All too frequently, NFL players are in the news for poor decisions off the field. I spent some time with one player that bucks that trend.
Robert Johnson of the Tennessee Titans grew up in South Central Los Angeles, pushed on strong after his father was killed in a gang-related robbery, and is now actively involved in the “Cure Duchenne” charity while training hard to see some action on the field.
Robert’s life story is a special one that appears to have had a profound impact on his perspective on life, how he approaches the NFL, as well as his spare time off the field.
Steve Wyremski (SW): How’s the offseason been going so far? What have you been up to?
Robert Johnson (RJ): Ah, man. I’ve been out here training in Reading, Pennsylvania. I feel like I’m out here getting ready for a boxing match. I feel like Rocky [laughs]. I’ve just been training in the garage. I was flipping tires today (me and Stevenson Sylvester of the Pittsburgh Steelers). We’ve just been working hard, grinding, [and] getting ourselves in shape in case the NFL decides to finally give us back our jobs.
SW: Why working out in Pennsylvania?
RJ: Oh, because it just keeps me away from everybody. It’s a really good/nice area. The trainer I train with is really good. He’s the trainer of Apolo Ohno (the Olympic gold medalist). His name is John Schaeffer. He’s been working with us getting us ready to be a Pro Bowl safety and Pro Bowl linebacker. That’s what he keeps telling us.
SW: Did you watch any of the NFL draft last weekend?
RJ: I watched a little bit. I saw the first day because I was busy. We lift weights two or three times a day, but I did catch our draft picks. We had a pretty good draft.
SW: Watching that, did it get any of the football juices flowing and ready to get back on the field?
RJ: Ah man, you don’t know how pumped up I was until [they were saying], “Hey the lockout is coming back on.” I was like, “Ahh, man.” That kind of messes up everything, but at the same time … I’m still excited. The Tennessee Titans had a lot of chances to pick a safety [during the draft] and that made me feel a whole lot better to see that they’re confident that they have what they want at safety.
SW: I want to go back a bit to earlier in your life. You grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which is a notorious gang ridden neighborhood. After high school, you go to college, play football at Utah and now you’re a member of the Titans in the NFL. Quite the journey. Can you talk a little bit about that, how you were able to stay out of trouble and what’s gotten you to where you are today?
RJ: It was a crazy journey for me because I went to a junior college before I went to Utah too. I wouldn’t say that sometimes you’re dealt the wrong cards, but it matters how you use them. In my case growing up in a big family, there [were] seven of us (5 boys / 2 girls) and I moved a lot throughout my whole life. I met a whole lot of people and I took that as a learning experience. I went to three different high schools and bounced around moving with my mom.
Then went to a junior college for two years and got my AA degree from there. My first year at junior college, I didn’t even have plans for playing football. It was my second year that my brothers convinced me to start playing. I have a brother that’s a year kolder than me and he was like, “Come out there and play football with me.” I was like, “Alright, this will probably be the first time [I] get to play with [my] brother.” I got out there and the last game of the season, the University of Utah came out there to see someone else from the other school and I wind up playing pretty good.
From there, it was the first time on the airplane to Utah that I was leaving my neighborhood to go visit the school. I fell in love once I got out there. For someone to buy me a plane ticket to get me to come see a school, when most people don’t trust too many South Central kids, I told the coaches that as long as they’re paying for my school, I’ll make sure that I perform on the field.
SW: Back when you were six years old, your father was killed in a tragic gang related robbery. How has that impacted your life from the event as a young boy all the way through today?
RJ: It was really hard for my mom to go through something like that. She had five boys and two girls and tried to take care of everything. My mom really went through a hard time trying to [raise] us boys into men when there was no father figure. All the stuff my dad told my mom what he wanted out of us, she made sure she carried it over to us. My mom just kept telling us that as long as we have each other, we’ll be fine. [From] living in the car together [to] not having the rent on time, she made sure that we had each other.
