D'Ernest Johnson walked into the postgame interview room with a sweatshirt and a smile.
The sweatshirt said "Trust the Process." The smile came as a result of Johnson living up to that phrase Thursday night for three hours at FirstEnergy Stadium, and the grin didn't go away as Johnson recalled all the details that went into the biggest football performance of his career.
In his first NFL start — a label that took three years in the league for him to accomplish — Johnson rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown to propel an injury-riddled Browns offense to a 17-14 win over the Broncos on Thursday Night Football. The Browns needed Johnson to start after Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were both ruled out with calf injuries, and Johnson turned in a performance that didn't look much different than his two Pro Bowl predecessors.
"You've got to trust the process," Johnson said. "No matter what you're doing, you just have to believe in yourself and trust in God."
Johnson's process was one of improbability.
Part of it was spent on a fishing boat. That's where he was in 2018, when he left South Florida as the program's all-time leader in all-purpose yards. No NFL teams were interested in bringing him on their roster after his college days were over, though, and after one stint with the Saints in minicamp, he became a fisherman catching mahi-mahi off the shores of Key West, Florida.
Johnson didn't return to football until 2019 for the Alliance of American Football after he cracked a spot on a roster for the Orlando Apollos. The now-defunct league didn't even last one season, but it was enough time for Johnson to finish second of all players in rushing yards and scrimmage yards. His performance re-opened the NFL door, and after several tryouts with other NFL teams, Johnson latched onto the Browns' final roster in 2019.
Which led him to Thursday. Two more seasons of patience were needed from Johnson, who primarily played as a special teams player but always did enough to warrant a roster spot in every game since he made the team. The Browns learned a few days before their Week 7 game against the Broncos that Chubb and Hunt would be out with calf injuries, which thrusted Johnson into the starting RB role.
The Browns were confident in him as soon as the announcement was made.
"I have a ton of faith in D'Ernest," head coach Kevin Stefanski said Tuesday. "When he puts his foot in the ground, he can really accelerate."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Broncos in week seven
Johnson proved his coach right on the first of his 22 carries. He sprinted past the Broncos defense, which ranked fourth in the NFL against the run, on his first touch for a 20-yard gain, his longest run of the night. He plowed through defenders again on his next two carries for 14 yards and a touchdown, his first NFL score and one that gave the Browns an early lead.
After he crossed the goal line, Johnson howled with the full-house crowd of Browns fans and was swarmed by his teammates.
"I wanted to celebrate, but I didn't even know what to do," Johnson said with a laugh. "I just yelled because it's been a long journey. To get your first start, get 100 yards and get a touchdown? That ain't nothing but God, man."
Johnson's engine was fully ignited the rest of the night, and his performance mirrored that of the best games from Chubb and Hunt — with broken tackles and an impressive ability to fall forward. Those skills helped Johnson become the third Browns running back to eclipse 100 scrimmage yards this season.
No other team has three runners who have achieved that mark, and five other teams don't even have one running back who has accomplished the single-game feat.
Johnson made all of those yards count, too, and the most important of them all was arguably on his final play. With just over a minute left, Johnson sealed the game on third-and-7 with a 9-yard run where he broke through several tacklers to reach the first-down marker. He was again swarmed by teammates once he was brought down.
"I can single out a bunch of guys, but D'Ernest Johnson to me is just a warrior," Stefanski said. "Great teammate. What he's fought through in his career, and then to go have a night like that and end it how he did on that third down, I thought that was just outstanding."
Johnson had plenty of moments worthy of personal disbelief, but no moment appeared to trigger more of that emotion than when he learned of a tweet from Lebron James.
James, an Akron native and NBA legend, tweeted about Johnson midway through his performance. When Johnson heard James had specifically sent a tweet about him, he looked down and was almost at a loss of words.
"Lebron?" Johnson asked repetitively. "Lebron? Oh, that's big time. That's… that's amazing. Lebron James? I appreciate it. That means a lot."
That was only a snippet of the dream Johnson experienced Thursday — a dream Johnson knew was never guaranteed up until the day it happened.
But throughout it all, Johnson had trust. Trust in himself to be ready if the opportunity ever came his way, and trust from his teammates that he'd be able to do the job if they ever needed him for it.
It was all part of his process, one that he always believed he could complete.
"I've never lost trust in the process," he said. "Coming from the fishing boat, I've always dreamed of playing in the NFL. I've always dreamed of being here, and just being able to be on this team is a blessing.
"It's always a dream come true just to be here. To help the team win, that's the best feeling."