1999, the Packers used the 213th selection on Alcorn State's Donald Driver with a pick acquired from rival Chicago. In 2013, the Packers used the 216th selection on Johnson with a pick acquired from rival San Francisco. Driver, of course, became the Packers' all-time leader in receptions and yards after overcoming numerous obstacles along the way.
Johnson knows Driver's story and he'd love to follow in his footsteps.
"I've seen him play and I know what a great player he was," Johnson said. "It wouldn't be bad to be the next Donald Driver."
"Everybody's given an opportunity," Johnson added. "No matter if you're the first round or a tryout guy, you're here and given an opportunity. Take full advantage of it and good things will come to you if you work hard."
Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.