FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Jermaine Johnson II had no idea when he committed to Independence (Kansas) Community College that it would be featured in Season 3 of the popular Netflix docuseries Last Chance U. When he showed up in Independence, a tiny city (pop. 8,600) near the Oklahoma border, it was lights, camera, action.
The lights and camera didn't appeal to him.
"My goals were very clear to me and I wasn’t really super interested in being an actor or anything like that," said Johnson, who turned down the opportunity to have a major role in the series.
For him, Last Chance U was his best chance to reach the NFL. Countless players take their frayed dreams to junior college outposts, hoping to land an FBS scholarship, a spot on Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board and, ultimately, a place in the league. Unfortunately, many fade away, with broken bodies and fractured spirits.
Not Johnson. He arrived in Kansas, clicked his heels together three times and discovered a yellow brick road to the New York Jets, completing a circuitous football journey that took him from Minnesota to Kansas to Georgia to Florida to New York. They drafted him 26th overall after trading up.
Not bad for a kid whose high school transcript was as thin as his 6-foot-5, 210-pound physique. Due to bad grades, which resulted in frequent sit-downs with his coach and school administrators, Johnson didn't qualify academically for Division I. It was juco or bust.
"On the show, I told everybody Jermaine was a first-rounder and he ended up being a first-rounder," said former Independence coach Jason Brown, who sat with Johnson in the green room during last week's NFL draft in Las Vegas. "He dropped a little bit, lost a few dollars maybe, but I told him, 'Listen, you're a juco guy, this is nothing new. Adversity is what we do.' He's all right. I think he's going to make people who passed on him pay for it."
Johnson finished his college career with a 12-sack season at Florida State after two years at Georgia, but it was at Independence where he grew as a person and a player -- quite literally. By the time he left, he had added 40 pounds of muscle. He was a fixture in the weight room and film room, according to his former coaches -- not that he was seen by Netflix viewers.
In Season 3 of the series (2017), Johnson was in the background, overshadowed by the loud and volatile Brown and a handful of teammates with compelling backstories. Johnson did contribute one of the biggest plays of the season -- a last-minute sack to preserve a 27-23 win over nationally-ranked Garden City (Kansas) Community College.
"The reason why that moment sticks out for me is he told us he was going to win the game for us," said current ICC coach Jason Martin, the defensive coordinator at the time. "He let us know on the sideline during a timeout. You can watch that and see the type of playmaker he is -- the type of dude he is -- to change a game on the football field."
Independence was such a hit on Last Chance U that Netflix decided to return to the school for Season 4. By then, Johnson's anonymity was gone. In the first episode, he's introduced as the No. 1 juco player in the country, with Brown adding on the show, "There's not another player around the country like Jermaine Johnson. There's just not."
Johnson has more face time in Season 3 of the series, including a segment in which he's interviewed by an Atlanta-based reporter after committing to Georgia. For the most part, he's in the supporting cast as the Pirates struggle through a 2-8 season that ends with Brown resigning after he sent an insensitive text to a player on the team.
Brown and Martin, in interviews with ESPN, both confirmed that Johnson met with them to express reluctance about being showcased in Last Chance U. It's not that he didn't relish the spotlight. He actually enjoys it, just not the Hollywood kind.
"He'll probably be mad at this, but when people were there to watch him, he played better," Brown said. "When Nick Saban came or Georgia would come or whoever, he showed out. That tells me, too, in the New York City media market, it's only a positive. He's going to shine under the brightest lights."
Johnson finished with 12.5 sacks in two juco seasons. Aside from success on the field, he did well academically, compiling about a 3.5 GPA, according to Brown. His former coaches called him a model student-athlete. Martin said his wife became "a fan" of Johnson because he always was polite and kind when interacting with their family.
Independence wasn't glamorous -- they practiced on a shaggy, dead-grass field and lived in simple dorm rooms -- but he called it a career turning point.
It was stop No. 1 on a three-stop journey to the NFL.
"You see the transfers and everything, it wasn’t a clean-cut, cookie-cutter way to get here," Johnson said. "But I wouldn’t want it any other way, because it truly created the man that’s seated in front of you."
Johnson struggled academically at Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High School, where he played for Mike Grant, son of Minnesota Vikings legend Bud Grant. He was a three-star recruit, but failed to qualify because of a 1.9 GPA. Grant described him as a quiet, but popular kid who lacked focus in the classroom.
Asked if he lectured Johnson on the importance of raising his grades, Grant laughed and asked, "What do you think? Probably daily."
Grant added, "He was never a bad kid, never in trouble or anything like that, but he just wasn't as focused as he is now."
Brown got wind of Johnson's situation through his coaching sources and made several trips to the Minneapolis area -- about an eight-hour drive from Independence -- to recruit him. Despite his start, Johnson's goal always was the NFL.
"He learned from high school, 'I'm not going to make the same mistake twice,'" Brown said. "He knows the definition of insanity, and I think he realized that. He hunkered down and knocked out his obligations."
By his second year at ICC, Johnson was attracting dozens of recruiters to practice. He could've gone pretty much anywhere in the country, but he opted to sign with coach Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs. He joined a star-studded defense that wound up winning a CFP National Championship and producing a record five first-round picks in 2022.
Johnson could've walked away with a championship ring, but he wasn't happy with his playing time and decided to transfer after the 2020 season. Those two years in Athens, Georgia, he said, were probably the low point of his entire football experience. It was on to Stop No. 3, Tallahassee, Florida.
At Florida State, he was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, debuting with a 1.5-sack performance against Notre Dame. He was “physically, the most dominant player on the field,” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller recalled. He said Johnson’s work ethic and mental toughness remind him of two former Jets he coached in college, cornerback Buster Skrine and linebacker Neville Hewitt, a couple of overachievers who created niches in the league. At times, he used Johnson as a wide-9 rusher, which the Jets plan to do.
“He’s a vertical player,” Fuller said. “We definitely lined him up in some 9s and some outside-edge force places because, I mean, he’s a load now. People talk about his pass rushing, but the thing that’s best about him, to be honest with you, is the physicality he plays with in the run game.”
The Jets passed on him twice, with the fourth and 10th picks, but they tried frantically to trade up when he slipped to 15th. He was the eighth-rated player on their draft board, so they smelled value. After repeated rejections and high anxiety in the draft room, general manager Joe Douglas finally made a deal with the Tennessee Titans to move up to 26th from 35th.
"We're on the f---ing clock," Douglas exclaimed as he hung up the phone with the Titans. The room exploded with celebration.
Johnson is grateful to the Jets for moving up to draft him. It told him, "I'm wanted. I'm loved." Five years ago, he had the same feelings for Independence.
"He didn't let his career be done," Grant said of his former high school player. "He worked his butt off, ended up playing at the highest level of college football and became a [first-round] pick. It's a great story of hard work and determination and maturity."
All he needed was a chance.