CINCINNATI -- Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson didn't pay much attention to the NFL draft last week. He was busy getting a college degree.
The 28-year-old lineman got his bachelor's degree in business administration at Georgia Tech on Saturday, six years after Cincinnati made him a third-round draft pick. Johnson was about 10 classes short of the degree when he left for the NFL and wanted to get a diploma no matter how long it took.
"I started (college) in 2005 and when I talk to kids about the importance of education and going as far as you can, I talk about how knowledge is powerful," Johnson said. "It would only be right for me to back up what I say and do it myself. Now they see that example, and it can inspire and encourage others to do the same thing."
Georgia Tech said that former NFL safety James Butler, fullback Mike Cox and tight end Will Heller got degrees over the weekend along with Johnson, who returned to campus and attended classes during the offseason in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
"A couple of people recognized me and took my picture and stuff," the 6-foot-7 lineman said. "I came in, sat on the front row and took notes and just tried to be seen and not heard, do my work and leave.
"It was interesting working with 19-, 20-year-olds. They've got a different mindset. I can remember when I was that guy in the group not pulling his load. It was fun to come back and engage the professors more and talk more to the other students."
He didn't get his degree on time in part because of the demands of being a college athlete. Johnson enjoyed being back on campus as just a student.
"I had the feel of a real college student," he said. "When you're a student-athlete, you don't really get to enjoy what it's like to be in college. Just the stress and pressure from doing everything, you're just so tired all the time. Half the battle is staying awake in class.
"Being able to come in and focus and pay attention and stuff and partake in the class -- that was big. It was an enjoyable experience."
He'll have his diploma sent to his mother's house in his hometown of Selma, Alabama.
"That's where it's going," he said. "That'll be something I always point to. It means a lot, for real."
Now he's got to get reacquainted with the Bengals' defense after spending last season with Tampa Bay. He left as a free agent following the 2013 season, had a disappointing year with the Buccaneers, and returned as a free agent to help a defense that ranked last in the league in sacks.
His time away taught him a few things.
"A character-building year," he said. "Going through all that, I thought I learned a lot about team, myself, and all that. It's great to be able to come back. You don't see this story played out like this. It's very rare to be able to do. It is a lot fun. It's truly a blessing.
"It's just going to be good getting the band back together."
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