NASHVILLE -- Chris Johnson was sitting in a corner of the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis, a trainer working on his hamstring, when he learned his life had changed. "After you run the 40 at the combine, they don't tell you right away what official time you got," Johnson said. "I was sitting with the trainer and someone came up and told me I'd run a 4.24. I knew what it meant. So I just picked up my bag and left."
There was nothing more to do. It was the fastest time a running back ever posted at the combine. In exactly 4.24 seconds, Johnson went from little-known prospect to first-round draft pick. The Titans took him 24th overall in the 2008 draft, despite warnings he was more track star than tailback, better in workouts than in games.
As much as NFL scouts emphasize speed, they are also wary of it. They have all seen examples of teams -- most often the Raiders -- who are seduced by a player's 40-time and overlook deficiencies in other, more fundamental areas. "Usually," said Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, "speed guys aren't great football players."
At Olympia High in Orlando, Johnson played football, but he was known more for running in straight lines. He lost his only track meets to future NCAA champion Xavier Carter and future Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix. "People thought of me as a track guy," Johnson said. "But I only ran track four years. I played football all my life."
He was offered just one football scholarship, to East Carolina, where he excelled as a kick returner but did not become the full-time tailback until his senior year. Only then, when he led the nation with 227 all-purpose yards per game, did he prove his speed was transferrable. Unlike most burners, who get knocked down by a stiff breeze, Johnson can absorb a hit and barely lose momentum. He often seems to pick up speed after contact. "When I see a crack, I find myself looking at him instead of the defense," Heimerdinger said. "You catch yourself wondering, 'Is this one going all the way?'"
The weight of what Johnson is accomplishing this season -- he is the fifth player to reach 1,500 yards in 12 games, the third player to rush for 125 yards or more in six straight games, and the first player to have three runs of 85 yards or more -- has not been fully appreciated for a variety of reasons. He was not well known in college, does not play for a winning team, does not play in a big market and, most important, is not Adrian Peterson. "If it were somebody else," Johnson said, "it would be a way bigger deal."
The problem has nothing to do with Johnson's personality. He is honest bordering on outrageous, with shoulder-length dreadlocks, gold teeth and a BMW he painted pink "just to do something crazy." When I met him last week in Nashville, he was incensed because he had done a photo shoot for ESPN The Magazine and was not on the cover. "I will use that to drive me," he said. Chastened, I admitted that I was actually in town to write a feature for this week's Sports Illustrated about the revival of quarterback Vince Young, and not him. Johnson looked aghast. "That will drive me also," he said.
Johnson is on pace to finish this season with more than 2,000 yards, but his goal is 2,105, the record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984. It is unlikely Johnson will get there, but not impossible, considering the Titans play three of their final four games at home, starting with the Rams, who rank 28th against the rush. Johnson is seeing a steady supply of eight-man fronts, but because Young is always a threat to keep the ball and run, defenses have to monitor both. "Even his fakes help me out," Johnson said.
After starting 0-6, the Titans had their five-game winning streak snapped Sunday in Indianapolis, and Johnson only rushed for 113 yards. In the city where he once set the combine record, he did not have a single run of more than 11 yards. He just waited patiently for blocks, hit the holes when they opened, evaded the first tackler and carried the second one as far as he could. It was not the stuff of a track star. It was the hardscrabble work of a running back, quite possibly the best running back in the game.