The X-Man Factor: David Johnson's Freaky-Good Skills at the Core of His Unlikely Rise to Stardom
- Even when he was growing up, it was clear that David Johnson possessed a combination of talent and ability that have been described as "mutantlike." That was confirmed when his life took a series of unexpected turns during two weeks at the beginning of 2017.
The stretch started on New Year's Day, with Cardinals running back David Johnson galloping toward history in Los Angeles. He had already gained 1,233 rushing yards in 2016. Now he needed 159 receiving yards to become only the third player in NFL history to join the 1,000-1,000 club, a football society so exclusive that all of its members (Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig) could fit on a love seat.
Over the first 14 days of 2017—Two Weeks in January—the story of the NFL's most unlikely superstar would take a series of strange turns. Johnson would frighten everyone he's closest to, affirm his status as a "mutant," throw his wife in a pool and, miles from the nearest football field, pray, Please, Lord, do not let me fumble here. But as the defining fortnight began, Johnson ran onto the field against the Rams in Week 17.
Jan. 1: With 4:39 left in the first quarter, Johnson took a pitch left and darted smack into several big-bodied defenders. He tried to wrench away, his torso bent backward, but then Eugene Sims, a hulking 269-pound defensive end, fell on Johnson's left knee, twisting it so badly that everyone watching grimaced at the sight.
Career ending? wondered Johnson's coach, Bruce Arians. His leg is broken, Johnson's wife, Meghan, told herself as she turned away from the TV at home near Tempe, Ariz., sobbing as she faced the wall. She was eight months pregnant and home alone. This is as heartbreaking as when quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL, thought general manager Steve Keim.
Up in the box, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin weighed the situation: the 1,000-1,000 club and now the franchise back writhing on the ground. Screw history, he thought.
Months after his frenetic two weeks, Johnson sits at his kitchen table, 20 minutes from the Cardinals' headquarters in Tempe. His house resembles the running back who sleeps here: big but not fancy, and kept private. The blinds stay drawn, the groceries are delivered. The Johnsons like to watch movies and catch naps, and they don't know many of their neighbors. The family patriarch passes hours in the garage with the door closed, practicing table tennis with an automatic ball feeder. "I don't get out much," he admits.
It's not that David Johnson is reclusive. It's that he never expected to get this much attention, never imagined he'd vacation at Disney World and be treated like an attraction, never foresaw the crowds that wanted pictures in Hawaii, autographs in New York City.
As recently as March 2015, Johnson lived in a one-bedroom apartment near the Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls. He owned one of those 100-pound TVs, a foot deep. It was here that he met Meghan, at a house party for her 19th birthday, and then continued his courtship in their health promotion class. His future wife knew nothing about football. She didn't even know he played.
"She didn't know Kurt Warner!" Johnson says.
"I know Pop Warner," Meghan jokes as her husband doubles over.
Three years after they met, the Cardinals would draft him in the third round. He would score so many touchdowns and break so many records in his rookie season that the comparisons would start shifting, from a faster Matt Forte to the next Barry Sanders to his generation's Marshall Faulk.
"Runningwise, he's a mix of all the greats," says Goodwin, the names of legendary runners spilling from his mouth: Adrian Peterson (for his power), Gale Sayers (grace), Sanders (elusiveness), Faulk (versatility)....
An ascent like Johnson's, from that cramped apartment to the precipice of top-shelf NFL stardom, "just doesn't happen anymore," says Palmer. But what's important about Johnson's story isn't the improbability of his rise—it's how that improbability shaped him, turning him into a versatile hybrid with an unusual combination of talents, a remarkably effective amalgam of receiver skills and running back size. Evidence? Johnson was Pro Football Focus's top-graded wideout in the 2016 regular season, even though he's not technically a receiver. He was also named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press in a new category for hybrid players ("flex") that fits him like a tailored suit. "I wouldn't trade him for anybody," says Keim. By this he means any player, at any position, in the entire league.
Jan. 1: Johnson was carted off the field in Los Angeles, and once he made it back into the locker room, he only wanted to call his wife. "She wouldn't listen to anybody besides me," he says. "She thinks [team officials] will try to sugarcoat it."
Meghan had seen how Cardinals officials reacted on their sideline. Her mind raced as she waited for his phone call, frantically sending text messages. When Johnson finally reached Meghan, he told her, "Everything's fine," and at first she didn't believe him. But it was true.
