MANKATO, Minn. -- The mountain bikes chained up in rows outside the Otto Recreation Center are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Rented out to Minnesota Vikings players and officials each year during training camp, they're little more than a way to get around Minnesota State University -- nondescript, functional and certainly no marker of individuality.
Charles Johnson is rarely on one of those bikes. One day, he might be on a fixed-gear bike he borrowed from one of the team's PR guys. The next, he might be on the mini-motorcycle he bought on a whim. Little about the 26-year-old's mode of transportation conforms to a mold. Then again, little about Johnson's route to this point does, either.
He was suspended from Eastern Kentucky University when he wouldn't cooperate with authorities investigating his roommate for allegedly stealing a laptop. He found Division II Grand Valley State through a Google search, after he learned he'd only have one year of Division I eligibility remaining. A torn ACL cut short his time in Cleveland after the Browns signed him off Green Bay's practice squad. The Vikings only signed Johnson after they released Jerome Simpson last September in the wake of reports about his latest run-in with the law.
And yet here Johnson is -- with dyed blond hair, nose ring and painted toenails -- poised for a breakout season with the Vikings and not at all concerned with what you think of him.
"I like to tell people, 'It's OK to be different. You don't have to be like everybody else,'" he said. "What they think is cool doesn't make it cool. I pride myself on being different. Being like everybody else, you're only going to get overshadowed."
Johnson knows how to juggle. He arrived to training camp and unpacked his belongs from a Smart car. He claims he doesn't drink or smoke. He's started not one, but two fashion lines. He's learning to play the guitar, he admits with some sheepishness because of how blasé it sounds.
"Charles Johnson -- Mohawk, blond hair, nose ring. He's his own guy," wide receivers coach George Stewart said. "As long as he fits within the confines of our team structure, I dig that about him. He's going to be a team guy, but at the same time, he's his own guy. That's confidence."
Johnson caught 31 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns last season, despite having just three catches before Week 8. He clicked with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, supplanted Cordarrelle Patterson as the Vikings' top split end and seems on track to start at that position in 2015.
"He's a big receiver that can run," Stewart said. "He's quicker than what you think. He's a young guy that's still improving, and his ceiling is as high as he wants it to be."
The 6-foot-2 receiver seems acutely aware of how close he came to not making it here at all. He crisscrossed the country this offseason, working out with Vikings teammates in Southern California, doing drills in Houston with footwork trainer Rischad Whitfield and returning to Minnesota to train with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. It was Johnson's first offseason since his junior year of college that didn't involve draft prep or injury rehab, and after a brief period of rest, "I got to work on the things I wanted to work on," he said.
"Every year, you've got to get better doing something," Stewart said. "He was a great route-runner last year. He's even more explosive this year."
What got Johnson the most attention during the offseason was something he did off the field. He was one of 300 people who attended the birthday party of 10-year-old Mackenzie Moretter, after his wife saw a Facebook plea from Moretter's mother. Moretter was diagnosed with Sotos Syndrome (a condition that causes gigantism) when she was a year old, and all of her invited guests had declined to attend until strangers helped turn the Shakopee, Minnesota, party into a big bash.
Johnson knew there would be media at the party, and told his wife to keep their attendance quiet. "I didn't want it to be about me," he said. "I wasn't surprised that it got that much coverage, but it was kind of disappointing to me. That should be a normal thing for society to see, that people would do something like this for a little girl whose mom is calling for a little help. It shouldn't be blown out of proportion, like it's a big old deal."
If it did anything for Johnson, it helped introduce more people to his credo that different is good. One boy -- Johnson estimates he's 11 years old -- routinely posts on the receiver's Instagram account, thanking him for encouraging others to be themselves.
"I know what it's like to have nothing," Johnson said. "I know what it's like to not have friends, where you're by yourself and you don't know what your next step is going to be. Sometimes you might just need a little nudge. ... It doesn't take any money to go up and shake somebody's hand, to say something nice, to hold a door or just say, 'Thank you.' It really doesn't cost anything."