Slow Grind: D'Ernest Johnson's incredible journey to the Cleveland Browns

Browns' running back D'Ernest Johnson traveled a long road following his dream to play in the NFL. Undrafted out of USF, Johnson worked odd jobs to support his family between NFL tryouts, and a starring stint in the AAF, until finding a home in Cleveland. This remarkable story was produced by Let It Fly Media.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

TIM RUSKELL: Having been in personnel, we get calls all the time.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Hey, man, how you doing?

TIM RUSKELL: Usually, they don't end up being--

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: This is D'Ernest Johnson. I want to know, do you have any positions at running back?

KATONYA ADDISON: And it's just like this. You either choose the streets, or you choose better.

EDGERRIN JAMES: A lot of guys-- it ends right there. You have to have something deep down inside you.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: I can really make a way out of this, make a way out of here.

WILLIE TAGGART: I remember telling him the baby didn't ask to be here.

UNDREAS HARRISON: Be there for you kids like your dad wasn't there for you.

ERELISHA BELL: I always used to call my son. "I don't belong on that fishing boat, Mom. I belong on that field.

[CLOCK TICKING]

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Slow grind. Slow grind. You're just staying focused on the ultimate goal. The process doesn't come fast. It takes time.

EDGERRIN JAMES: Any time you see anybody that come out of Immokalee, and they make it, you know that's a special person.

WILLIE TAGGART: Immokalee is a small town. Probably about two stop lights, if that.

JOHN THOMAS: Outside of farming, there's really nothing to do for people here in Immokalee.

KATONYA ADDISON: We're part of Collier County, and Naples is part of Collier County. It's the same county, but they're up here, and we're down here. And we're looked down upon. It's sad. It is what it is.

TSHUMBI JOHNSON: It's less fortunate out here, and it's so hard to make it out because of the things that are around you.

JOHN THOMAS: There are different avenues that you can go down. I did steer a lot of kids on the right path. I can't save 'em all, but I ain't gonna ever stop trying to save 'em.

KATONYA ADDISON: We used to always talk. Just because we grew up here doesn't mean this is where we end.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: I grew up in a project, a three-bedroom apartment. I was raised by my grandma and my aunt.

UNDREAS HARRISON: Always, always was close. Like I always told him, I want you to have a relationship with your mom and your dad. His dad was in prison, mostly, when he was growing up.

ERELISHA BELL: I was going through a lot. At the time, I had just lost a daughter to domestic violence. It took me into a shutdown. I had to make some decisions after that.

EDGERRIN JAMES: It's always tough giving a child up, but she knew that was the best thing to do. Her situation was tough for her to raise us.

TSHUMBI JOHNSON: My aunt-- she made sure we did everything the right way.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: You stayed out of trouble. You couldn't hang out really late with our friends, go to parties, anything.

UNDREAS HARRISON: I always pushed him to do and go farther than we have.

JOHN THOMAS: This is all we know here in Immokalee. You see what you see, and it start with the football program.

We got a legacy of good running backs. Edgerrin set the standard. We're talking about a Hall of Fame running back.

- Miami's starting offense. Edgerrin James with five straight 100-yard games to his--

EDGERRIN JAMES: D'Ernest mostly smoother than me.

- --has got it sealed off. James to the 35.

EDGERRIN JAMES: He's real smooth with the way he runs.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: No lie, they used to call me Little Barry Sanders because I was shaking and baking everyone.

TSHUMBI JOHNSON: The way he ran the ball and the different plays he made, he was a athlete.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Making it out projects and going to college-- that's big-time. Just having people before me and seeing those college coaches come in and talk to those guys. Man, I want them to talk to me, too. I can really make a way out of this, make a way out of here.

For the next four years, I'm taking my talents to--

JOHN THOMAS: I originally thought D'Ernest was gonna go to North Carolina. I don't know what happened with that, but end up-- God's plan, South Florida, best place for him.

- When I say the name D'Ernest Johnson, what's the first thing that comes to your your mind.

WILLIE TAGGART: Junkyard dog.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: The whole city came out just to see us shine, boy.

WILLIE TAGGART: A junkyard dog is a badass. He's gonna get it done. I don't care how big you are, how fast you are. He's gonna find a way.

- Johnson all the way out to the 35, maybe the 36.

WILLIE TAGGART: We had another running back at the time, Marlon Mack, that was getting all the attention and getting all the carries. Not one time did D'Ernest get ticked about anything. He just came to work. He was gonna be in the game on third down for sure because he always came up with a big play for us.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: [INAUDIBLE] I'd run and get the first down. They would put me in on difficult situations.

WILLIE TAGGART: It was like, you're the junkyard dog. You just clean it all up for us.

[CLOCK TICKING]

I could tell he was nervous. He didn't want to tell me. I told all our guys, don't have any kids while you're in college.