Jan. 2: An MRI confirmed the best-case scenario, revealing nothing more than an MCL sprain. The injury that appeared potentially career-ending didn't even require surgery. "I told you David Johnson is not normal," nosetackle Xavier Williams would later say of his college and pro teammate.
"David Johnson is a mutant."
Before anyone ever compared Johnson to a famous running back or to some member of the X-Men, he was known on the dodgeball court as Glue Hands. He played on a traveling team while growing up in Clinton, a small city of about 26,000 located on Iowa's eastern edge. Johnson had just showed up at the gym one day, marched over to the dodgeball coach, Nancy Witt, and asked to join a high school students' game.
First Witt explained her rules to him: They played dodgeball as God intended, which meant head shots were O.K., but crying most definitely was not. Johnson shrugged, showing no fear.
"He had moves like you wouldn't believe," says Witt. "Spidey-like senses. I saw him Odell-Beckham it so many times. They could not hit him. It was like trying to hold water in your hand." Johnson was in the fourth grade.
As he dodged, ducked, dipped and dived, he could forget about the worst parts of his childhood—the bully who stalked him throughout his neighborhood, the father who'd abandoned him, the single mother who struggled to raise her six children. Regina Johnson worked at various fast food restaurants around town, moving her family numerous times, sometimes for brief spells in cheap motels. She hadn't planned to have six kids; she'd been trying for her fourth when she gave birth to triplets. The middle one she named David.
Amid the tumult, Johnson did manage to find peace throughout his childhood. He spent summers working, detasseling corn in giant fields, buying homemade ice cream, cracking jokes about how his little town, with its processing plant, sometimes smelled like dog food. But to anyone who saw the bigger picture, Johnson resembled a duck swimming in a pond: For all the calm he projected, he was churning furiously below the surface. When David was in grade school, Regina was jailed for driving under the influence, so he moved in with an older sister until his mom was released. She quit drinking after that, Johnson says, but money was always tight. He needed an escape route.
He found it on the football field, where he liked to please his coaches and lose himself in contact. He was obstinate in just one respect: He only wanted to play running back like his idol, Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith.
Johnson made varsity as a sophomore at Clinton High, power-cleaned 315 pounds as a junior and scored 42 times as a senior. In basketball he harassed seven-footers, dunked on taller players (he's 6' 1") and held his own against future NBA guard Marcus Paige, who played at Linn-Mar High.
And yet Johnson's myriad athletic gifts—the very traits that made him special—made it difficult for recruiters to see him as a running back. Every prospective school, it seemed, fixated on what he could become. Some saw him as a defensive back, others as a linebacker. Iowa told him, "You shouldn't get your hopes up" about walking on. Iowa State sent a letter. It was addressed to David Jacobson.
Jan. 3–12: Johnson woke up early most mornings and drove to the Cardinals' facility to rehab. He wore a brace on his left knee and strapped on a NormaTec recovery device to reduce soreness and boost circulation.
Meghan was due at the end of the month, so he declined his invitation to the Pro Bowl, feeling like Charlie passing up a trip to the Chocolate Factory. The Johnsons instead made plans to accommodate for David's injury when his wife gave birth: They moved a couch next to her hospital bed so he could prop his leg up, created space for the recovery machine and concocted a new exercise program so he could rehab in the cramped space. The only thing they hadn't decided on was the boy's name. They knew they wanted to keep it simple. But for this stretch, nothing came easy.
Meghan suffered through numerous pregnancy complications, including preeclampsia, a potentially serious blood-pressure disorder found in roughly 5% of U.S. women. By early January her feet were so swollen that they no longer fit in her shoes. David spent nights researching her symptoms on the Internet, and the worst case-scenarios (death, amputation) filled him with dread. He suddenly knew the anxiety Arians had experienced when Johnson wrenched his knee, only magnified many times over
At Northern Iowa, it would have been hard to see a future NFL star in a young man who spent his summers removing asbestos and working as a handyman. Johnson calls the first gig "the worst job I've ever had." On his first day, he watched a safety video that warned workers they might get cancer from the chemicals they handled. Still, he showed up every morning, donned a hazmat suit and mask, grabbed a scraper and waded into poorly ventilated, un-air-conditioned homes for $14 an hour. The heat inside those suits often topped 110° as he loaded up bucket after bucket with as much as 200 pounds of black sludge. Despite a diet that consisted almost entirely of Totino's pizza rolls and microwaved Hot Pockets, Johnson says he actually lost weight. (He laughs now at learning that many of his NFL teammates played for major programs that provided summer stipends.)
