His last game at the University of Kentucky came and went in January 2010, and Christian Johnson knew there wouldn’t be another one for a while.
Despite being a three-year starter, Johnson wasn’t on the radar for any of NFL's 32 teams. And if he was, they sure didn’t let him know. No meetings. No tryouts. No draft. Johnson didn’t play football for the next 12 months and spent the rest of 2010 pondering his next move, his next career, his next life.
Johnson didn’t give football up completely and in 2011 he was picked up by the Dallas Vigilantes of the Arena Football League. The field was shorter, the game was quicker and the passes more plentiful, but for this offensive lineman, the dream of playing in the NFL was still alive. He allowed just one sack his first year, and found a home on the Philadelphia Soul’s starting line the next two seasons.
He started 14 games in 2012 and 17 in 2013, all while his agent kept in Johnson’s ear.
“My agent would always tell me, ‘Listen, if you’re going to get picked up in the NFL, you need to be the best in your position,’” Johnson said.
Johnson listened. After the 2013 season, he was runner-up for AFL offensive lineman of the year. After helping the Soul to consecutive conference championships, Johnson was ready to try his luck with the NFL. He sent out his highlight tapes to a handful of teams and a few responded, but while the others hemmed and hawed, the Arizona Cardinals were the first to bring him in for a tryout.
The Cardinals liked what they saw and they needed depth at guard. Johnson was signed on Jan. 7 and spent the next four months re-teaching his body how to play on a 100-yard field. The physical adjustment to playing in the NFL has been the easiest part of Johnson’s transition. His last Arena League game was in August, which gave his body enough time to adapt to playing on a longer and wider field.
But every day is still a battle for Johnson to keep his weight down. He’s checking in at 338 pounds, which was just a shade heavier than his listed weight in the AFL. It’s also significantly lower than his highest weight, which Johnson wouldn’t reveal, but he admitted it was lower than 400. All Johnson would say was: “I was heavy.”
While Johnson said conditioning hasn’t been an issue, the mental and football sides of the NFL have been difficult.
“It’s such a huge transition from the Arena Football League to this,” he said after a recent practice. “In the Arena Football League, I only have to block four guys and we have four guys to pick them up. Here it’s so much coming at you and it’s so fast. It’s frustrating, I’m not going to lie.
“It gives me a headache but I’m here. I’m blessed for the opportunity and I’m hoping everything works out for the best.”
In order for that to happen, Johnson needs to adapt to the speed of the game.
The AFL was a quick game in its own right, Johnson said, but it was quick between two players.
“It’s a compact fast, so it’s fast in between me and this guy ... me and the one guy I got to worry about blocking,” Johnson said. “In this league, it’s fast, and I got to worry about him, the linebacker, the defensive end. It just puts more to the table.”
Johnson is also adjusting to blocking for the run more.
The Soul was among the top of the AFL in rushes, which was about eight per game. At most, they’d run the ball 10 times.
“In the Arena League, there’s really no different defenses,” Johnson said. “You’re going against the same scheme defensively every game. Here, it’s just a lot more you have to think about. A lot more that goes into every day of preparation. That goes into studying your playbook and memorizing your playbook.”
Before Arizona’s organized team activities began two weeks ago, Johnson would spend his afternoons at home studying. But it didn’t always help.
“With the plays, I’m struggling. I can’t even lie about that,” he said. “But it’s not an issue of me not studying. It’s not an issue of me not doing enough. I studied all day. It’s just a difference of when you’re looking at it and when you come out here and react to it at quick speeds. It makes a difference.”
When Johnson takes a break from studying or gets home from practice, he’ll call his wife, Shandia, who lives in Virginia. She’s been Johnson’s sounding board and one-person support group throughout his stay in Arizona, but she’s also the reason why he won’t spend more time chasing the dream.
“I think when the door of opportunity opened I was ready to run through it,” Johnson said. “But I do believe that once that door is opened, it doesn’t mean that the battle is over. I could be released from here today. I’m praying that another team picks me up.”
Being a 27-year-old rookie has given Johnson a different perspective than most of his classmates, the majority of whom are in their early 20s. His skin is thicker, especially when offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin gets on his case.
But he also knows when it’s time to stop.
If he’s released by the Cardinals, Johnson won’t be heading back to the AFL and he won’t be looking for a job in the CFL. There’s only one football league he wants to play in. He’ll still stay in shape, train and hope his agent can land him another tryout.
Johnson knows there’s life outside of football. He’s been able to put it off for four years but if his football career ends, he can fall back on a degree from Kentucky and is ready to see what the real world has waiting.
“I’ve had a good career,” Johnson said. “I’ve done something that a lot of people couldn’t do. I did something a lot of my friends wish they could’ve did and some things I wish a lot of my friends could’ve did with me.
“So, it’s not like I would have any regrets.”