BEREA, Ohio — Apparently not a day has gone by that D’Ernest Johnson hasn’t harassed Tim Ruskell, who had just taken over as manager of the Orlando Apollos of the new Alliance of American Football league.
“I know he was sick of me calling him,” Johnson said. “They already had all their running backs. But I always called. Every day, ‘Has anything changed? Do you need a running back? The same thing.”
Johnson had just spent the previous weeks in 2018 making a living catching mahi-mahi off Key West, Florida, both selling the fish and taking tourists on fishing trips.
Despite a stellar college career in South Florida, Johnson had gone undrafted and later unsigned by the NFL, in part because of a rather slow 4.81-second 40-yard time.
Johnson, however, was not ready to give up on football, even though it looked like football had abandoned him. Unable to get his own agent to call him back, Johnson began messaging the social media accounts of AAF teams, including the Apollos.
Then, through a college teammate who had been invited to play for the Apollos, Johnson got Ruskell’s phone number. Ruskell, who had been general manager of the Seattle Seahawks from 2005 to 2009, was already inundated with calls and messages from players looking for one last shot. But, as Ruskell says, Johnson’s persistence in asking for a trial “was on another level.”
“That perseverance definitely earned him the training,” Ruskell recalled. “I said, ‘This guy wants this too badly – we have to do something.'”
That perseverance carried Johnson until last Thursday night.
My favorite D’Ernest story.
He DMed all AAF teams in 2018 asking for a tryout. Part of the Orlando team. Then jumped.
Kid worked his ass off. He deserved this.
(Of course, I saved the screenshot.) pic.twitter.com/015PmctLcc
— Courtney Kramer (@CourtKramer39) October 22, 2021
With star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt missing from the Cleveland Browns with calf injuries, Johnson rushed for 146 yards on his first career NFL start, powering the battered Browns to a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos in Cleveland.
Johnson scored a touchdown on the first practice. Then, at the end of the fourth quarter, he finished the Broncos with a decisive first play, breaking the tackle, third and long.
“For me, D’Ernest Johnson is a warrior and a great teammate,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski, who handed the ball to Johnson as he was harassed by teammates in the post-season locker room. match. “What he went through in his career and then going to have a night like this and end it the way he did. … I thought it was just exceptional.
For Johnson, all night always seems surreal. His childhood idol was LeBron James. During his post-match interview, Johnson had yet to realize that James had tweeted about her. He was speechless — “Lebron?” James Lebron?” he kept repeating. Now he plans to blow up a copy of the tweet to get it framed.
“That night I was just in shock,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. because of the adrenaline rush. “Like, did this all really happen?”
Johnson’s disbelief is understandable.
“I’m so proud of you guys for fighting…for 60 minutes”
🗣 Kevin Stefanski pic.twitter.com/ilb1RqeNKe
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 22, 2021
After leaving the fishing boat in August 2018, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and got a job as a personal trainer, so he could work out at the same gym next door. While Johnson and his girlfriend were messaging AAF team accounts, his mother was emailing random people connected to Canadian Football League teams.
When Johnson arrived at Apollos training camp in January, he was the fifth-string running back. But his tenacity, versatility and hands quickly caught the eye of head coach Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida Gators coach. During one of the first practices, Spurrier summoned Johnson.
“He was like, ‘What’s your name?’ He didn’t know my name or anything,” Johnson said. “I told him and he said, ‘OK, I’ll call you Ernie – good job, Ernie.’”
Johnson made the Apollos their third running back, but eventually became one of the best players in the league.
“He may not have run a good 40, but his gust was as good as anyone,” Ruskell said. “And every time he got called, whether it was in training or any part of the game, he did something. He just stood out.”
The AAF would close eight weeks into the season. But Johnson had enough tape for his new agent, Aston Wilson, to give him another look at the NFL and, ultimately, Cleveland, who he signed as a free agent in 2019.
Johnson now has a motto he lives by which he calls the “slow grind”. Nothing is easy and nothing is fast. The fishing boat. Calls to Ruskell. The past two-plus seasons have supported Chubb and Hunt, led special teams and clinging to that tenuous spot on the roster.
Before the Denver game, Johnson contemplated this story and even watched his mini-documentary. And he knew his slowness would come full circle. Perseverance was about to pay off.
“To see how far I’ve come and to find out what it took,” Johnson said. “The slow grind, you have to trust the process no matter what you’re going through. … and believe in yourself.