After failing to be drafted, D’Ernest Johnson was not signed by any NFL team in 2018.
To make ends meet, he got a job on a fishing boat in Key West, Florida, reeling in mahi mahi.
Johnson is now a match-winning NFL running back three years later after putting in the effort.
Johnson took advantage of the Cleveland Browns’ lack of starting running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, rushing for 146 yards and a touchdown in the Browns’ 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Thursday night.
Johnson looked composed and explosive in his first career start, leading a depleted Browns team to a victory that snapped a two-game losing streak. Johnson was also missing starting quarterback Baker Mayfield.
One of the Browns’ most famous fans, NBA superstar LeBron James, praised his performance on Thursday, writing on Twitter: “D’ Ernest Johnson on 1 tonight!! Love to see it!”
When Johnson was told about the tweet, he was taken aback and said: “LeBron James? Man, that’s my favorite basketball player; I’m not going to lie to you … That’s amazing! LeBron James, appreciate it man. That means a lot. Wow!”
It’s the end of a long road for the running back, who also worked as a personal trainer before signing with the Alliance of American Football’s Orlando Apollo in 2019, where he finished second in the league in rushing and scrimmage yards.
Although he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Browns in 2019, he was mostly used on special teams as a kick returner.
In 2020, he played in all 16 games while also filling in as a running back when needed, setting career highs in carries (33) and rushing yards (166).
But it was in week seven of this season that Johnson really burst onto the scene, with the Browns in desperate need of a big game with their stars on the bench.
Johnson joined Chubb and Hunt as the third Browns running back to have 100 or more scrimmage yards in a game this season. To put that in perspective, no running back has done so in a game for five NFL teams this season.
“It’s unexplainable. I wanted to celebrate but I didn’t know what to do. It’s been a long journey,” said Johnson as he reflected on how his fortunes have changed since 2018.
The win keeps the Browns in the AFC playoff picture, while the Broncos suffer their fourth straight loss.