David Johnson is now something of a cast expert. He’s had to be, ever since he dislocated his left wrist on Sept. 10 against the Lions in the Cardinals’ season opener. His cast—black in color, made from plaster, in danger of failing the dreaded smell test—went on the next day.
It’s still on, almost two months later, and Johnson cares for it as well as he does his soon-to-be 10-month-old, David Johnson Jr. He found a “cast cooler” online that he can use for workouts; it vacuums up his sweat. He also found a contraption that cleans the skin underneath the cast, via a cloth pad attached to a small handle; he uses that to scrape off dead skin. “I feel like it could smell worse,” Johnson says in a wide-ranging phone interview on Wednesday with The MMQB.
The cast comes off on Monday, and that’s important for Johnson, who doesn’t want 2017 to end up as a completely lost season. It’s also important for fantasy football players, whose playoffs are rapidly approaching, and of course for the Cardinals, who at 4–4 have scratched their way onto the outskirts of the NFC playoff picture. Arizona can pull even with the Seahawks should they topple them at home on Thursday night; the Rams would lead then lead both teams by 1.5 games.
Whether Johnson can figure in that playoff push remains to be seen. He says he wants to return this season regardless of the Cardinals’ record, even if they never win another game. But anyone who has placed a timetable on when such a return might be possible is, at best, guessing. As is his head coach, Bruce Arians, who told reporters he doubts Johnson would be able to come back in 2017. “Even the doctors don’t know,” Johnson says.
He won’t know anything definitively until the cast comes off. Then the doctors will assess how stiff, or atrophied, the wrist it, and they’ll design a rehabilitation plan for Johnson for the wrist specifically. Already, they’ve had to tell him to dial back his workouts in the weight room, which he started in mid-October, while unable to use the injured limb. The area of injury is particularly tricky, Johnson says, because of the close proximity of so many small bones and ligaments. He won’t have full range of motion or the full compliment of wrist strength. That’s a given. But there’s a wide range of what motion or strength he might have.
“We’ll just have to see,” Johnson says. “I’m optimistic.”
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Hopeful is not how Johnson felt in September, as he grappled with the most significant injury of his life. He had led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2016 (2,118) and scored 20 touchdowns, cementing his first Pro Bowl nod. He had suffered a nasty hit in the season finale, was bent backward and yet did not require surgery. Teammates described him as a “mutant” for how quickly he recovered.
Johnson spoke candidly about his goals for his third season: make the playoffs, win a Super Bowl and become only the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year. He said that in a Sports Illustrated cover story back in August.
Then the season started and Johnson carried 11 times for 23 yards against the Lions, caught six passes for 67 yards. He also endured one hit in the third quarter that left him out of breath. He didn’t notice any pain in his wrist as he gasped for air. But the next time he carried the ball, he says, “I felt nothing in my hand. No strength. No grip. It just felt weak.”
Johnson went for x-rays. He was surprised when doctors told him he had suffered a significant injury and would not return to the game. An MRI test the next day didn’t confirm his worst fears; his worst fears were never that bad to begin with. “I’d never heard about a wrist injury in football,” he says. “It really made me get very down on myself. I was disappointed I’d let that happen. I felt like I’d let my team down.”
That Monday night, Johnson couldn’t sleep and that’s from one of the most calm, most unflappable players in the league. He kept going over the play where he suffered the injury. What if he had run a different route? What he had run that route a different way? “I just collapsed when I found out it could be eight to 12 weeks,” he says. “I felt like I had ruined our team’s chances and ruined my chances of getting that 1,000-rushing, 1,000-receiving-yard season and that whole off-season that’s all I was talking about. I felt like maybe I had jinxed myself. I was just really down.”
Johnson says it took him a few days to move beyond what had happened and focus on his comeback. He started attending every practice the Cardinals conducted. He went to every meeting in the running backs room. He did everything he would have done otherwise, except practice.
He had never missed more than a week in any season due to injury before, both in high school and at Northern Iowa. It was an adjustment. The Cardinals released his good friend and mentor, Chris Johnson, in October. One of his idols, Adrian Peterson, came over in a trade. Johnson found AP more “normal” ‘than expected. He helped Peterson acclimate to the Cardinals offense. They talked about their kids. In two of his first three games with Arizona, Peterson gained more than 130 rushing yards, which made it seem like perhaps the Cardinals’ would slow Johnson’s rehab timetable. But that’s not how he’s looking at it. He wants to play this season, to return from major injury the way that Peterson has returned from major injuries.
Plus, Johnson knows your playoffs are approaching. “That’s what I get most, all day, from everywhere,” he says. “People say it’s unfortunate for me and for their fantasy team. Hopefully it works out now for both of us.”
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