Ian Johnson has a lot to overcome in order to end up on the 53-man roster for the Vikings. But the rookie running back has overcome challenges many viewed as even more lopsided against him.
Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Boise State, was part of one of the greatest finishes in college football history. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, the underdog Broncos beat the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners (led by star running back Adrian Peterson) and pulled off a 43-42 win that will make Johnson a trivia answer in one of the most repeated college football highlights in recent memory.
While his infamy will endure from that game, much in the same way other college players are memorialized even if they don't have outstanding pro careers. Johnson wants to avoid being one of those guys. He's realistic about his chances. After getting passed over on draft day and coming to a team that is all but set at running back with Peterson, Chester Taylor and Percy Harvin all expected to be carrying the ball, Johnson doesn't have any delusions about being the lead dog.
"Going undrafted like I was, you don't come into the NFL looking to be a starter," Johnson said. "You've got to fill a role and be able to find your role. For me, that's likely on special teams. But I also get to learn from two great veterans in Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson. God forbid anything would happen to them, I would be ready because I've learned from two great guys."
His biggest short-term concern is the competition between himself and Albert Young, who was on the Vikings practice squad last year. At first glance, it seems realistic that a spot would be open to replace Maurice Hicks in the RB-3 role. There likely aren't going to be roster spots available for both and it also depends on if the team is convinced rookie Percy Harvin will take five or more carries a game. If so, both could be in jeopardy of being a roster casualty in early September.
Johnson has a pretty big hill to climb, since Childress has spoken highly of Young as being a good system player. But he said the two are working with each other to improve their game in the event one or both remains with the team – one on the active roster and another on the practice squad. He said a friendship has formed despite their competition for the same prize.
"We both understand each other's situation," Johnson said. "If we don't help each other, it's going to make it a very long camp for both of us and it would end up hurting the team. With both of us having the best interests of the team in mind, we do help each other. We are very good friends. We talk all the time. The whole running back room competes against each other, but we're one big family."
That family includes Peterson, whose college career ended with the 43-42 Fiesta Bowl loss in which Johnson outperformed A.P. Johnson had 23 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. Peterson had 20 carries for 77 yards and two TDs. Johnson's role in the game was huge. His touchdown gave Boise State a 14-0 lead with 7:28 to play in the first quarter. He would also score the game's final points, taking a handoff from quarterback Jared Zabransky on an old-school Statue of Liberty play for a two-point conversion to end the game.
It would be easy to see if Peterson still held a grudge about his role in the denial of his college career ending on a high note. But then again, he doesn't brag about it either.
"No grudges on his part," Johnson said with a grin. "But, then again, I don't say anything about it. I pretty much just keep quiet about that."
Johnson said Boise State's underdog status as a school from a non-power conference and pulling off a David-vs.-Goliath type upset only affirmed his belief that good things can happen when your focus is singular and everyone does his job.
"It was unbelievable and ranks up there with the greatest moments of my life," Johnson said. "It showed what hard work and attention to detail can accomplish. That was the pinnacle."
Johnson admitted he had some painfully big butterflies in his stomach prior to and during the Fiesta Bowl game. However, it had nothing to do with the Sooners. He had decided to propose to girlfriend and Boise State cheerleader Chrissy Popadics. He knew all the X's and O's, but became a YouTube celebrity for his proposal, which he said was much more nerve-wracking than the national spotlight brought by the bowl game.
"I play football all the time, I don't propose all the time," Johnson said. "I was ready for the game, but I wasn't as prepared for the proposal so much."
While his confidence never waned on the field, Johnson said his morale was falling fast as Chrissy, who wasn't in on it prior to him dropping to a knee, was too shocked to give him an answer. His confidence-ometer fell faster than a gas gauge on a cash-for-clunkers vehicle.
"It started at 100 percent but starting dropping the longer it took her to say ‘yes,'" Johnson said. "It was a good 10 seconds she waited. I ran it through my mind that it might be 50 percent that she will say yes or no."
She did say yes and the two were married July 28, 2007. So how did he spend his second anniversary? Checked in at Gage Hall for the first reporting day of training camp. It's a sacrifice he had to make to keep his NFL dream alive in hopes of adding other highlight-film moments that will continue to increase his Internet cache.
"This is the most important month of my life," Johnson said. "I have a chance to fulfill my dream of playing in the NFL. Right now, it's my only focus. Everything else can wait for a while, because you know it will be there. I have to make an impression on the coaches. I've worked a long time for this and have to make the most of every opportunity I get and show them I'm worthy of keeping around."