One of the adages in life is that you must learn to walk before you run. Vikings receiver Jaymar Johnson, now known for his quick feet and speed as he enters the NFL, never did crawl. He went from casts that were meant to correct club foot – a condition developed in the womb where the feet curve inward – to walking.
And now that he's conditioned himself to run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, he'll have a chance to live out an NFL goal.
But those first steps were monumental in Johnson's case.
"My mom says I never crawled because when I came out my legs were so bad," said Johnson, who had two sets of casts put on his legs when he was about one year old. "If it didn't work, they were going to have to break them back in place, but when they took the casts off the second time, my legs were strong enough and they were straight and I was able to walk – not walk perfectly.
"Once I learned how to run, I never stopped."
Now he is able to run faster than most humans, a skill that got the Vikings to draft him in the sixth round in April, and a skill that served him well growing up in the rough streets of Gary, Ind.
According to what he told the Chicago Tribune, Johnson had to run from gunfire twice while growing up in what he described as one of the worst neighborhoods in Gary. Once, while leaving his aunt's house, rounds from a machine gun erupted about 100 yards away and he grabbed his nephew and ducked for cover. Another time, he was fired at when playing basketball with his cousins and later discovered that a bullet had grazed his letter jacket.
His desire to get away from the rough streets led the Proposition 48 athlete to Jackson State because his test scores weren't high enough for some other schools that were showing an interest in him, including Ohio State, Penn State and Western Michigan.
"Jackson State was the only one willing to give me a full scholarship coming out my prop year," he said.
As it turns out, he had a number of former Vikings to lean on during his days at Jackson State and since being drafted by the Vikings. One of those was former receiver Chris Jones, who spent the 2005 season with Minnesota.
"I talked to Chris Jones the day of the draft and every day before I came up here," Johnson said at the Vikings' rookie minicamp. "He actually gave me a heads-up on how they run the system here, the terminology, so I knew a little bit coming in before I got the playbook."
He also talked to former Vikings return specialist Eddie Payton, the golf coach at Jackson State, and former Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith, another Jackson State alum.
He also received a draft tip by watching his older brother James, a former Arkansas-Pine Bluff receiver, previously try to make it in the NFL. James was disappointed during draft weekend when he wasn't selected and eventually had to settle for a tryout with the New York Giants, one that didn't lead to an NFL job.
Because of James' experience, Jaymar spent his draft weekend trying to take a more low-key approach.
"I didn't want to watch the draft. My brother was actually watching it. My phone was ringing and he kind of gave me a nudge, like, wake up, man, your phone is ringing," Jaymar said. "I just didn't want to go through with watching the draft, the reason being that I saw what my brother went through watching the draft when he was coming out. Different teams said they would draft him and they didn't. His phone never rang."
And Jaymar never really considered the NFL until a few years ago. Certainly, when he was dodging bullets in high school, "the NFL wasn't really on my mind. Whatever level I was at at the time, I was trying to make the best of it and maximize my ability at every position that I played. My coach didn't really start talking to me about the NFL until my junior year in college," he said.
At that point, Johnson didn't know if he should believe his coach, but the summer before his senior year at Jackson State he began to notice the scouts showing up on campus. Those scouts also began to notice a different, more mature, kind of athlete in Johnson.
He has five older brothers and two older sisters and says "I had no choice but to mature." That helped lead to an early marriage – he has been married for two years now – to a woman he has been dating since his sophomore year and her freshman year of high school.
During his college days, he has worked as a dispatch for rangers in the Wildlife Fishery and Parks and as a rehab technician assistant for physical therapy at St. Dominic Hospital to help pay the bills while going to school and playing football.
NFL scouts also noticed a unique recording on his voice mail. Instead of the usual greeting or a song, Johnson put a Bible verse from Matthew 16 as his recording – "What profit is the world for a man if he gains his whole life yet loses his whole soul?"
When he first put it on his phone, his teammates became cautious about cussing around him and it even made an impact with his coaching staff.
"One of my offensive line coaches … was like, ‘Dude, I straighten up quick when I call your phone,'" Johnson said.
So Johnson figured it was doing some good. Even some teams that called him commented that they wished he didn't answer all the time so they could hear the whole verse.
"A lot of people spend time in life wishing on things they can get here in life or earthly pleasures. I focus on things after life. Like it says, if you gain the whole world, what profit is it if you lose your soul?" Johnson said. "You have to keep both things in perspective – what's here on earth and what's in heaven after. … I always keep God first above all. Things like that help me to keep that in mind."
But he still refers to his draft-day calling to the Vikings as "a blessing."
"I'm fortunate to be here," he said. "I felt the Vikings were the No. 1 fit for me."
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