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Summer jobs taught David Johnson life, football lessons

TEMPE, Ariz. -- David Johnson spent his college summers like most of his classmates at the University of Northern Iowa.

From 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every weekday, Johnson reported to various dorms and buildings around campus, ready to unclog drains and clean toilets. By 4 p.m., he traded in his maintenance uniform for his football gear and was in the weight room with his Panther teammates.

Such was life as a star running back in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Northern Iowa’s football players didn’t receive scholarship money during the summer, so Johnson had a choice. He could either get a job or take a class. He worked. When the Arizona Cardinals picked Johnson 86th overall in the NFL draft Friday, his summers of receiving hourly wages were over.

“It’s definitely going to be really nice,” Johnson said. “I can focus more on football. I’m definitely glad I get to actually do what I love and get paid for it.”

Yet without those dog days of summers, Johnson wouldn’t have appreciated the whirlwind of the last week as much. That whirlwind will culminate with the start of rookie minicamp Friday, a week after he was taken in the third round.

“It was definitely all worth it,” Johnson said. “It made me really appreciate everything that I’ve done, everything that I had to sacrifice and go through, especially in the summer when a lot of people are (on) vacation and I had to do a job and I had to work out.

“I’m definitely glad it all paid off.”

So now instead of learning how to snake a drain during the summer, Johnson will be under the hot Arizona sun learning how to lower his pad level to take on hits.

But that will seem like a picnic compared to his past summer jobs, as cleaning bathrooms and drains weren't even the worst of Johnson’s summer employment.

During his first offseason at UNI, he helped remove asbestos from local schools and worked with drywall as well. In 100-degree weather, dressed in a protective suit with a respirator mask, Johnson scraped away old tiles and then removed dried glue that looked like black tar. In the world of asbestos removal, it wasn’t the worst conditions. He was only working with one to three percent asbestos, not the more potent types.

But he lost weight and was exhausted for afternoon workouts, so with the help of a former Panther, he got a job on the maintenance team.

For the last two summers, Johnson worked for Phil Chien, who imparted advice to his underling that stuck with Johnson.

“He’s done it for about 40 years and he just said, ‘Man, you don’t want to be here so, if anything, get your education and play football for as long as you can,’” Johnson said.

Chien’s words, the long hours, the hard work, it all was an education unto itself with school out for summer break. And each provided lessons that Johnson has taken with him in the next step of his football career.

“It definitely taught me,” Johnson said. “It taught me that not everything’s given. You got to work for everything. Not everything’s handed to you. If you want something you go to go get it. If you have to work for it, if you have to get a job, you got to want it and want it bad enough to go get it.”

Johnson didn't have the typical summer for a college athlete. Fittingly, he doesn’t see himself as a typical NFL running back. Neither do the Cardinals.

He’s more versatile than most backs, almost as proficient in receiving as he is in rushing. He ran for at least 1,000 yards in his last three seasons at UNI -- including 1,553 in 2014 -- and had 38 receptions for 536 yards.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians called Johnson “a three-down player,” which Johnson took as a compliment.

“I’m glad that he noticed that I’m effective on every down,” Johnson said.

Arizona had its focus on Johnson as Andre Ellington's understudy for a while. Johnson estimated that a scout was at his practices every week during his senior season. But Johnson doesn’t have any expectations for what a pairing of him and Ellington will look like.

“Do what I can, be there for the team wherever Coach Arians needs me to be,” Johnson said. “I think we both can complement each other.”