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Motivated by an indefatigable faith, the Steelers' new linebacker perseveres

The Steelers' free-agent acquisition has been the new guy with no chance before -- a few times. And he expects to come out on the winning side again.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Steven Johnson’s Twitter bio reads: “Impossible is nothing - Hard work forever pays - Here to be the best."

Yep, typical sports-speak. The difference with Johnson, though, is that those words aren’t merely a personal mantra but a description of his life to this point as he prepares to embark on his fifth NFL season.

While most professional football players are the stars of their high school growing up, that wasn’t always the case for Johnson. The 6-1, 237-pound linebacker didn’t start until his senior year at Strath Haven High School near Philadelphia, and that was a big part of the reason why Johnson fielded exactly zero scholarship offers before graduating.

“Mentally, it hardened me,” said Johnson. “Going into my senior year in high school, I knew what I wanted to accomplish, I knew what I had to accomplish to go to the next level, and eventually it happened, it worked out for me.”

The arduous road to reaching Johnson’s goals began at Wyoming Seminary, a prep school in Wilkes-Barre, where his dominant performances began to grab the attention of college scouts. But just when it looked like his dream of playing at the DI level in college was about to be realized, Johnson tore his ACL and LCL five games into the 2006 season.

“I had offers from Kansas and Georgia Tech, full rides, but I ended up blowing my knee out and they pulled those offers," he said. "From there, pretty much every school that was recruiting me - DI, DI-AA, DII - was done with me. I was just like, ‘Man I don’t know what I’m gonna do.' People were telling me ‘Might be time to call it quits, you might be done,' and I was just like, ‘No, this doesn’t make sense.' So I continued to pray, kept my faith strong. It came down to Duquesne and Robert Morris, to tell you the truth. Those were the only schools I had to go to, but I sent a letter out to the University of Kansas on a whim, just begging for a chance. Finally they said, ‘You know what, man, just come walk on’.”

A major part of Johnson’s dream was about to come true, but not without more rehab on the leg. That and conditioning forced him to miss the 2007 season -- not an ideal situation for a walk-on.

“I sat out that season, which to this day is probably the best decision I ever made," he said. "I don’t know how I walked into their main office and told them I can’t play. To this day I don’t know how I had the strength to do that, but I did it and now I’m here.”

It took time however, something Johnson didn’t have much of at that point in his still-young career. Because of his year at prep school, and then the rehab, Johnson was already 20 years old by the time he saw the field for Kansas. After proving his mettle on special teams, Johnson earned a scholarship as a sophomore, one year before stepping into a starting spot on the Jayhawks defense. As a senior, Johnson led the Big 12 in tackles with 124, establishing himself as a viable NFL prospect leading up to the draft.

“I did really well in college going into my junior and senior year, but being undrafted going into the NFL was kinda like being a walk-on again,” he said. “Being with the Broncos for three years and being coached under Richard Smith, being around guys like Von Miller, D.J. Williams, Keith Brooking, Joe Mays, Wesley Woodyard, those guys kinda showed me the ropes and what the league is all about. They taught me about hard work and toughness, and that’s why I’m still in the league, because I happened to be one of the best special teams players in the league. I’ve got nine games starting under my belt, and my best game played is actually in the playoffs against the Colts, so I’m just looking for more opportunities to get out on the field and play some defense. I know I can do it. Sometimes I get down on myself and get discouraged; it happens. But when you know you can do something, you’re gonna strive for it.”

For an undrafted free agent, Johnson’s three-year tenure in Denver was quite successful. The stocky defender posted 50 tackles and recovered his own punt block for a touchdown, while quickly establishing himself as one of the premier special teams players in the NFL. Johnson was claimed off waivers by Tennessee last season, recording seven tackles and two fumble recoveries while playing in all 16 games, mostly on special teams. While the linebacker has experienced the atmosphere of a few NFL locker rooms at this point in his career, he’s quick to admit that Pittsburgh’s is where he feels the most at home. 

“When I started off in Denver, they were an organization that was chasing championships, chasing Super Bowls,” he said. “That was always a goal, especially with Peyton Manning in the locker room. We were just going after it, going after it, going after it. When I went to Tennessee, it was just a little different, because they’re chasing division titles. I don’t take anything away from that organization, but those guys were like ‘We gotta win the division,' and I was like ‘Man, you gotta set your goals higher.' When I came here I was just like, ‘Wow, this is where I need to be.' They want to win championships in Pittsburgh, and I’m all about winning championships. The guys have a family atmosphere here, and they work hard, so I’m just glad I’m here.”

What makes Johnson’s story so tremendous isn’t simply where he’s been, but where he's going. Spurred on by his own unique challenges, the 28 year-old has created a foundation with his wife Stephanie to share his life experiences and help others achieve their dreams despite the most formidable odds.

“My foundation is called Faith Motivated,” he said. “I always wanted to start my own foundation coming up in the NFL. At first, I didn’t know what to call it, didn’t know what I wanted it to be about. In the end it came back to my faith, how can I start a foundation without my faith? So it kind of turned into a ministry, and our mission statement in a nutshell is to help encourage everybody, kids and adults, to set their goals and go after them while living healthy lifestyles through Christ. We cover a broad range of areas. Whatever your problem is, we help out. We don’t want to just set our sights on one thing. We want to be able to help people in different areas, like self-esteem, or living healthy lifestyles, or battling past obstacles. Because my life has been the way it is, I’m able to share those stories and say, ‘Hey you can overcome, you just gotta keep going, don’t quit and just keep the faith.' So that’s why I called the foundation Faith Motivated.”

Faith is defined in the book of Hebrews as “confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see." Given that definition, the word ‘faith’ truly does describe Johnson. The linebacker has believed in his ability to play football at a high level, regardless of his role as a backup, or his lack of scholarship offers, or his shredded knee, or a year of rehab, or his undrafted status, or even the two times the linebacker has been let go by NFL teams with his dream hanging on by a thread. The indomitable will exhibited by Johnson at every turn has not only made the veteran a force to be reckoned with on the field, but a humble example of hard work and determination off of it.

“I went to prep school and was doing really well, got hurt, walked on at Kansas, earned a scholarship my second year, and now in the NFL I’m still going through the same thing,” he said. “Same exact path, different levels. It gets harder, but the thing about me is, I don’t really let anyone tell me that I can’t do something and I don’t ever give up. So I’m still chasing this dream of becoming a starter and becoming a Pro Bowl player, because I know I can play in this league.”

“My faith has brought me so far in my life, on and off the field. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve been through so many ups and downs and twists and turns that it was difficult for me. But I continue to keep my faith and believe that I can do what I want to accomplish. I’ve been playing football for 23 years. I’ve been chasing this one thing, and I’m still chasing it. If I continue to keep chasing it, it’s gonna come. I just have to keep working hard and keep grinding.”


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