Catching in the rain: Johnson’s NFL journey

Pete Barrows

Despite scattered obstacles and storms to brave, former Grand Valley State University wide receiver Charles Johnson still sees the sunny side as he catches on in the NFL.

  • 6:00 a.m.: Swing feet out of bed, brush teeth
  • 6:45 a.m.: Arrive at Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility 
  • 7:00 a.m.: Flush out legs in cold tub, relax muscles in hot tub
  • 7:30 a.m.: Lift early, stay late
  • 9:00 a.m.: Talk Lions and Packers and Bears (oh my) in team meetings
  • 12:00 p.m.: Split for lunch
  • 1:00 p.m.: Practice, and practice hard
  • 3:00 p.m.: Critique practice film, and critique it thoroughly
  • 6:00 p.m.: Head for home in a red Camaro, a lone splurge on an NFL paycheck split toward supporting moving expenses and family

HOME, TO A THIRD RESIDENCE in an 18-month span where daughters Hayden, Hayleigh and Hazel – ages 4, 2 and 1 – run around rampant in eager anticipation of dad’s return. Instead of a 9 to 5, former Laker wide receiver Charles Johnson works a 6 to 6. As much as Johnson enjoys the game of football, he realizes it is a job – and that it has to be if he’s to keep playing.

After playing with his girls, it’s right back to work, glancing through the playbook, jotting down nuanced mental notes on next Sunday’s opponent, visualizing breaking the goal line for the first time in his young NFL career. If there’s time, maybe a little HGTV to unwind.

Rain or shine, it’s wash-rinse-repeat tomorrow. Especially if it’s rain.

“So many people love sunshine, but can you stand the rain?” Johnson said. “Everyone loves it when it’s good, when things are going well, when you’re making your money, when you’re making your plays, when you’re healthy, when you’re eating right, but how do you react when it’s bad?”

JOHNSON BEGAN HIS FOOTBALL CAREER at Lloyd Memorial high school in Elsmere, Ky., although his career hasn’t been characterized so much by where he’s played, but rather that he’s played. No matter what.  A stint at Eastern Kentucky University ended prematurely after Johnson’s freshman roommate pilfered a laptop. Johnson – who caught three passes for 63 yards in 11 games – refused to rat, and was suspended two years as a penance.

A fresh start at Antelope Valley Community College began auspiciously. Johnson made 24 receptions for 231 yards and three touchdowns – but ended with a muffled call from pops at midnight Pacific Standard Time, 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Charles’ father, Fred Johnson, was sick with a rare disease called scleroderma, and nearly died from complications that night. Doctors gave the elder Johnson six months to live, and so his son put football – and everything else – on ice for a year to return home.

Yet somehow through it all, both father and son kept going.

Due to the NCAA’s five-year clock rule, Johnson had only one year of Division I eligibility left – two years remaining if he chose to play at Division II. A Google search for “top Division II schools in the nation” made during the hiatus merited a hit for “GVSU,” and, with a click of a mouse, Johnson’s once-promising football career resurfaced.

“I really can’t replace the experience I had at Grand Valley State,” Johnson said. “I’m glad I made the decision to come to GVSU, and that they accepted me there. All the quarterbacks, the receivers, all the offensive and defensive guys – I love all those guys and they’re going to continue to be like brothers to me.

“GVSU, it’s a great institution, not only for football, but for education, and for me, the culture was just different than everywhere else I’ve been. I can’t really explain it. We love football there – the coaches, the players, the students, the faculty – but they also all understand that education is the key. It’s a family, and to see how many people support you on and off the field, it was overwhelming to me in a good way.”

Johnson re-enrolled as a Laker, and, after red-shirting a season, recorded 1,030 yards and 15 touchdowns on 56 receptions, five times exceeding the 100-yard receiving mark in a game as a junior. The season after, he caught 72 passes for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns, and, as most skilled performers do, he saved his best act for last.

Snubbed from the NFL combine, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Johnson hawked his NFL-caliber wares at the Kelly Family Sports Center, with current New Orleans Saints center Tim Lelito, and caught a few glances. Scouts from 23 different franchises in attendance at GVSU’s pro-day succinctly gaped open-mouthed at their stop watches after Johnson, who had guaranteed that he’d run his 40-yard dash in under 4.4-seconds, did just that.


Johnson’s best time of 4.35 seconds would have ranked fourth-best among all receivers at the 2013 NFL combine – and fifth-best overall amongst all positions – trailing only the top time of 4.27 paced by Marquise Goodwin, and the 4.34 second times clocked by Tavon Austin and Ryan Swope. His 39.5-inch vertical leap would have ranked first amongst his combine peers, while his 11-foot-1 broad jump would have been good for second.

He personally rated his pro-day performance a nine out of 10, citing that nothing is perfect, although the moment he set up may have been.

THE CALL CAME IN the seventh and final round of the NFL Draft, but as far as Johnson and his 50-member cheering section packed into a clubhouse in Kentucky were concerned, it might as well have been in the first.

“…with the 216th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers select Charles Johnson, wide receiver Grand Valley State University.”

The proclamation echoed across the hall from a television monitor moments after the call to Johnson had concluded, only to be muffled by a roar more distinctly raucous than any the newly initiated pro had ever been privy to on a field. The dream and the actuality merged in one instant.

“I don’t care if I was the last pick or the first pick, the feeling of knowing somebody wanted you, that you are accomplishing something that so many people have tried to accomplish and couldn’t, that was my welcome to the NFL moment,” Johnson said. “A moment I’ll always remember.”

