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Training Camp Story of the Day

D'Ernest Johnson's path to the NFL included time spent out to sea

It's a common thread seemingly lost to the passing of time in professional football.

There are countless tales of players in the nascent NFL spending their offseasons selling insurance, working on construction sites or driving taxis. Doug Dieken, who played for the Browns from 1971-1984, was a substitute teacher during the offseason that followed his second professional campaign. Hall of Famer and Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer was involved in multiple offseason business ventures, including investing in an archery company.

But none of the tales you've likely heard are quite like that of Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson.

Johnson played college football in Tampa at the University of South Florida, rushing 421 times for 1,796 yards and 16 touchdowns over four seasons. That performance was enough to earn him a spot in New Orleans Saints rookie minicamp in 2018, but he failed to make the team.

Without any nibbles from other NFL teams, Johnson had to get a real-world job. He found one on a fishing boat.

"I have a friend of mine, he's a private fisherman," Johnson explained Wednesday. ... "He said 'come down here to the Key West and I can help you out with some money and fishing and stuff.'"

Johnson worked on the private fishing boat for a month and a half, trolling for mahi-mahi, also known as dolphin fish. While out to sea, he kept an eye out for birds, which he said would lead them to fish.

"We were chasing the birds, really," Johnson said. "That's what we were doing. So we'd go out deep out there and look for birds. I didn't even know birds be out that far."

In between attempting to reel in fish as long as Johnson's arms are wide, he also had plenty of time to daydream about a career in the NFL.

"Every time I'm on the fishing boat, I'm like 'dang, man, I miss football,'" Johnson recalled. "I had to do something just to make some money, you know?"

It wasn't until after Johnson's time as a fisherman came to an end, while he was working at Youfit Health Club in Gainesville, Florida, that he saw a sliver of an opportunity to resume his professional football career. It was a flock of birds circling what became known as the Alliance of American Football, and Johnson wanted in.

First, though, he had to chase them.

"I was actually calling the (AAF) people during December," Johnson explained. "I had a couple guys on my college team that were playing. I was calling the GM every day, just 'hey, do you guys have any openings? How many running backs do you have? Do you need any running backs?' ... Then they ended up cutting two running backs and called my phone the day before camp and I had to go up there and compete."

Johnson signed with the Orlando Apollos, a team coached by Steve Spurrier, and rushed 64 times for 372 yards and two touchdowns in eight games (six starts). Led by quarterback Garrett Gilbert, Orlando raced out to a league-best 7-1 mark, outscoring every other team by at least 50 total points through eight weeks and owning the AAF's best differential at +100 points.

The Apollos were the only team to clinch at least a share of the regular season's best record when the AAF abruptly ceased operations April 2.

Johnson was again without a job.

This time, though, he wouldn't have to venture out to sea. He'd instead have to return to Gainesville, then venture by plane to Green Bay and New England to work out for the Packers and Patriots. He'd also spot a flock circling Berea, completing a tryout during Browns voluntary minicamp, but none of the three opportunities produced a catch.

Johnson returned to Gainesville and trained with Tim Montgomery, who worked him harder than ever with a chance to play in the NFL closer than ever.

"I was just telling him man, 'we gotta go, man, we just gotta work,'" Johnson recalled. "He's killing me every day, I'm out there throwing up every day, just trying to get the best out of me. That's what I've been doing and it made me be prepared for this moment right here."

"This moment" is the one that changed everything for Johnson. Two weeks after Johnson's minicamp tryout, Browns running back L.J. Scott decided he no longer wanted to pursue football, opening up a roster spot in Cleveland. The Browns called Johnson, and he again ventured by air to Berea for a job he's held longer than any other in professional football.

Upon arrival, Johnson found himself buried behind Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Duke Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard, but nonetheless worked each day to improve. Then, Hunt missed two weeks of practice with a groin injury, Duke Johnson was traded to Houston, and Hilliard was knocked out of action during joint practices in Indianapolis. Johnson, meanwhile, has been available throughout and has seen an increase in reps as a result, culminating in his preseason Week 2 performance against the Indianapolis Colts.

With the starters sitting and Hunt on a limited snap count, Johnson took over the reins and handled them well, rushing 10 times for 53 yards. He was quick through the hole and looked very much like an NFL-caliber running back, catching the eye of the casual observer who hadn't heard of him prior.

He also found the end zone.

Perhaps it was fitting that it was his old AAF quarterback, Gilbert, who threw him the touchdown pass.

"I felt like (the AAF) was a great opportunity for players like myself who have been out of football for a long time and just want to be able to put on good film for NFL teams so you can get back to the NFL because that's where you gotta go to get back to the NFL," Johnson said Wednesday. "Like I said, it's a better opportunity to play the game that you love. I felt like the league was pretty great for players like me and other guys like Garrett."

Johnson's escape from football obscurity to his current position with the Browns is credited to his indefatigable belief in himself and his determination to succeed. And with Hunt headed for an eight-game suspension, Cleveland might very well be convinced to keep Johnson when it trims its roster down to 53 about a week from now.

"He's got a great opportunity in front of him," head coach Freddie Kitchens said. "These next four days and two games. You know, you don't ever know where they're gonna come from. You never know who's gonna show up. ... We've got several guys like that. Some of them get advertised and some of them don't, but you never know."

Kitchens also didn't know of Johnson's past spent on the ocean.

"I talked to him a bit and never thought to ask him, 'hey, you ever work on a fishing boat?'" Kitchens joked Wednesday.

Should he take advantage of the next week or so ahead, Johnson might not ever have to consider a life at sea again.

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