Not every player’s story is the dream that Disney movies are made out of, at least not early.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson isn’t the classic story, but one that players are all too familiar with. A star at small college Grand Valley State, Johnson was a seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers last year. After a solid training camp, he was among the final cuts and was re-signed to the Packers practice squad.
Johnson had no shortage of confidence that he could be the next star receiver created by Aaron Rodgers, who has built a history – along with his predecessor Brett Favre – in developing young receivers. He faced the stigma that many small-college receivers face: they don’t play elite enough competition to make a smooth jump to the NFL. That was the notion Johnson has been out to dispel ever since.
“I don’t know about the whole thing that small schools can’t compete,” Johnson said. “That’s bull to me. I know some big-school guys who are great just like myself and I can compete with the best of them. That really doesn’t affect me. It’s just about getting reps. I’m learning different positions. I play one position more than the other and I’m starting to learn the other one (and getting comfortable) at that position.”
All Johnson was looking for was an opportunity to show what he could do. Although he was on the practice squad, he was working with the team and showing them that he could make plays. He felt it would be only a matter of time before he would be on the field with the green and gold, but injuries intervened and sidelined him during the preseason.
“I actually got an opportunity my first year in the NFL,” Johnson said. “But injuries limited me and I wasn’t able to showcase (myself).”
While Johnson was gone from the 53-man roster, he wasn’t forgotten. Scott Turner, the Vikings QB coach who held the same position under his father Norv Turner with Cleveland last year, had been impressed with what he had seen from Johnson at his pro day workout. Johnson had initially been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but when a slew of underclassmen declared for the 2013 draft, he got bumped, so his only workout in front of scouts in a group setting was at his pro day. Turner was there and came away impressed with what he saw.
When the Browns suffered injuries of their own at wide receiver last year, Cleveland raided the Packers practice squad to sign Johnson to the 53-man roster and it was that early impression he made on Turner that made all the difference because he knew what Johnson was capable of.
“I had a great relationship with Scott,” Johnson said. “He worked me out pre-draft back in Kentucky and I had a great workout with him. I think we made a connection there and he probably relayed the message or the ideas to his father. We built a relationship there, and when they brought me to Cleveland they really were interested in me. Even before the draft, they were calling me.”
But, once again, fate intervened that slowed down Johnson’s career. In October 2013, the Browns signed him away from the Packers to be on the 53-man roster, but after taking his physical and getting ready for one of his first practices, Johnson was given unexpected and horrifying news.
“They brought me to Cleveland and wanted me to play,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, when I got there, I found out my ACL was torn and I was cut loose. You never know what can happen, but when they told my ACL was torn, I was lacing up my cleats, actually about to go run routes with them. The doctor came and got me and said, ‘Your ACL is torn. You can’t run.’ I was ready to go make some plays, but I was plagued with injury.”
Johnson did his best to convince the doctors that he was unaware he had the ACL injury and likely had been playing through it for quite some time. His desire to play in the NFL was so strong, he was willing to risk further injury to make the impression on the coaching staff that he sought so strongly.
“I did tell the doctor, ‘I’ve been practicing on it this long, just let me play until it starts hurting,’” Johnson said. “They said, ‘You can’t do that, man. It’s an ACL. You’ve got to get surgery.”
With his strongest supporters (Norv and Scott Turner) no longer with the Browns this year during the preseason, he was among the final cuts the Browns made. The Vikings signed Johnson Sept. 20 and he has been on the active roster ever since.
He made his biggest splash of his young career last week, catching six passes for 87 yards to lead the Vikings. He is hopeful it is just the start of something big and, with Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright both hurting, Johnson will likely get another opportunity to showcase his talents on Sunday against Green Bay.
For Johnson, it’s been a long road to making his mark in the NFL. By his own admission, it has required working from early in the morning to late into the night, but all he is asking for is a chance. The one factor that hadn’t played in was the loyalty the Turners have showed to him and his ability, and it is something he will always appreciate.
“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “Once you can build a relationship with somebody and they trust you, they start bringing you along places. They finally get comfortable with you and it means a lot to be loyal to someone.”
WR Johnson desperately sought opportunity
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