Meet the New Steeler: LB Steven Johnson

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via Steelers.com

Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post would have been “A Football Life in the Slow Lane.” Nothing has been easy for Pennsylvania native Steven Johnson, except perhaps his decision to sign a one-year contract with the Steelers in March.

Johnson has played football for essentially his whole life. He was never the strongest or the fastest or the most obviously gifted player. But all he wanted was an opportunity. And opportunities have seemingly been few and far between.

As detailed in an ESPNW article from November of 2012:

Johnson didn’t crack the starting lineup [in high school] until his senior season. The soft-spoken linebacker made the most of that opportunity, leading the state in tackles and earning all-county honors.

Those feats, however, didn’t impress Division I college coaches, who overlooked Johnson. He enrolled at the Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in Kingston, Pa., to get more playing experience and national visibility, but that plan was unceremoniously derailed.

In just his fifth game at the prep school, Johnson tore the ACL, LCL and capsule in his left knee, and suffered a bone contusion. He thought his football career was finished.

The article goes on to note his struggles with depression and loss of conditioning. But Kansas gave him the opportunity to walk on, and Johnson made the most of it, earning a scholarship after two years.

Although he received a combine invitation he went undrafted, but had a number of teams to choose between. His roommate, Chris Harris, had signed as a UDFA with the Denver Broncos the previous year and made the roster, and he encouraged Johnson to choose Denver.  But the fight was only beginning then. As Johnson told the story,

“We had a game in Arizona, and the roster had to be at 53 pretty much by the time we got back,” he said. “They brought us all in, and we were lifting [weights], and that’s when you started seeing people getting plucked from the team. You didn’t really want to look anybody in the eye, your head was down, and you were just hoping that nobody came and tapped you.

“It was nerve-racking, but at the end of the day, I was still here. It was a blessing, and I’m really happy and thankful for it.”

I looked up his NFL.com Draft Profile to see what they had to say about him:

Johnson is a fifth-year player who didn’t start for Kansas until his senior year. He was a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship; his key attributes as an NFL prospect are competitiveness and smarts. Johnson makes up for athletic hitches in his play by keying into the offense and flying around at top speed. He could get drafted late, but regardless stands a shot to make a roster as an immediate special teams contributor.

There’s much more in the Analysis section—the writer[s] praised his “good instincts to get his body to the ball” and “an ability to read blocking schemes and work to fill his gaps.” But they said he struggles in pass coverage and “doesn’t have the speed, footwork, or hip fluidity to cover some of the more athletic players at the next level.” Sounds like “want to” has overcome limitations of physical gifts and training—or, as Kevin Colbert might say, “hearts and smarts.”

The “smarts” are demonstrated, at least in part, by his graduating from the University of Kansas was a degree in Economics, and minors in Business and Sports Management. The “hearts” part of the equation is a beautiful story. You can read about it on the website of the foundation he began in 2014 in Denver. Called the “Faith Motivated Foundation,” the mission, as he puts it, is this:

My vision for this foundation is to reach out to people and teach them how to live a positive lifestyle and show how God can help them overcome the challenges they face, even when they seem impossible to overcome.

Johnson was awarded Top Community Activist in Denver because of his work there.

After playing largely special teams for three seasons the Broncos waived him at the beginning of last season. The Titans picked him up, and Johnson played the entire season, although mostly on special teams.

And now he is a Steeler. He told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com that he chose the Steelers because of how they do business:

“There are certain things that happen here that don’t happen everywhere else. It’s a competitive thing. You are always competing with the coaches and players. Whether it’s playing video games, shooting pool or out on the field. And it’s talked about a lot in the locker room. We are professional athletes. You don’t ever want to lose. You have that I am not going to lose today mentality and that forces you to be better

“I really like the mindset this whole organization has,” said Johnson. “They want to win championships. You can tell by the facilities, the food you eat, how the locker room looks, the way the guys interact in the locker room. It’s a family atmosphere and everyone here has the same goal, to win. I love that kind of atmosphere.”

I have no idea whether he can make the 53-man roster, much less whether he can fulfill his stated dream to become a starter and All-Pro. But it’s clear he’s going to give it everything he’s got.

Although it is much more difficult to watch the defense at training camp than the offense, as the more crowd-pleasing offensive drills take place on the field closest to the bleachers, I’m going to be looking for No. 51. I consider it a good omen that he was given the number of one of my favorite Steelers, Potsie, aka James Farrior. I really hope he can keep it.

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