Patience puts Cam Johnson in presence of stars

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San Francisco rookie Cam Johnson sits on the sidelines with teammates during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day.

NEW ORLEANS -- In some ways, Cam Johnson has already arrived. Even if nobody knows it yet.

On Tuesday, Johnson walked onto the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for Super Bowl media day, one of 53 players likely to be active for the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. Only a month ago, the 6-foot-3 rookie linebacker was toiling away on the Niners' practice squad, as a seventh-round draft pick determined to prove he deserved more attention than he got last April.

And now here he was, under the bright lights … being ignored by reporters.

Johnson spent most of the media session leaning against a long table with a couple of his teammates, looking out at the throngs feasting on the words of more popular players. In that regard, he was just another media day cliché, standing there with a towel tossed over his shoulder, soaking in the spectacle -- a guy who still has a long way to go until he has really, truly arrived.

But at least he's on his way.

Look, I'm staying hungry and I'm working. I'm trying to reach the level of the other guys on this team.
Cam Johnson

Most draft experts had Johnson, a Washington, D.C., native who played at the University of Virginia, pegged to go somewhere between the third and fifth rounds last spring. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock had him way up at No. 50. And yet when Johnson finally heard his name called on Day 3 of the draft, he was No. 237 on the board, just 16 spots ahead of Mr. Irrelevant, the unceremonious nickname given to the player picked last in the seventh and final round.

Jim Reid, Johnson's defensive coordinator at Virginia, couldn't believe it. He compared Johnson to another linebacker he had coached in the pros: former Miami Dolphins star Jason Taylor. "I don't know what that draft day crap was about," Reid told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "I'm a Christian, but I'd still like to use a few extra words. I have no idea where that came from. It angered me."

Reid could be forgiven for sounding paternalistic on Johnson's behalf, but draft evaluators are notoriously unsentimental, and there were some reasons for them to be wary. A lot of scouts considered Johnson a "tweener," not quite quick enough to be an outside linebacker, not quite stout enough to play defensive end. Although he possesses good speed for his size -- he's 268 pounds and clocked a 4.78 in the 40-yard dash -- some front offices worried he didn't have a natural position. (He was an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme during his first two college seasons, then switched to defensive end in a 4-3 system for his junior and senior seasons.)

There was also a medical concern: Johnson has sickle-cell trait, a genetic condition that can pose serious health risks -- even death in the most extreme cases -- during physical exertion. He was diagnosed in college, and he says it's not anything he's conscious of on the field.

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Cam Johnson saw action in the 49ers' last two regular-season games.

"People may think that it affects my play, but I've never felt that it does," he said during media day.

Ryan Clark, another NFL player who has sickle-cell trait, lost his spleen, gallbladder and nearly his life during a game in Denver in October 2007. Clark no longer plays in Steelers games in the high-altitude city due to the risks.

Of course, Johnson knew there were question marks in his scouting report going into the draft. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen," he said, adding he has never discussed it with the 49ers -- why he fell so far or why they took a chance on him. "I know they expect 100 percent effort, and that's all I've been trying to give them. I'm ready for any role."

For most of the season, Johnson's role included a lot of practice and a lot of film, but no suiting up on Sundays. That changed in late December, when he was promoted to the active roster.

After hearing the news, he called his parents, who rejoiced with him. And when he first pulled on his 49ers uniform, against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16, Johnson was "so proud of myself." Even better: He got to play, entering the game in the third quarter to give starting linebacker Aldon Smith a breather.

"Cam Johnson is one of the guys on our squad who had a chance to go to other teams during the season, they got the chance to be brought up to other teams' [53-man roster] but chose to stay with the San Francisco 49ers," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I believe it speaks volumes for the way they enjoy being on this team and being with their teammates."

Later this week, Johnson will find out what his role, if any, will be for the Super Bowl.

"Look, I'm staying hungry and I'm working," he said. "I'm trying to reach the level of the other guys on this team. We have some great outside linebackers, and I'm just following in their footsteps and trying to learn from them, trying to get better along the way. Yeah, I was excited to make the team, but that was a stepping-stone to where I wanted to go."

As Johnson spoke, he gestured toward the podiums reserved for the big-name players, the ones who have arrived in the eyes of fans and the media.

Who knows? Maybe he'll take a step in that direction Sunday.

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