A long, hard climb for Broncos' Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson's football career has been one big uphill battle.
Even though he began playing at age 5, Johnson didn't crack the starting lineup at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, Pa., located outside of Philadelphia, until his senior season. The soft-spoken linebacker made the most of that opportunity, leading the state in tackles and earning all-county honors.
Those feats, however, didn't impress Division I college coaches, who overlooked Johnson. He enrolled at the Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in Kingston, Pa., to get more playing experience and national visibility, but that plan was unceremoniously derailed.
In just his fifth game at the prep school, Johnson tore the ACL, LCL and capsule in his left knee, and suffered a bone contusion. He thought his football career was finished.
"People were telling me it was over and I couldn't play anymore," Johnson said. "That's when I got out of shape, and I was depressed. I was away from my family, and my roommate was from Saudi Arabia, and that's when I was losing my mind because I couldn't walk or do anything."
Johnson ballooned to 245 pounds, but he still dreamed of playing football. He went through rehabilitation for the knee injury and then started reaching out to college coaches, begging for a chance to prove himself.
"I sent out a long email, and Kansas was the only school that gave me the opportunity to walk on," Johnson said. "When I got there, I couldn't even walk on and had to sit out a year."
As a walk-on, Johnson bought into the stern coaching staff's exhausting regimen. The fat melted away as he lost 30 pounds before bulking back up to 235 pounds of muscle. His new physique caught the coaches' eyes.
But there was a problem.
"I was going to have to leave school because we didn't have any money left," Johnson said.
As fate would have it, the Jayhawks offered Johnson a full scholarship right around the time he was preparing to pack his bags and head home. He responded by leading the team in tackles his junior season and was named a team captain his senior year. Johnson led the Big 12 in tackles (124) last year in his final season at Kansas.
His experience at Kansas made a man out of him, both mentally and physically.
"Kansas helped me a lot," said Johnson, who majored in economics. "The coach I had was cutthroat and a real mean guy, and my strength coach was cut-throat and ruthless. That was really the hardest time of my life.
"When I got through that, I felt like I could get through anything. It was like do or die in college, and it was hard and brutal."
His fight was far from over.
Despite leading his conference in tackles, Johnson wasn't on many NFL teams' radars. He realized quickly his ascension to the next level would be yet another uphill battle.
Johnson went undrafted last April but received calls from "12 to 15" NFL teams who expressed at least a measure of interest.
"That day was nerve-racking," Johnson said of draft day. "I had all my family around me, and we had all this food, but I couldn't eat. And it was all my favorite food."
One of his college roommates, cornerback Chris Harris, had gone through the process of being an undrafted free agent in 2011 and made the 53-man roster with the Denver Broncos. Harris, knowing Johnson's character and ability, encouraged him to sign as a free agent with his team.
"I knew they'd give him an opportunity and a chance to play, and it's just a great organization," said Harris, who has seven career starts for the Broncos. "I played with him at Kansas, so I knew he could make plays. I knew that [free agent] situation was going to happen for him, so I just tried to give him advice along the way."
After narrowing his choices to New Orleans, Tennessee and Denver, Johnson signed with the Broncos as a free agent on May 3. That's when the real work began.
Johnson said he practiced like a man possessed. He worked to outhustle teammates, be the first lined up for drills and play the hardest.
"For me, I'm big on [the belief] that, if you practice really hard, that's how you're going to play," said Johnson, who ran a 4.58 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. "I was just trying to fly around like it was college, and I did that to the best of my ability. I continued to get better each and every game."
The 6-foot-1 linebacker led the Broncos in tackles during their four preseason games with 15 and also recorded a sack, all the while giving maximum effort on every play. He was rewarded on the final day of cuts by making the 53-man roster.
Johnson will remember that day forever.
"We had a game in Arizona, and the roster had to be at 53 pretty much by the time we got back," he said. "They brought us all in, and we were lifting [weights], and that's when you started seeing people getting plucked from the team. You didn't really want to look anybody in the eye, your head was down, and you were just hoping that nobody came and tapped you.
"It was nerve-racking, but at the end of the day, I was still here. It was a blessing, and I'm really happy and thankful for it."
Once it sunk in that he'd made the team, Johnson called his parents, and tears were shared.
Since then, he's continued to work to improve and take advantage of every opportunity. Johnson has played in two games on special teams and is cherishing his time with the Broncos.
"I'm taking this year as a learning process," he said. "Of course, I'm anxious, I want to play and I want to feel like I'm part of the team, but it's a learning process for me. I just have to get a lot of mental reps, take it all in and be like a sponge."
Constantly being forced to scratch and claw to make it has been exhausting for Johnson, but he's dealt with the adversity.
"My life has been [going] from the back to the front," Johnson said. "Sometimes it gets difficult, because you're tired of fighting from the back and you say, 'Man, why can't I just be at the front just one time?'"
All-Pro linebacker D.J. Williams will return to the Broncos on Nov. 12 after serving a suspension, but the team lost Joe Mays for the season because of a broken leg suffered this past Sunday, so Johnson may be called on for more playing time.
"You really realize that, once you get to this level, you might only get a few chances, so you've got to go out there and put your best foot forward," Johnson said. "I want to go far and want to play in this league for a while. Just making it here was one of my goals, but I have many more goals I'm trying to reach.
"Maybe at the end of my career, I can look back and be like, 'Wow, I was a walk-on and a free agent.' "