UNDREAS HARRISON: I was mad. I was mad. Ooh!

KATONYA ADDISON: The mother of his child-- she told me. She was scared to tell the whole family. I was like, gotta get over it once the baby comes.

ERELISHA BELL: I knew that D'Ernest was gonna do the right thing, knowing that he didn't have his father in his life. He was gonna be there for his son.

WILLIE TAGGART: I told him that's the most important thing to me, and getting this degree is part of taking care of that baby.

KATONYA ADDISON: We all played a part. I just told him, be the daddy you can be in your state. You can't come home and be that awesome dad where you're with your son 24/7, because what you're doing now is building the foundation for him later on.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Teammates-- they encouraged me. When I brought my son around, they always showed him love, checking on him and see how he doing. They making sure my mind is right and focused on being a great father, also.

UNDREAS HARRISON: Well, I told both of 'em, break the cycle. Break the cycle.

ERELISHA BELL: For a father to have that much love for his child that he never experienced from his father-- it brings joy, and it's overwhelming. And that lets you know that that love that he have inside of him has always been there. Always been there.

- With the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select--

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Third day came around. I got my family with me. I got my girlfriend with me. Everybody just hanging out, and San Francisco 49ers called me. So I'm like, OK. I'm thinking it's the call. They called me. They say, hey, man, we love you a lot. We definitely want to sign you after this draft.

I didn't hear nothing at all. So I'm like, man. I called 'em. I was like, hey, man, this is D'Ernest. They say, hey, we ended up signing another running back.

After that, I didn't hear anything. So I'm like, man, that's about one of the saddest days I done have. I left my family. I left everybody and drove off to the lake, man. I just sat there, and I cried, man. I cried. I really cried, because that was my dream of getting drafted, and that hurt me a lot.

Monday morning came around, and that's when the New Orleans Saints called me. And they say, hey, we want to invite you to our rookie three-day minicamp. I'm like, OK, I can make this team.

And I'm doing pretty good. The coaches said I'm doing good. Then, they was calling people in to see if they're gonna sign and stuff. So they end up not calling me in.

I'm like, man, this can't be right. I was supposed to be here, and it was heartbreaking.

I end up hitting my friend up. And he always told me, whenever you want to come down and fish and make some money, I'm one phone call away. So I end up making that call and telling him I'm gonna come down there and go fish.

The first week, it was fun. Out there, fishing, seeing different types of fish, seeing sharks and all kinds of stuff out there. About a week later, you're drained. Your body's drained. You're tired of reeling the fish in. They get heavier and heavier.

I'm like, oh, man, this here-- I can't really do this. And you gotta wake up and do it again the next day. I'm like, man. But I did it just because I got a son, a five-year-old son that I try to make sure I take care of. I had to sacrifice everything to do that, and that's what I had to do.

EDGERRIN JAMES: A lot of the time, people just gonna give up. They gonna let a situation determine their fate. When he understood his potential, he understood what he had going for himself, and he never let up.

ERELISHA BELL: He always used to call me and tell me, I don't belong on that fishing boat, Ma. I belong on that field.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: At that moment, I told him I appreciate the opportunity, but I gotta go continue to chase my dream.

- What was your first impression of D'Ernest?

AUDREY BROWN: I loved him 'cause he's a hugger. I'm a hugger.

Jasmin's lease was ending, and D'Ernest was actually staying with Jasmin 'cause his lease had ended. She said, we just need a couple of months to get on our feet, and we won't be in your hair too long. That ended up being longer than they thought. He was in a slump.

JASMIN BROWN: To this day, I think that was the toughest thing that we've gone through in our relationship, because even when he was down, I still had to somehow pull him through that. And I didn't know how to handle it at the time. It just made us realize how much we actually needed each other.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: She didn't give up on me. She believed in me more than I believed in myself at that moment.

AUDREY BROWN: And that was the biggest thing. Keep moving forward--

[CLOCK TICKING]

--and that time will come.

- You can still get your football fix with a new pro league that's starting up, the Alliance of American Football.

- This league looks to complement the NFL and could also give some college stars a second chance at their dream.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: I seen the opportunity of a new football league coming out.

TIM RUSKELL: This was The Last Chance Hotel. If it wasn't gonna happen here, you weren't gonna play.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: I'm just calling every day. Hey, how you doing? This is D'Ernest Johnson. Do you have a position open at running back? And they done say no.

TIM RUSKELL: And we did not have a spot for him. It wasn't like, no, I don't like you. It was, we got a good group. We'll see if somebody gets hurt, blah blah blah. And that did happen. Otherwise, he wouldn't have gotten his shot with us.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Went over, asked the coaching staff. "We're gonna bring you into training camp, but we're not gonna sign." I said, hey, that's all I need.

