ASHBURN, Va. -- Josh Johnson is from Oakland, California, and that’s important to know because it’s central to his story. It’s why he never lost hope, never stopped working. It’s why, after being part of a dozen organizations in 11 years, he maintained the confidence that one day he’d get another shot. That’s what he’ll receive Sunday when he starts at quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
Johnson and his cousin, Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, share a passion for football and their hometown.
“Marshawn is very Oakland; Josh is, too,” said James Coplan, the athletic director at their old high school, Oakland Tech.
And Coplan has a good reason why he says that, extending beyond what he calls the city’s grittiness.
“Oakland has been an underdog for so many years,” he said.
Johnson's story has been an underdog story. He’s now with his 12th NFL franchise, but 13th pro franchise overall -- he spent 2012 with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct UFL. His NFL journey looks like a rock band’s concert tour, with stops in Tampa Bay, San Francisco (twice), Cleveland, Cincinnati (twice), both teams in New York, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Baltimore, Houston and, yes, Oakland.
Since entering the NFL in 2008, he’s attempted 193 passes -- but none since 2011 until last Sunday.
But he kept believing because he felt there was no other choice. It’s why playing in the Alliance of American Football in February with San Diego appealed to him. In the meantime, Johnson worked with kids in the Oakland area, including teaching young quarterbacks footwork as part of his and Lynch's Fam 1st Family Foundation. In fact, Johnson told Sports Illustrated he was with a young man who was in the hospital for a broken leg -- only to have doctors discover cancer in his leg -- when the Redskins called him.
“I always say, ‘Well, go coach because you’d be a great coach,’" his mom, Rosemary Whisenton, said. “He’d say, ‘I’m not ready to do that right now.’ He was still working out, doing what he had to do.”
With good reason.
"Growing up in Oakland, California, I understand the real struggle,” Johnson said. “I understand the mentality that we tend to have in the inner city. For me, not only am I setting an example of what resilience is, I can’t tell a younger kid, I can’t tell my own kid, how important it is to keep their mind on something if my actions don’t reflect that. They kind of hold me accountable as well when I interact with the youth because it’s important for me to practice what I preach."
Johnson could withstand the frustrations of the journey by seeing what others were doing, or had done. He works out in Oakland with Lynch as well as Rams cornerback Marcus Peters. But Johnson also had a mom who has shown a blueprint for work.
“My day starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3 in the morning,” she said. “Four hours of sleep and I’m good. Anything past four and I’m dead.”
She leaves home around 7:30 a.m. for her job as school treasurer at Oakland Tech. She then goes home for an hour or so and then it’s off to her job at FedEx. She gets home around 2:30 a.m. She fills many hats at school, including coaching girls volleyball, softball and cheerleading. At various other times she’s also worked at Toys 'R' Us (20 years) and the parks and recreation department (26 years). In short, she works a lot. She’s earned what she’s received.
Her son takes that same approach.
"To me, it’s just reality,” Johnson said. “One thing I've always appreciated, I mean I went to a non-scholarship school, I had to work jobs, so I didn’t get a scholarship, and nothing was ever given to me. To me, my life and what I've experienced is kind of common.”
Johnson played for Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, which does not give out football scholarships, and was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. His first career start came in 2009 against the Redskins. Johnson has been up, but mostly down.
“We've kind of all experienced trials and tribulations in our career fields and our life trying to get ahead, wanting to get ahead, wanting to be at the top, but one thing that’s consistent is not everybody is at the top at the same time,” he said. “So, you've just got to be patient, wait your turn, but if you really want it and you really love it, you're going to put in the work. So at the end of the day, when you get an opportunity, you can say I did what I was supposed to do to take care of my business.”
His high school coach, Delton Edwards, called Johnson stubborn. He’s going to finish what he starts and nothing intimidates him.
“He wouldn’t break,” Edwards said. “They say I’m mean. When he went to San Diego, he told Harbaugh, ‘That little barking you do, I went through worse with my high school coach.’”
Johnson showed some of that grit long ago in the Silver Bowl Championship game his senior season of high school. Edwards said Johnson was on fire in the first quarter, but then he turned it over a couple times in the second quarter.
“They weren’t his fault, but I was on him pretty hard,” Edwards said. “He said, ‘Hold up coach. I got it. I got the game plan. I know what I have to do now.’”
Edwards shut up; Oakland Tech won the game.
“The one thing that I really respect about Josh Johnson is he is a very confident guy,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He has a skill set that’s pretty good but hasn’t been able to stick anywhere, but still, the game's not too big for him. ... He's going to go out there and feel like he's the best quarterback in pro football.”
After playing last week against the Giants and completing 11-of-16 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, he called his mom. Oftentimes after games, she said, Johnson would knock his performance. He wanted more. Not this time; he was just excited to be getting a chance.
He might not play well against Jacksonville. This might be the last real shot of his career. Maybe it’s the best. Regardless, he can live with the results.
“Everything I went through in Oakland is real life, and that’s what a lot of people go through,” he said. “So when I had an opportunity to go out here and play a game, that maybe 2,000 people get the opportunity to do, there isn’t anything to complain about. This is like going to Disneyland every day for me, for real, because just a week ago, I was at home in the hood, chillin’ with the kids, chillin’ with my family and thinking on the couch that I might never play in the NFL again.”