I felt like as long as I get my degrees, I’ll be fine and [be] able to help out the family. It just magically happened when the Tennessee Titans took a risk on me and drafted me. It was the best feeling in the world to be sitting there watching the TV and see your name go across the screen. I remember so many years watching the NFL draft and [thinking] it’d be nice to be there. It was crazy compared to all the other situations [like] growing up without a father. It hurts, but I know at the same time that I had my mom. She was being both the male and the female of the household.
SW: Let’s take it to the field. You were drafted in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Titans. You were inactive for all 16 games of the year last season. What do you think the biggest reason for that was?
RJ: I didn’t have a clue then, but when I started to think about it, in college I really never played special teams. My position coach (Coach Robertson) always told me, “Robert, really focus on special teams”. When I got there, I was really trying to focus on it, but not having the experience set me back a little bit. The coaching staff really had confidence in me to [keep me] on the 53-man roster and that meant a lot to me.
SW: You mentioned special teams. Is that something you’ve been working on this offseason that you’re hoping will get you active next season?
RJ: Yes. I’ve been working hard on special teams and still doing my whole position work. You never know when your number’s going to be called. You just have to be ready. I feel like I have to be ready to play anything they tell me to play. They’re paying me to play and I refuse to let anyone take me off the roster because I didn’t perform to the best of my ability.
SW: [Explain PFF] In 2010, the Titans safeties were ranked -4.1, which is at the lower end of our rankings for safeties. Based on that it seems that there is an opportunity at the safety position. Do you see 2011 as an opportunity especially with no safety drafted by the team until the 7th round of the draft?
RJ: I feel like that’s going to change. That number that you just said. I think it’s going to change. The way I look at it is that I really want to come in to play to the best of my ability if I get the chance to play safety. Knowing that I’m considered a safety, I’m going to try my hardest to get that number changed. I’m going to let the boys know about that number because we all work hard. I [was] a rookie last year and didn’t have too much to say, but I did sit back and pick the brains of the guys around me – Michael Griffin [and] Chris Hope. I’m definitely going to let the boys know about that. It’ll be a motivator to help the team win and get our rankings higher because that sounds bad.
SW: Any concern with a potential free agent safety once all the CBA issues and lockout is past us?
RJ: To tell you the truth, I really have no control over that. If the coaches do bring somebody in, it is what it is. It’s a job. It’s an interview every day … every week. You just have to get out there and do what you’re able to do. They can bring in as many safeties as they want. As long as it’s helping the team and I’m still on the roster, I’m fine.
SW: From what I’ve seen, you play mostly free safety. Reading some scouting reports, they characterize you as “a ball hawk”, “rangy”, and “a guy who possesses good instincts at attacking the line of scrimmage”. We saw that in your senior year at Utah when you had roughly 155 total tackles. It also goes on to say that you may be suited to make the change to strong safety at the NFL level. Has there been any talk of that?
RJ: When we had the lockout lifted for 24 hours, my position coach did call me and tell me [I’d] focus on free safety and that’s my primary position. At the same time, in our system last year it really didn’t matter. Sometimes you’d be in the box, sometimes you wouldn’t. This offseason I’ve been making sure I’m gaining weight and keeping my speed. To take on these big ol’ pro offensive lineman … it’s hard to take on a 6’6” 300 pounder. I’m going to make sure I have my body right to play strong safety or free safety. If that means I have to play four yards from the line of scrimmage, or 14 yards deep trying to play the ball as well as a receiver, it really doesn’t matter to me.
SW: You mentioned him earlier … Chris Hope was your starting strong safety in 2010. We rated him -0.9, his play seems to have deteriorated over the last few years, he’s due a roster bonus, and many are speculating he won’t be back with the Titans next season, which would leave an opportunity at strong safety. That’s why I asked if the coaching staff may have mentioned that to you. Would you be open to a move to strong safety?
RJ: Yeah, definitely. I’d be interested in playing strong or free because that’ll give me a better opportunity to get on the field. Standing on the sideline coming out of college humbles you. It makes you think, “Hey. I gotta figure out a way to get on this field.” Chris Hope is a real good player. He’s getting older and most people say that your stats start to drop [when you get older]. [Last season,] I always asked him what he [saw] on the field and he was always willing to help. He’s ready to help the next person get in line and make sure the defense doesn’t lose a beat. If he’s not there, so be it. If he is there, he’s going to help out the team. Chris Hope is a real good player and a good person off the field.