TIM RUSKELL: He came in, and he was fourth or fifth. There was no guarantee he was gonna make the team. This is where I give credit to Coach Spurrier. He would-- he'd do a little something in prac-- hey, who's that guy? We were all learning these guys. We didn't know these guys.

He throws D'Ernest out there. It was impressive.

- Gilbert hands the football off inside. Johnson, out to the right side.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Just to hold a football again-- it was just a blessing. I had the time of my life.

KATONYA ADDISON: After that game, he ran and did a little dance at the end. But I got emotional in the stand. I'm the emotional one.

TIM RUSKELL: You have to give him credit for that. He was dogged in his persistence. "I'm gonna do this, and I'm gonna be the back that you lean on. He knew it. We hadn't figured it out.

KATONYA ADDISON: He can do this. He has been there. Just give him a chance.

- The Alliance of American Football is no longer a thing, and that is very, very--

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: When the AAF ended, I end up going back to Gainesville to work out now. I'm working out for real now. So that's how I got linked up with Tim Montgomery.

- A world record for Tim Montgomery.

JASMIN BROWN: I'm very close to Tim Montgomery's family, and I was aware that there were multiple athletes in town that were training with him at the time.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: My body wasn't used to stuff like that. I'm out there throwing up and stuff. I'm like, OK, I like this. This is what I need.

TIM MONTGOMERY: D'Ernest threw up every single day. His fiancee would send me pictures of him sleeping on the couch, sleeping on the floor. But he would show up the next day, sore, tired, and ready to go, and that told me a lot about himself.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: That's when I ended up getting a call for a workout with the New England Patriots.

Come on, now. Come on, now. I'm at the door. Just let me in.

I was getting ready to go for a morning yoga class, and that's when the Browns said, hey, what are you doing right now? You think you can get on a plane and fly out for another workout?

They end up bringing me up to the office, and said, hey, we just want to say we want to sign you to our 90-man roster. So I'm like, thank God. What a great feeling, man. I couldn't even sign the paper, because I was shaking.

TIM MONTGOMERY: He sent me a text saying OBJ told him, whatever you did in the offseason, keep doing it, 'cause you came back different. And I had to pull off the road and yell out the window.

- There was a flag in the pocket. Nick Chubb, uh-oh, holding his right leg, Doug. Kareem Hunt immediately off the sideline.

- With Hunt-- he can handle a big load if Chubb is indeed out. D'Ernest Johnson also active--

ERELISHA BELL: The Cowboys game, I was cuddled up under the covers. I had the phone right here, and I was just in my zone. I had my earplugs in.

TSHUMBI JOHNSON: I texted him before the game. I had told him, whenever you get your opportunity, just seize the moment, and just make it your best. Once I seen him get the first carry, I was like, oh, yeah. I already knew what time it is.

- Give the ball left side. Running with it, D'Ernest Johnson. He's at the 40. He's at the 35. He's at the 30. He's at the 25-yard line, and Worley takes him out of bounds.

And on first down, they give it to him. D'Ernest Johnson up the middle. Drives the pile up to the 14-yard line as they give the Browns the first down now to the 20-yard line on two runs by D'Ernest Johnson.

Gives. Johnson makes it to the outside, right. 20, 25. He's out over the 30. Out to the 31. Near the 32-yard line.

- How about D'Ernest Johnson? Now 9 yards away from his first career 100-yard game.

- Wow.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: Everything I've been through, growing up, having this dream of making it to the NFL. I even got a tattoo on me in high school of a dream catcher. And I look down and say, hey, I'm finally here. It was just one of the biggest moments of my life, man, just being able to say you finally made it.

TSHUMBI JOHNSON: Being on the boat, working out, working, he never gave up because he knew what his passion was. He knew what he wanted to be.

EDGERRIN JAMES: Even when he went to the other football league. A lot of guys-- it ends right there. You have to have something deep down inside of you. I know where it comes from, and nobody's gonna be able to break him.

TIM RUSKELL: That's how they want all the stories to go, and they don't. So when you get one, it defies all the odds, and you live for those stories. That makes it all worthwhile.

WILLIE TAGGART: To this day, I try to compare guys to him. I need a guy like D'Ernest Johnson.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: We gonna keep it moving, now. We gonna keep that train moving. Let's get it.

ERELISHA BELL: Oh, God is not through with him yet. They haven't seen nothing yet. That just a taste of what D'Ernest can do. D'Ernest already had that greatness in him.

D'ERNEST JOHNSON: It's been a long journey, and I just try to make sure I seize every moment of it.

TIM RUSKELL: That's just him. That's what's in his heart, and that's how he plays game, and you can see it. It doesn't take long, once you really put your eyes on him, what the guy's made of.