Redskins quarterback Josh Johnson should hate football by now. He should despise the NFL and a game that seems to reward mediocre quarterbacks simply because they played at some big-name college or were once high draft picks, forever slamming the door on a man from Oakland and a small university who never seemed to be the right fit at the right place at the right time.
How many flights did he take for workouts that went nowhere? How many playbooks did he turn in at the end of yet another promising training camp as some coach told him the team was going in another direction? How many times did he go home, unpack another broken chance and watch his cousins Marshawn Lynch and Marcus Peters become big stars?
Angry? Bitter? At 32 years old, after 10 years with 12 teams and nothing but a string of zeros on his statistics page between his last NFL pass in December 2011 and his next in December 2018, Johnson would have every right to be upset. But instead, the player who has come from nowhere to be asked to save the Redskins’ season leans back on a leather couch and shakes his head. He closes his eyes and smiles. No, he says softly, he has no bitterness at all.
“We have enough negativity in this world, trust me, we do,” he says. “What I see is people need it as an excuse to let it take over their life. But then at the end of the day you walk about miserable. You walk around not happy; you’re not enjoying this one life that you have.”
It is impossible to leave a conversation with Josh Johnson and feel anything but inspired. He walks around a team that was going nowhere before he arrived two weeks ago, talking about “hope” and “opportunity” and “chance.” The Redskins almost certainly need to win Saturday at Tennessee to have a chance at the playoffs, and he acts as if doing the seemingly impossible is not only realistic but something they all should expect.
This from a player whose first career NFL victory as a starter finally came last week in Jacksonville, and only because late in the game he heaved a pass on third and 15 to wide receiver Jamison Crowder that Crowder miraculously tipped in the air and caught and the Redskins came back to win a game they seemed destined to lose. Later, he would describe that play in nine words that sum up everything the team is about right now: “What do we really have to lose, you know?”
So now Jay Gruden has thrown the Redskins' season and maybe his future as the team’s coach into Johnson’s hands because there is no one else and, as with that pass to Crowder, what does he really have to lose?
There always have been explanations for why Johnson keeps getting released. Gruden, who was an assistant on brother Jon’s Tampa Bay staff when the Buccaneers drafted and eventually played Johnson for a few games there, describes how the young Johnson would sometimes throw a perfect 80-yard pass and then bounce the next one into the ground: “He will drive you crazy that way,” Gruden says with a chuckle.
But that was years ago. All Johnson remembers about Gruden then, and later when they were together with Cincinnati, are the good things: the advice, the coaching, the way he got better. And so, given the opportunity he has waited a lifetime to have, Johnson doesn’t want to simmer over the broken chances, the disappointments, the unfairness of it all.
“I’m not the only guy it’s happened to,” he says of the long list of players released by NFL teams. “What most people don’t realize is the NFL Network and ESPN, they only show you the life of 10 percent of the roster. The top guys. What I fall victim to is what the real NFL is all about — the guys who get caught in the shuffle, [the] practice squad; some guys get signed today, get cut tomorrow. So, I mean, you get frustrated, but I really don’t look at it as I get mad. … I took it all as an opportunity to learn.”
“That game [last Sunday] was a pure reflection of everything that I’ve been experiencing,” Johnson says. “It was an up-and-down game, a little bit of stuff that you don’t anticipate happening [actually] happening. The play to Crowder … who knows how that happened, but it happened. But that’s life. If I don’t make that throw because I’m scared, then what happens? We might have gone three-and-out and we lost the game.”
When Johnson was thrown into his first game, just four days after getting off the plane from Oakland, the Redskins were in the middle of a disaster. It was the third quarter of a game Washington was losing 40-0 to the New York Giants. Their fans had already booed them off the field at halftime, and at least one gave them the middle finger. Their first two quarterbacks had both broken legs in the previous month, and their third quarterback — Mark Sanchez — couldn’t play behind an offensive line ruined by injuries. They were about to lose their fourth game in a row. It seemed their season was done.
But even though he didn’t know the names of all the plays, Johnson led the Redskins to two touchdowns capped with two-point conversions. It wasn’t much, but it was something when they had nothing. And when he kept talking about hope and opportunity and not giving up, just as many of the men in the locker room seemed to be asking if there was anything left to play for? Well, his words started to stick.
Then, when he threw his body across the field in Jacksonville on Sunday, diving for first downs, lunging to make positive yards from a sack?
“Yeah, we see it, and we definitely feed off of it,” cornerback Josh Norman says.
“It does matter,” adds linebacker Mason Foster. “It matters when you see one of your teammates fighting for every snap no matter what the score is, what the situation is.”