SW: Going back to the scouting reports, it said that you had “a bad attitude on the field” (in a good way) and you’re an “enforcer” in the secondary. Would you say that’s accurate?
RJ: It’s starting to get accurate. Some games I do have a bad attitude towards the other team. I feel like if you don’t have the same jersey on as me, you’re nothing – friend or not from college. I’m definitely going to make sure that I use those quotes whenever I get on the field this year. I’ll make sure that they feel that I’m there. I’m either going to make an impact play or cause something that’s going to change the game.
SW: You’re story is tremendous. From the adversity you overcame with your father’s death, coming out of South Central, to getting to where you are today. If for whatever reason your NFL career doesn’t get to where you want it to, would you be content with the success you’ve had so far?
RJ: I’m just happy to even be drafted. A lot of people don’t get drafted; only 255 each year. For my name to be called 149th overall… it feels good. I got to use the NFL as a stepping-stone for my future. I have two degrees – my criminology degree, as well as my sociology degree [and] I try to do a lot of off the field stuff. I recently went to the Super Bowl events out there and I ran into this really nice couple and they were talking about Duchenne. It’s a disease that kids have where by the time that they turn age 20, they suffer heart failure and got to get on a respirator because it’s hard for them to get through. I feel like once I get done with the NFL, I’m going to start to look into figuring out how to help people with diseases like that.
SW: I see your active in Cure Duchenne. We’ve seen commercials this past year during NFL games with Clay Matthews promoting the charity. Can you talk a bit about the charity itself and what it stands for?
RJ: They’re getting together an event in LA this Saturday for it. We’re trying to make it a big awareness because a lot of people know about Diabetes, AIDS, etc. [but] people don’t know about Duchenne. The whole Cure Duchenne is for boys who by age 5 have a difficult time keeping up with the running and keeping up with physical stuff. By the time they get to age 12, [they’re] no longer walking and by early teens it’s hard for them to lift their arms. It’s a muscular disease. A lot of people don’t know about it and that’s what we’re trying to [change]. It’s hard to find a cure, but when we find it … it’s something the kids will love and maybe they’ll get past 20 or past an age that people who have it don’t.
SW: Personally, this is the first year I’ve heard of it because of all the commercials out there. Why do you think it’s out there getting more press and media coverage?
RJ: It’s because of all the celebrities that have reached out and pushed forward for it. A lot of people are starting to get more into it because of the awareness that these are little boys that have dreams they’ll never get to because their life expectancy is not that long.
SW: Why Cure Duchenne? Why this charity over others?
RJ: When I first went out to Super Bowl weekend supporting my friend Stevenson Sylvester of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I just ran up on it. Like you said, I wasn’t aware of it at all until the couple started talking to me about it. When they started talking to me about their son, I was really interested and wanted to make sure I really [knew] about it. I started to look it up and [it meant a lot how] Amy Martin picked me out of all the other celebrities walking through. She didn’t even know who I was. She just wanted to tell me about it because [I’m] a young guy and a lot of these kids grow up wishing they could be in the situation [I’m] in. It made me realize that I wanted to get involved in it, do more research, and try to tell some more of my teammates about it.
SW: Are we going to see you active on Sunday’s this fall?
RJ: I’m making sure of that. For me it’s 100%, but for the coaches we’ll just have to wait and see.
You can’t help but root for Robert after talking with him and hearing his story. He’s a genuine focused individual who’s working his tail off to get some consistent playing time next year. Not only that, but he’s spending some time for a great cause in the Cure Duchenne campaign.
I hope that PFF ranking comment makes its way to the Titans’ bulletin board and we see Robert’s bad attitude roaming the Titan’s secondary starting this fall because of it. You can follow Robert Johnson on Twitter: @Robertjohnson32