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David Johnson re-packed on needed pounds after ditching vegan diet

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The play that showed the rest of the NFL that David Johnson is back was almost a year in the making.

At the start of the second quarter of the Arizona Cardinals' second preseason game, Johnson carried several Saints defenders into the end zone to cap off a 9-yard touchdown. It was quintessential Johnson. He used both his upper and lower body, putting his power on display. Any question of whether he was ready to return after missing 15 games last season went straight out of the Superdome that night.

But Johnson probably wouldn't have been able to do that in 2017.

Last training camp, David and his wife, Meghan, decided to ditch animal products and start a vegan diet after watching two documentaries on Netflix: "What the Health" and "Forks Over Knives."

David hated it.

He had to eat foods he'd never imagined himself trying, like avocados, lentils and quinoa. While his teammates were chowing down on cheeseburgers, Johnson ate bean burgers. Everywhere David ate, his options were limited to just one, maybe two, items on the menu.

"It was very hard," Johnson said. "It was the toughest thing I ever had to do outside of football was trying to figure out what to eat."

And it didn't help that his teammates made sure he knew what he was missing.

"I would just give him trouble when he was a vegan -- 'I know you want a cheeseburger. I know you want some bacon. I know you want that bacon, boy,'" left tackle D.J. Humphries said with a wide smile. "I didn't give him too much trouble. He looked like he was going through enough anyway trying to be a vegan."

Fellow running back Eli Penny was a bit more straightforward with his ribbing.

"I was like, 'You tripping. You need some meat,'" Penny said.

But as he eliminated meat, poultry, fish and dairy from his diet, Johnson admittedly felt the benefits of his new lifestyle.

"I'm not going to lie, my body felt great," Johnson said. "I felt energized. I felt like my body was recovering, but I just couldn't keep the weight on."

The longer he continued a vegan diet, the more weight Johnson lost. He dropped 14 pounds in less than two weeks, weighing in as low as 210. Johnson's teammates noticed his trimmer figure immediately and didn't lay off the jokes. They liked to ask if he was training to be a receiver full time, a year after he led all running backs with 879 receiving yards in 2016.

With the weight went Johnson's muscle mass. For a power runner, it was the worst possible scenario.

Johnson said goodbye to his vegan diet after three weeks.

His first bite of meat after the brief hiatus "felt great."

"It tasted so good," he said. "I think I ate meat like four days in a row -- steak, burgers. I think I went on a binge, which I felt afterward, but it felt great eating meat."

Even though meat was again a staple of his diet, Johnson still had to deal with the quick weight loss. And then suddenly he found himself with a lot of time on his hands. He suffered a fractured wrist in the third quarter of Arizona's 2017 opener against the Detroit Lions and spent the rest of the season on injured reserve.

While he plotted his return, Johnson still had to figure out how to regain the weight he lost.

A self-proclaimed "big meat head," Johnson loves being in the weight room almost as much as he loves being on the field. But a bum wrist made lifting weights -- and packing those pounds back on -- difficult. Cardinals strength coach Buddy Morris devised a plan that would both satiate Johnson's need to pump iron and rebuild the lost muscle through a series of exercises and lifts using straps and machines. Johnson regained the weight quickly, and a year later, he's maintained it.

He'll start Week 1 at 224 pounds, right in the range he wants to play at and the same he weighed as a rookie.

"I think I do feel a little bit better than last year going into camp," Johnson said. "I think the biggest thing, though, is that I'm learning what to do to recover faster. I'm getting more massages, eating, maintaining the diet and really just figuring out ways to stay in shape. Plus, [new coach Steve] Wilks' routine is a little different than [Bruce Arians'] so that also might factor into it."

The difference has been noticeable.

Penny sees more muscle and more power in Johnson's legs and shoulders this year.

"David looks good," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "He does. He's out there making those famous jump cuts, catching the ball out of the backfield.

"He always looks good. Whenever he's on the field he looks good. I remember watching him as a rookie in '15 and just being blown away by some of the things he was able to do in terms of the route-running and just his vision and how patient he was for a guy that young -- setting up his blocks and finding the next level. You watch him on tape in games and very rarely do you ever see him going backwards. When he hits guys, it's always 2 yards forward, 3 yards forward after contact. That takes its toll on a defense and it really inspires his teammates, because all you have to do is give him a crack, literally."

Just like he did when he lost the weight, Johnson has been getting a hard time from his teammates for bulking back up. When Wilks said early in his tenure that Arizona was going to run the ball more this season -- "ground and pound," as Johnson put it -- his teammates joked about him adding weight because of his expected workload. But Johnson would correct them, saying he's just back to the normal David Johnson.

With a twist, however.

Johnson has married his old and new diets. He still eats meat but has incorporated some vegan aspects into his daily eating habits. Those foods he once hated, he now loves, and he's made avocado, lentils and quinoa part of his diet. His wife is still vegan, which David commended, and will sometimes make vegan meals for them at home, including lentil pulled pork that David eats. Johnson believes his new diet, which moderates his meat and dairy intake, helps him maintain his regained weight.

Finding a balance with his diet, preparation and recovery has made Johnson's return to the field one of the most anticipated comebacks of 2018.

And that run in New Orleans only added fuel to the hype.

"That's impressive to see that dude look like that and still move like he did when he was vegan," Humphries said. "You see him yoked up like that and he still moves like he did.

"That dude's a freak."

Johnson expects to pick up where he left off two years ago, when he made a strong case for MVP. He's again set his sights on 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards after coming up 121 receiving yards short of being the third player in NFL history to hit the historic plateau.

Anything after 1,000 rushing yards is just a "bonus," he said.

As long as he's healthy, Johnson's season will be continually compared to what he did in 2016. And, for now, he doesn't mind that.

"It's good, but I actually want to be better than 2016," Johnson said. "I make my standard a lot higher than whatever everybody else is trying to compare me to. I think I can do a lot better than what I did in 2016, personally."