Another summer, Johnson earned $9 per hour cleaning campus toilets, installing blinds, repairing stoves and unclogging shower drains. That gig, he says, ever positive, was "the coolest."
Northern Iowa's coaches, meanwhile, didn't quite know what to make of the kid. They'd recruited Johnson as an athlete, and so they tried him at safety ("intercept another pass," offensive coordinator Bill Salmon warned at one practice, "and you'll never play offense again"), moved him to receiver and then toggled him between wideout and running back.
In the shuffle, Johnson—still a full-time running back at heart—learned how to run receiver routes, fool cornerbacks with feints and make precise cuts. Under strength coach Jed Smith, he improved his max squat from 470 pounds to 670, his snatch from 225 to 325 and his bench press from 275 to 435.
The receiver reps, plus the uptick in muscle mass, allowed Johnson to grow into his preferred position, like a point guard who sprouts eight inches and retains savage handles. Over the next four years he set UNI records for rushing yards (4,687), all-purpose yards (6,859) and touchdowns (64). He amassed 203 receiving yards against Iowa, the team that told him not to get his hopes up, and scored four times against Iowa State, the team that misspelled his name. Williams calls this "David doing David stuff."
As the draft approached, Johnson took a picture of one NFL.com scouting report and read it multiple times every day: "Lacks the short-area quickness to be consistently effective.... Isn't a classic finisher...." When he arrived at the Senior Bowl, he encountered a Jaguars scout who couldn't find his name. "Do you play linebacker?" the scout asked. Johnson sighed. He still had more to prove.
Jan. 12: The Johnsons limped and waddled to their white Chevy Tahoe and drove to the movies. They bought tickets to the animated Disney movie Moana, settling into the theater to watch "an adventurous teenager sail out on a daring mission," according to one synopsis. ("Don't judge me," Johnson will say later.)
As the credits rolled, Meghan stood up and her drink slipped from her hands, crashing to the floor, lemonade spilling everywhere. Her ankles were so swollen they wouldn't bend. Her feet looked like balloons. She couldn't walk. So Johnson followed the couple's midwife's instructions for a situation like this: He scooped up Meghan, hobbled to the car, drove her home, cranked up the temperature on their pool to 95° and tossed his wife into the water. He jumped in, too, and they remained there for two hours, waiting for the swelling to subside, floating on rubber noodles. It was crazy, they kept saying, how they'd gotten there, all they'd gone through, what was next.
In that moment, Johnson says he related to Moana, the eponymous Disney heroine. She had found her identity, as he had found his: elite NFL running back, slayer of defenses, breaker of tackles, doubted by none ... and, soon, dad.
Cardinals executives drooled when Ameer Abdullah dropped into the second round in the 2015 draft—that is, until the Lions snagged the Nebraska running back one pick before Arizona went on the clock. Instead, the Cardinals traded their pick and defaulted to selecting Johnson in the third.
Keim says he first knew he'd stumbled onto greatness when, a few months later in training camp, he saw Johnson take a toss sweep and accelerate into open space as if powered by twin jet engines. A 224-pound human isn't supposed to move like that, Keim thought. Johnson actually tweaked his left hamstring on that play, but even as Keim's new back lay on the field, he turned to the nearest scout and mouthed one word: Wow.
Not everyone was that impressed. Palmer, the QB, found Johnson too nonchalant at practice; at one point early on he even pleaded, "Man, are you in this?" It was that same remoteness, Palmer would learn, that had fooled scouts into thinking Johnson didn't run with enough fury. Arizona's gain.
If Johnson had found in Meghan his perfect match at home, he'd now found his football equivalent in Arians, his new coach. Whereas others noted Johnson's limitations—he was not seen as a smooth downhill runner, for example—Arians saw the promise of a versatile centerpiece to the league's most imaginative offense. The great backs Arians had previously worked with, from Edgerrin James to Chris Johnson, had been best used in certain types of plays. David Johnson, he found out, could execute all of them. And whereas many NFL teams were platooning at the running back position, Arians, as is his custom, turned the other way.