The Redskins players don’t just seem to like Josh Johnson, they seem to believe in him.
“It’s effort, man,” Norman says. “It’s him working to press forward in the face of his struggles and what it takes to get going when you fall.”
If their new quarterback can keep trying after everything that has happened to him, why shouldn’t his teammates try just as hard themselves? As with the pass to Crowder on Sunday, what do they have to lose?
“When you get a guy like that who cares to take advantage of every opportunity he gets, [he] gets a lot of respect for the way he carries himself and handles himself in that situation,” Foster says.
It is a reflection of where Johnson is from. When asked for people to interview for this story, Johnson laughed. “My people don’t talk to people like you,” he said, referring to the media. In Oakland there is a code that no one — no matter how successful — is bigger than the place.
“A lot of people here don’t really know Josh because he’s never flamboyant or flashy,” says one of Johnson’s few acquaintances to answer the phone — a Bay Area celebrity chef named Edward Wooley, who is known around Oakland as “Chef Smelly.” “Some of the guys who become big stars here will drive Rolls Royces or big cars. He’s not like that; he’s not flashy.”
What quickly becomes obvious is Johnson has the unusual ability to relate to anyone. There’s a reason he takes a lead role in running the Fam1st Family Foundation with Lynch and Peters, as well as Lynch’s Beast Mode clothing line. It isn’t just because, until two weeks ago, he has had the most free time. There is a purpose to everything he does, every movement. Even his strolls through the locker room are businesslike.
“I’ve never seen him quiver,” says another of his good friends, Michael Holmes, a D.C. resident who runs a basketball program called MD Dream Chasers — which Johnson helps fund — designed to help third-, fifth- and sixth-grade kids from the District and inner-city Maryland.
Johnson says much of this comes from his mother, Rosemary Whisenton, who has worked at his old high school, Oakland Tech, for four decades. “She’s hands-on, the one doing everything,” he says. But, he adds, while being from Oakland has also helped him build empathy for people, his real transformation came when he went to the University of San Diego, a small, expensive private school where the football coach at the time just happened to be Jim Harbaugh. For the first time he was exposed “to a whole different demographic.”
“When I got to USD, it was culture shock for me,” he says. “But now some of my best friends are from that school, because they embraced my culture and I embraced theirs. And to me that’s what life is about, it’s about understanding instead of judging.”
Of all the cuts, Oakland’s hurt the worst. Johnson was thrilled when his hometown Raiders called last spring, signing him to a contract. Jon Gruden, the man who drafted him so many years ago, had just been named the Raiders' coach. The team’s facility was a short drive from his home. He could back up starter Derek Carr and play every day with his cousin, Lynch.
Then, two months later, the Raiders cut him. It came out of the blue. They didn’t even let him get to training camp. Just told him he was gone.
“But you got to get up,” he says. “Everybody gets punched in the gut. … When I’m home, that’s the reality. I see people every day who get punched in the gut. I see some who overcome that, and I see a lot more that give up. But it’s like, ‘What am I going to give up for?' Because [getting punched in the gut] is what life’s about. Every career is about people trying their hardest. Some aren’t trying their hardest, but the people that really want it?
“I like to say the cream of the crop always rises to the top.”
In the end, the Raiders release and the fact that — aside from a quick, unmemorable workout for the Seattle Seahawks — no NFL team called for months turned out to be a blessing. If he had stayed with the Raiders, the Redskins wouldn’t have called. And if the Redskins hadn’t called, he wouldn’t be here.
“People develop at different times,” Holmes says. “I think this is just his time.”
Told this, Johnson nods.
“Yeah,” he says, “but what’s meant for you will be fulfilled. I’m a believer in that. It took me a long time to really understand that, but what’s meant for you, you will have. You just have to do your part.”
Johnson was playing in a charity basketball tournament on a team sponsored by Chef Smelly the day before Colt McCoy broke his leg and the Redskins called him to be Sanchez’s emergency backup. Four games. Full court. Twenty-minute halves. His team won the whole thing. “He was the MVP of the championship game,” Chef Smelly says, and the game’s highlight came when Johnson grabbed the ball off the rim and dunked it.
At the time, he was just Josh Johnson, the quarterback unwanted by the NFL. Even the Redskins had signed Sanchez over him two weeks before, flying him out for a workout only to send him right back home. He had signed to play for the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football, a new league that starts in February. He figured it might be his only opportunity to play football again.
“But opportunities never stop,” he says.
And just when he imagined one would never come, it did. And now the Redskins are asking him to do the impossible and save their season. He’s only waited his whole life for that.
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