BEREA, Ohio – Apparently not a day went by that D’Ernest Johnson annoyed Tim Ruskell, who had just taken over the management of the Orlando Apollos from the new Alliance of American Football league.
“I know he kept getting tired of calling him,” Johnson said. “They already had all their ball carriers. But I was still calling. Every day, “Has something changed? Do you need a running back? The same thing.”
Johnson had spent the previous weeks in 2018 making a living catching mahi-mahi off Key West, Florida, both selling the fish and taking tourists on fishing trips.
Despite a remarkable college career in South Florida, Johnson was not drafted and then unsigned by the NFL, in part due to a rather slow 40-yard run time of 4.81 seconds.
Johnson, however, was not ready to give up football, even though it looked like football had given up on him. Unable to get his own agent called back, Johnson began posting to the social media accounts of AAF teams, including the Apollos.
Then, through a college teammate who had been invited to play for the Apollos, Johnson obtained Ruskell’s phone number. Ruskell, who served as general manager of the Seattle Seahawks from 2005 to 2009, was already inundated with calls and messages from players looking for a final blow. But, as Ruskell puts it, Johnson’s persistence in asking for a try “was on another level.”
“That perseverance got him training for sure,” Ruskell recalls. “I said, ‘This guy wants it too badly – we have to do something. “
This persistence carried Johnson until last Thursday evening.
My favorite story about D’Ernest.
He sent all AAF teams a DM in 2018 to request a try. Made the Orlando team. Then jumped out.
Kid worked his ass. He deserved it.
(Of course, I saved the screenshot.) pic.twitter.com/015PmctLcc
– Courtney Kramer (@ CourtKramer39) 22 October 2021
With Cleveland Browns star backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt absent due to calf injuries, Johnson rushed for 146 yards in his first career NFL start, propelling the battered Browns to a 17-14 victory. on the Denver Broncos in Cleveland.
Johnson scored a touchdown on the opening disc. Then, at the end of the fourth quarter, he finished the Broncos with a decisive and decisive first down on the third and long.
“D’Ernest Johnson is a warrior and a great teammate to me,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski, who handed the ball to Johnson as he was harassed by his teammates in the post-game locker room . “What he fought for in his career, then having an evening like that and ending it the way he did.… I thought it was just exceptional.
To Johnson, All Night Still seems surreal. Her childhood idol was LeBron James. During his post-match interview, Johnson has yet to realize that James had tweeted about her. He was speechless – “Lebron? James Lebron? ”He kept repeating. Now he plans to detonate an imprint of the tweet to get it framed.
“That night I was just in shock,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t fall asleep until 5 am due to the adrenaline rush. “Like, did all of this really happen?” “
Johnson’s disbelief is understandable.
“I’m so proud of you guys for fighting … for 60 minutes”
Kevin stefanski pic.twitter.com/ilb1RqeNKe
– Cleveland Browns (@Browns) 22 October 2021
After getting off the fishing boat in August 2018, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and got a job as a personal trainer so he could work out at the same gym next door. While Johnson and his girlfriend messaged AAF team accounts, his mother sent random emails to people related to Canadian Football League teams.
When Johnson arrived at training camp from the Apollos in January, he was the runner-up for the fifth string. But his tenacity, versatility and hands quickly caught the attention of head coach Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida Gators coach. During one of the first practices, Spurrier summoned Johnson.
“He said to me, ‘What’s your name? “He didn’t know my name or anything,” Johnson said. “I told him and he said, ‘OK, I’ll call you Ernie – good job, Ernie. “”
Johnson made the Apollos their third running back, but ultimately became one of the best players in the league.
“He might not have had a good 40, but his burst was as good as anyone else,” said Ruskell. “And whenever he called himself by name, whether in practice or any part of the game, he was doing something. He just stood out.
The AAF would close its doors eight weeks after the start of the season. But Johnson had enough gang for his new agent, Aston Wilson, to give him another look from the NFL and ultimately Cleveland, with whom he signed as a free agent in 2019.
Johnson now has a motto he lives by and calls “slow grind”. Nothing comes easy and nothing comes quickly. The fishing boat. The appeals to Ruskell. For the past two plus seasons, he’s supported Chubb and Hunt, making up the special teams and clinging to that precarious place.
Ahead of the Denver game, Johnson envisioned this story and even watched his mini-documentary. And he knew his slowness was going to come full circle. Perseverance was about to pay off.
“To see how far I’ve gone and find out what it took,” Johnson said. “The slow grind, you have to trust the process no matter what you’re going through. … And believe in yourself.