D'Ernest Johnson's story of his improbable path to the NFL continues to gain more and more national recognition.
Johnson, a three-year veteran who carved his path to the pros after he was a mahi mahi fisherman in the Florida Keys, shared his story of perseverance and dedication Friday on NBC's "Today" show with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager. He was invited to discuss what drove him toward never giving up on his NFL dream and what it was like to enjoy his best season as a running back with the Browns in 2021.
"It just takes a lot of hard work and not giving up at all," Johnson said with a smile. "You've got to dream and you've got to chase it no matter what. No matter how many doors are closed, you just have to keep going and keep fighting every day."
Johnson's season was one of the best stories to emerge from the Browns in 2021 after he rushed for a career-high 534 yards and three touchdowns, including a season-high 146 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL start in Week 7 against the Broncos. Johnson waited patiently with the Browns for three years to earn the start after beating the odds and overcoming his status as an undrafted player to stay in the league.
"Slow grind" has been the phrase Johnson has coined to describe his journey, and it couldn't be more fitting after he became a fisherman following his college career at South Florida. Despite leaving the school in 2017 as its all-time leader in all-purpose yards, Johnson couldn't latch on with an NFL squad for the 2018 season.
Johnson instead turned to fishing for his paychecks, but he still had football in the back of his mind. He caught his first break by spamming the direct messages of all teams in the Alliance of American Football league for a tryout and landed with the Orlando Apollos, where he became one of the league's top performers in its first and only season. The league folded in 2019, but Johnson's production, which included 592 total yards and three touchdowns, renewed interest from NFL teams.
After a few tryouts around the league, Johnson secured a spot as a backup running back for the Browns for the 2019 season. His work as a special teams returner and reliable rusher helped him stick on the roster for the last three seasons, and his work in 2021 should make Johnson, who's currently set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, a lock to be on an NFL roster next season.
"It was definitely worth the wait," he said with a laugh. "I wouldn't change this journey for anything in the world."
Johnson was filled with emotion after the broadcast crew surprised him with a video compilation of players at Immokalee High School, where Johnson played, voicing their inspiration of his career path. He chuckled and wiped a tear from his eye when the video was over, clearly taken back by how many people he's motivated.
"You're going to make me tear up," he said. "It's just great being able to show them you can do whatever you want to do in life. No matter the hard work you have to do, just keep going. It just feels so great to be a motivator."