Healed from that early hamstring injury, Johnson scored on his very first regular-season offensive touch, turning a short pass in the 2015 season opener into a 55-yard score against the Saints. The next week, at Chicago, he returned the opening kickoff 108 yards and added a rushing score in the third quarter. The Pro Football Hall of Fame called afterward. They wanted his cleats.
En route to an NFC championship game appearance, Johnson became only the fourth rookie in NFL history to surpass 500 yards rushing, 400 receiving and 500 in kickoff returns, and to score at least 13 TDs—but still he continued to refine, learn, borrow. He watched tape of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and exhibited more patience; he amped up his physicality and started knocking linebackers flat; he continued to refine his receiver skills.
The Cardinals regressed in 2016—chalk up their 7-8-1 record to injuries that felled three O-linemen, plus, according to Arians and Keim, a sense of "complacency" across the team—but still Johnson finished with an NFL-best 2,118 yards from scrimmage, 124 more than the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and 234 more than Bell.
Stump Mitchell, Johnson's position coach last season (now in the same role with the Jets), says that "his best seasons are yet to come."
"Listen," he continues, "it's not far-fetched to think that David can be the best running back there is—or ever has been."
Jan. 13: After the injury and the rehab and the pregnant pool party, the Johnsons drove to the nearest hospital on a Friday afternoon. Labor lasted for almost 24 hours.
Jan. 14: At 11:29 a.m., doctors let the running back with the receiver's résumé catch his son upon delivery. Johnson had never been so nervous as he was when he told himself, Do not fumble this one.
After delivering a five-pound, eight-ounce baby boy into David's waiting hands, Meghan became light-headed and nearly fainted, so doctors placed her on bed rest. They worried the boy might have jaundice. Johnson then spent the next three days limping down the hospital's hallway every three hours to feed his son, whom they named David Johnson Jr. Don't mess this up, he told himself.
The Johnsons are relaxing at home now, passing another overheated Arizona afternoon indoors. The boy known as D.J. to his parents is laughing and drooling and wiggling and admiring his reflection in the mirror. He sleeps these days in a bassinet that Palmer provided, and he can almost turn over on his side. He's teething, chewing on baby dumbbells, stuffed monkeys, books. He's already flown at least 10 times; he sat courtside at the NCAA basketball title game in Phoenix, watched the sunrise in Hawaii and attended Super Bowl week in Houston.
"World's strongest baby," Johnson says, pushing the dumbbell toward his son.
Meghan, meanwhile, would love if D.J. didn't follow his father's lead into football. "It would be nice if he did something a little less dangerous," she says, wistfully. "Maybe violin?"
She sees the real David Johnson after he wins fantasy games for owners who couldn't care less about his long-term health. She knows what others might doubt: Even mutants feel pain.
Johnson isn't worried, though. When Arians said in March that he plans to find his running back 30 touches a game this season, Johnson welcomed it. With a workload like that, and last year's averages, he would shatter the yards-from-scrimmage record (2,509) set by the Titans' Chris Johnson in 2009. And what of the Curse of 370, the idea that production usually plummets the year after reaching that number of carries? "He's not [just] running the ball 30 times," Arians scoffs, drawing a distinction between handoffs and catches out of the backfield, which typically end with less impactful tackles by smaller players. "Some people," says Arians, "don't know what the hell they're talking about."
Johnson cut fast food from his diet this offseason and added daily yoga to improve his flexibility, muscle symmetry and balance. He's even more mutated—but don't call him the future of the position. "Very few humans possess his background or his physical skill set," says Keim, noting that his team's most important offseason move was, well, getting Johnson back at full health.
Occasionally the GM will find himself searching for a weakness or a vice in his young back. So far, he's found that Johnson is terrible at golf and can barely make contact with a batting practice fastball. But that's about it. The only time on record that Johnson has found himself in trouble came this spring when he posted an Instagram video of his rehab from inside the Cardinals' facility, a violation of team rules. That move earned him a rare Arians rebuke. But team officials couldn't have been too upset—in the video, Johnson jumps out of a team pool from a standing position, only weeks removed from his injury against the Rams.
It was clear then that those crazy Two Weeks in January had mercifully concluded. And Johnson could focus on his growth at the two jobs that now define him: 1) father; 2) running back.