ATLANTA — One day in the winter of 2011, John Johnson’s father stopped by a Northwestern High School basketball practice to check up on his son, who was the team’s starting point guard as a sophomore the year prior.
When he got there, Johnson was nowhere to be found. In fact, he hadn’t picked up a basketball since the end of the football season. Without telling anybody, Johnson had quit the Wildcats basketball team in order to chase the football scholarships offers he felt he could garner if he devoted himself fully to the gridiron.
Johnson’s dad was so incensed that he didn’t talk to his son for days, and the school’s football coaches were suddenly in the line of fire from him as well as the basketball staff, Johnson remembers. But just about every day for the next three months, Johnson worked out in the weight room — and in the hallway outside of it — and added about 15 pounds on his previously lean frame, coinciding with a growth spurt that pushed him to about 6-feet and put him on the radar of colleges.
That unyielding determination and competitiveness, combined with an adept football mind, have turned Johnson into a rising star at safety for the Los Angeles Rams, maintaining the upward trajectory he began by bursting onto the scene late in his career at his Prince George’s County public high school.
“John is the most fiery, competitive, driven young man that I have coached,” said Steve Rapp, who coached Johnson at Northwestern. “He just — he’s got the dog in him. He’s got the dog.”
Johnson has always been headstrong and possessed a flair for the dramatic. From telling Rapp he was going to “make a power move” but not specifying that meant his basketball days were over, to his use of the New Orleans-originated Choppa Style celebration after intercepting Saints quarterback Drew Brees in overtime of the NFC championship game, Johnson doesn’t shy from the spotlight, seemingly made for the type of stage Super Bowl LIII will provide him Sunday.
Northwestern head coach Bryan Pierre remembers Johnson stepping up in big games, like his senior year performance against local powerhouse Wise High School in 2012, when the Wildcats revamped the offense in order to get the ball in Johnson’s hands as much as possible as a wildcat quarterback. Wise cruised to a 47-8 victory, but Johnson filled up the stat sheet with passes, receptions and rushes, scored all of his team’s points by rushing in a 40-yard touchdown and then converting the two-point conversion on a fake field goal.
According to Rapp, who is now offensive coordinator at Wise, it’s not enough to merely say Johnson played both ways for the Wildcats, pointing out that he did everything from quarterback to long snap.
“He played everything except the D-Line and the O-Line,” Rapp said. “He would go, ‘Alright, well I could throw the ball farther than you. Well, I’m faster than you. I can hit harder. I can cover better. You need me to do that, coach? No problem. I got it.’”
It wasn’t just Johnson’s competitiveness that turned him into such a versatile weapon for the Wildcats, and later Boston College and the Rams.
His mental aptitude allowed him to absorb game plans from a number of different positions, and it allowed Pierre plenty of peace of mind. When Pierre couldn’t make a 7-on-7 tournament, Rapp was concerned, but Pierre assured him Johnson could handle the defensive play-calling duties. Sure enough, they went on to win the tournament, Rapp said.
“I always tried to be a leader. Everybody knew I was a leader, me and [running back Darius Victor], we were the leaders,” Johnson said at Super Bowl media night Monday. “We could’ve done it without any coaches.”
Johnson eventually caught the attention of various colleges and settled on Boston College, where he got playing time as a true freshman and added 22 pounds over his four years while bouncing between safety and cornerback.
The Rams liked what they saw on tape and what they heard from his college coaches, Los Angeles safeties coach Ejiro Evero said Monday, so they selected Johnson in the third round of the 2017 draft. He started 11 games as a freshman and all 18 en route to the Super Bowl this year, helping clinch the Rams’ trip to Atlanta by intercepting Brees.
“Since we drafted him, it’s been everything we thought we were getting,” Evero said. “You don’t typically give a player with that little experience as much to handle as we do, but he never flinches. Never blinks.”
Because Pierre stayed at his public high school rather than one of the area’s vaunted private options, the Wildcats coaching staff had to put in extra hours in order to get Johnson the exposure he needed. It’s a process Rapp is plenty familiar with — driving around the country for showcases and campus visits, the dozens of emails to college coaches — and Johnson never considered transferring once he got to Northwestern.
“I just like the chip on your shoulder, the edge that public schools have,” Johnson said. “They can recruit. We can’t. We just got a bunch of guys from the neighborhood. I just like the family aspect.”
That close-knit nature explains why Rapp texts Johnson compliments or critiques of his play as he watches him on Sundays.
It explains why Northwestern put a photo of Johnson’s Choppa Style celebration on their morning announcements last week.
And it explains why Johnson took a risk after his junior season of football, putting his future in Rapp’s hands following a brief conversation that Rapp didn’t immediately realize the importance of. But when the offensive coordinator saw Johnson in the weight room day after day rather than on the hardwood, it became clear the switch had flipped, and Johnson had found a new gear that would propel him from being an undersized safety lacking the Division I offers he needed to being a highlight machine on the biggest stage in American sports eight years later.
“I just had to make a sacrifice. That’s what it’s about. It ended up paying off, as you can see, because I got to this point,” Johnson said. “It’s just, I want to be great and I know what it takes in order to be great.”
James Crabtree-Hannigan is a senior in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, covering the Super Bowl for the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.