The improbable story of D’Ernest Johnson’s path to the NFL expanded with a new chapter last Thursday — the third-year running back scored a touchdown and rushed for more than 100 yards in his first career start and helped the Browns secure their fourth win of the season.
Turns out, the story of how Johnson set himself up for the opportunity was even better than what was previously known.
Johnson, who became a fisherman after he didn't receive any NFL contract offers following his college career at South Florida, wouldn't have received his first professional football contract in the Alliance of American Football had it not been for spam-calling Tim Ruskell, the general manager of the Orlando Apollos. Ruskell finally gave in and picked up after several daily calls from Johnson.
Ruskell offered him a workout. Then, a contract.
"I got the GM's number from one of my college teammates," Johnson told local reporters Thursday. "I just kept calling every day. Every single day."
Johnson's short career in the now-defunct AAF led him to Cleveland in 2019, and a few more years of patience — and the same relentless pursuit to keep his football dreams alive — helped him stay on the Browns' 53-man roster and finally lead him to a start Thursday.
Now, Johnson's phone is the one being spammed. He's become one of the most discussed players around the league this week, and he hasn't taken any of the well-earned recognition for granted.
"It's been crazy," he said. "A lot of people have been DMing me and writing to me, just telling me how I'm an inspiration to them and how I motivate them to keep going and not give up when you get turned down.
"I just try to inspire everyone no matter what. Don't take the word 'no' for anything. Just keep going and keep pushing because eventually something great is going to happen."
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
Johnson will have another chance to be great Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in one of the Browns' biggest matchups so far this season.
This week, he'll hopefully be paired with Nick Chubb, the Browns' leading rusher and one of Johnson's closest friends. Chubb wasn't active in Week 7 with a calf injury, which is why Johnson was thrust into a starting role, but he's hoping to return Sunday and provide the Browns' rushing attack with another big boost. With RB Kareem Hunt still sidelined with a calf injury, Johnson is once again the next man up and could be in for another sizable workload with his best friend.
"I'm going to be cheering (Nick) on like I always do," Johnson said. "He's a great back and one of the best backs in the league. I'm going to continue following in his footsteps. When I get my opportunity, I'm just going to go out there and make the most of it."
If Johnson finds the end zone again, he has plans for a much more fitting celebration compared to what he did for his first touchdown.
After he scored last week, Johnson simply turned to the crowd in front of him and yelled with joy as teammates swarmed to his side.
"I wanted to celebrate, but I didn't know what to do," he said. "I just yelled because it's been a long journey, man."
On Thursday, Johnson smiled and chuckled when he explained what he wants to do next.
"Hopefully, I can get the team together, toss them the ball and act like I'm reeling in a fish," he said. "Hopefully I can get the guys to do that."
That shouldn't be a problem based on what his teammates have said about him. They dosed him with water in their postgame locker room celebration last week and have spoken high praise of him all week.
"I'm not surprised that he had the performance he had," WR Jarvis Landry said. "The mindset of just staying ready is something I've seen from him his whole time here. His journey is something that's inspiring to a lot of people that watch this game and make you love this game. That's part of what this game is about."
Johnson knows that the "slow grind," the phrase he's used to describe his football journey, isn't over. The Week 7 breakout performance was a tremendous piece of a story Johnson is still in the process of completing, but he knows one game will only go so far in the short-term nature of the NFL.
Looking back on how he arrived in Cleveland is always enjoyable for Johnson, but his focus following his big game is simple.
Do it again.
"I come in every day and just keep my head down and work," he said. "I try to be the best player I can be and the best teammate I can be. When my name gets called, I'll be ready for the opportunity."