BEREA, Ohio -- Seemingly, not a day went by that D'Ernest Johnson didn’t pester Tim Ruskell, who’d just taken over running the Orlando Apollos of the newly formed Alliance of American Football league.
“I know he kept getting tired of me calling him,” Johnson said. “They already had all their running backs. But I was still calling. Every day, ‘Did anything change? Do you guys need a running back?’ The same thing.”
Johnson had just spent the previous few weeks in 2018 making a living catching mahi-mahi off the coast of Key West, Florida, both selling the fish and taking tourists on fishing excursions.
Despite a standout college career at South Florida, Johnson had gone undrafted, then unsigned by the NFL, due in part to a rather slow 40-yard-dash time of 4.81 seconds.
Johnson, however, wasn’t ready to give up on football, even as it seemed that football had given up on him. Unable to get his own agent to call him back, Johnson started messaging the social media accounts of teams from the AAF, including the Apollos.
Then, through a college teammate who’d been invited to play for the Apollos, Johnson got Ruskell’s phone number. Ruskell, who’d been GM of the Seattle Seahawks from 2005-09, was already getting inundated with calls and messages from players looking for a final shot. But, as Ruskell, puts it, Johnson’s persistence asking for a tryout “was at another level.”
“That persistence got him the workout, for sure,” Ruskell recalled. “I said, ‘This guy wants this too bad -- we have got to do something.’”
That persistence carried Johnson all the way to last Thursday night.
My favorite story about D'Ernest.— Courtney Kramer (@CourtKramer39) October 22, 2021
He DM'd every AAF team in 2018 asking for a tryout. Made the Orlando team. Then popped off.
Kid has worked his ass off. He's earned this.
(Of course I saved the screenshot.) pic.twitter.com/015PmctLcc
With the Cleveland Browns missing star running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt due to calf injuries, Johnson rushed for 146 yards in his first career NFL start, propelling the beaten-up Browns to a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos in Cleveland.
Johnson scored a touchdown on the opening drive. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he finished off the Broncos with a game-clinching, tackle-breaking, first-down run on third-and-long.
“D’Ernest Johnson to me is a warrior and a great teammate,” said head coach Kevin Stefanski, who handed Johnson the game ball as he was mobbed by his teammates in the postgame locker room. “What he has fought through in his career and then to go have a night like that and to end it how he did. … I thought it was just outstanding.”
To Johnson, the whole night still seems surreal. His boyhood idol was LeBron James. During his postgame interview, Johnson didn’t realize yet that James had tweeted about him. He was speechless -- “Lebron? LeBron James?” he kept repeating. Now, he’s planning to blow up a print of the tweet to get it framed.
“That night, I was just in shock,” said Johnson, who said he couldn’t get to sleep until 5 a.m. because of the adrenaline rush. “Like, did this all really happen?”
Johnson’s disbelief is understandable.
"I'm so proud of you guys for fighting...for 60 minutes"— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 22, 2021
🗣 Kevin Stefanski pic.twitter.com/ilb1RqeNKe
After getting off the fishing boat in August of 2018, he moved to Gainesville, Florida, and got a job as a personal trainer, so he could work out at the same gym on the side. While Johnson and his girlfriend messaged the AAF team accounts, his mom emailed random people connected to teams from the Canadian Football League.
When Johnson arrived at the Apollos’ training camp in January, he was the fifth-string running back. But his toughness, versatility and hands quickly caught the attention of head coach Steve Spurrier, the legendary former Florida Gators coach. During one of the first practices, Spurrier summoned Johnson over.
“He was like, ‘What’s your name?’ He didn’t know my name or nothing,” Johnson said. “I told him and he said, ‘OK, I’m gonna call you Ernie -- good job, Ernie.’”
Johnson made the Apollos as their third running back, but eventually became one of the top players in the league.
“He might not run a good 40, but his burst was as good as anybody’s,” Ruskell said. “And every time he got his name called, whether it be practice or whatever part in the game, he would do something. He just stood out.”
The AAF would shut down eight weeks into the season. But Johnson had enough tape for his new agent, Aston Wilson, to get him another look from the NFL, and, ultimately, Cleveland, with which he signed as a free agent in 2019.
Johnson now has a motto he lives by that he calls the “slow grind.” Nothing comes easy and nothing comes fast. The fishing boat. The calls to Ruskell. The past two-plus seasons backing up Chubb and Hunt, manning special teams and clinging to that tenuous roster spot.
Before the Denver game, Johnson contemplated that story, and even watched his mini-documentary. And he knew his slow grind was going to come full circle. The persistence was about to pay off.
“To see how far I came and to know what it took,” Johnson said. “The slow grind, you have to trust the process no matter what you’re going through. … and believe in yourself.”