Of course in the NFL, nothing is promised after the welcome – even when a player stays true to his. Johnson assured his father, now 63, after that fateful midnight call years ago that he’d live to see his son get drafted to the NFL. That he’d see him play.

And he has.

Through four heart attacks, bouts with cancer and all other precipitants life has thrown his way, Fred Johnson has survived, nay thrived, to see the promise kept. To see his granddaughters grow up. To be able to leave upward of 20 voicemails a day on his son’s phone dictating what coaches should have done in the last game, how Charles can improve and expressing his continued excitement and pride toward his progeny.

The promises Johnson has left to keep, dictated by his immense physical talent and drive, are to himself.

After being selected, Johnson was placed on the practice squad by the Packers, and spent a season running routes and snagging passes under the tutelage of seasoned veterans Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Aaron Rodgers.

He never made the active roster.

“Just going out there and getting that experience and being able to work in the NFL is solid for you, and once you get there, you start to find little things as a player that can make your game better,” Johnson said. “The more you do, the more it clicks.”

Claimed by the Cleveland Browns midway through his rookie season, Johnson was granted a second fresh start early in his career, although it didn’t last long. The Browns went 5-11 – despite receiver Josh Gordon’s near record-breaking season – as Johnson spent a year on the non-football injury list rehabbing an ACL tear.

This preseason, a fully healed Johnson comprised a supporting role on a Browns’ preseason cast headlined by Johnny Manziel, but for the third time of his short professional career, he was again asked to relocate – this time to Minnesota.

“I’m confident that I can play in this league,” Johnson said. “That I can play on this team. That I have the ability, the tools. I know I can. It’s all about the opportunity, and five years from now, I hope I’m still playing in the NFL, and doing the best I can do.

“But as long as I do my part, I can live with whatever happens. I’m going to continue to work hard, and we’ll see how it all unfolds.”

So he did, substituting ad-lib darts from rookie Johnny Football for carefully coordinated spirals from rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Johnson assumed a spot on the 53-man roster vacated by dismissed All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson.

Sometimes when it rains for some – Gordon, Peterson or the entirety of the Vikings’ offense – it shines on others. Reunited with offensive coordinator Norv Turner and his pass-friendly playbook after a brief stint together in the Sixth City, the clouds above Johnson – who has so far avoided many of the pitfalls that have frequently plagued some of his NFL counterparts – finally appear to be aligned.

“Bouncing around, it’s kind of frustrating because you want that stability, but I’m a real strong individual, and I feel like I can handle anything that comes my way,” Johnson said. “Not too much can get me down, not too much can alter my approach to my situation and I’m very self-motivated.

“The hardest thing for me is having to meet new people, but every team I go to I learn something new as a player, as a person and as a professional. That all helps me to grow.”

DOWN 42-7 WITH LESS THAN 4:30 REMAINING in  the fourth quarter, the Vikings take the field to mount one final offensive against the NFC North division rival Packers with nothing to play for but pride. It’s enough.

With the game clearly out of hand, No. 12 in purple checks back in with a hungry glaze in his eye, and takes his spot on the far reaches of the formation. He sprints a quick out route, and the receiver quickly squares himself. The pass goes for just 7 yards, the two-minute warning strikes and the drive goes on.

And on, and on – all the way into the Green Bay red zone. The clock running down, Minnesota adopts a no-huddle 8 yards from the end zone, 8 yards from checking another lofty accomplishment off the list.

On the snap, Johnson – donned in horns and a purple 12 – bursts off the line, beats his man to his spot and is rewarded with a quick arching lob hung delicately above him like a ripe fall apple ready to be plucked. And he plucks it, only with a toe out of line. The would-be touchdown is waved off.

The game ends with a whimper as a field goal produces a 42-10 final in Green Bay’s favor. Johnson finishes with just one reception for 7 yards, but it means so much more than that. It’s his first official reception in a regular season NFL game – hopefully of many to come – and for now it’s enough.

“It was just one reception, just 7 yards, but just to be able to go out there – especially against the team that drafted me – it was a very special moment,” Johnson said. “I kind of wish I would have gotten that touchdown – that’s the milestone I’ll keep the ball after – but it means so much to me to even be here in the NFL.

“It’s something I’ve worked so hard for, and through everything I’ve battled – from ACL injuries to playing football for multiple schools and franchises to everything I’ve gone through in life – I realize not many people get to make good on that opportunity. To have that catch means so much more to me than just the 7 yards.”

THREE WEEKS AFTER Johnson’s inaugural catch, his NFL future remains as difficult to forecast as ever. He added two more receptions for 22 yards the next week in a loss to Detroit, but none last week against Buffalo. The size, the speed, the hands, the versatility to play any wide receiver position – X, Y and Z – on the field are all present, but more importantly, it’s Johnson’s humility, perhaps his best quality as a professional athlete, to know that talent alone is not enough.

That his drive alone is not enough, nor is one reception enough to satiate it. That it’ll take not only the continued support from family and friends that he has, but time, commitment and opportunity to make his dream last. Stability, for a change, couldn’t hurt either.

He knows it won’t be easy. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I could have people take away one message about life, football, family, anything from my story, it’d be to live free and have no regrets,” Johnson said. “I say that because life is short, tomorrow’s never promised and you don’t want to look back and say, ‘boy, I wish I would have done that.’

“I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life – from being suspended in school to being in trouble with the law – and still regret none of the negative decisions, nothing I do, because all of it – the good and bad – has helped to mold me into the person I am today.

“So far, my life hasn’t been easy. My road in the NFL hasn’t been easy. So what? I know there are people depending on me, and if it is raining right now, it isn’t going to be raining for long. I know that the sun is going to come back out one of these times, and I’ll keep pushing forward in the rain until it does.”