- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Before the pink BMW, the 2,000 yards and all this talk about records, there was a man who saw the future. And was summarily fired within a year of this great vision. John Thompson is a footnote of a footnote in history, a coach whose current gig is low-profile enough that his personal e-mail address is listed on the Georgia State University website.
He is rarely linked to Chris Johnson, and shies away from taking much credit. Oh, some people make the connection, when they add the dates and places or read a bio page. You found CJ2K?
"We pretty much text every week back and forth," Thompson says. "He's gotten a little cranky with his success. His texts have gotten shorter. He does everything fast, but he could be a little more lengthy on the texts."
This is how it goes sometimes in football: One man takes a chance, becomes the only coach to offer Johnson a scholarship, then isn't around long enough to see how it turns out. The football world sees it now, how Johnson is the fastest running back in the NFL, how he's elusive and breathtaking and makes it nearly impossible for a defender to get in a good lick.
What they can't figure out is how a 5-foot-11, 191-pound running back can talk so big. Johnson interrupted the summer's normal preseason babble by boldly predicting he'd rush for 2,500 yards this season. It should be mentioned that no one in the NFL has come close to that, and the record of 2,105 was set roughly nine months before Johnson was born in 1985.
Maybe the only one who can understand it is Thompson, who has been known to go out on a limb himself. He was head coach at East Carolina in 2004, on the hot seat after just a year on the job. Scholarships were precious; time was running out. Thompson saw tape of a kid who sat with a broken leg his senior season, but running was the least of Johnson's worries. He was miles away from qualifying academically, and every school in the country took a pass on him. Thompson sat at a kitchen table on the rugged west side of Orlando, Fla., one night, with dinner cooking on the stove and Johnson's mama and grandma promising that young Chris would work harder.
After looking in their eyes that night, Thompson didn't just see ECU's future running back. He saw something much bigger.
"I do remember sitting in there that day and saying, 'Chris is going to make it, and he's going to be successful and he's going to come back here and play in the NFL. But he's got a lot of work to do before he gets there,'" Thompson says.
"We talked about Chris coming to school and doing something special."
'My biggest fear is failure'
He will not fill a notebook with philosophical waxings or deep introspection. Most days, Johnson barely speaks above a whisper, and reveals himself mainly through his Twitter account. The dreadlocks that shake through his helmet have been with him for his entire adult life, and friends speculate that they're a product of Johnson's affection for rapper Lil Wayne.
When Johnson gets going, he'll say he wants to be known someday as the LeBron James or the Michael Jordan of football, a transcendent figure considered the best at his game. At 25, he's already in rare company. In January, he became the sixth man in the history of the NFL to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, and marked the occasion by buying watches for his linemen.
His November tear of 800 yards had never been done before, nor had his feat of busting three touchdown runs of 85 yards or more in '09. Johnson caused a few groans and eye rolls in November when, after a 30-13 win against Jacksonville, he told a Sporting News radio show that he believed the Titans could go on a 10-game winning streak. They had started the season 0-6.
Tennessee ended up winning five straight and eight of its last 10 games.
"My biggest fear is failure," Johnson says. "And I don't want anybody to say last year was a fluke season or anything like that. I just want to be consistent. I feel like guys can come and they can have a really good week, really good games, a couple of good games or whatever. But that don't mean they're the best at what they do.
"Basically, I want to be the best. I say I'm the best, and I want to back up everything I say."
Johnson actually predicted he'd run for 2,000 yards before the '09 season, even though it was only his second season in the NFL and he was a mere glimmer in the eye of fantasy football owners. He delivered with 2,006 yards on 358 carries.
He received no congratulatory notes from the other five members of 2,000 club when he reached the mark on Jan. 3, but Johnson can immediately rattle off their names: Eric Dickerson. Jamal Lewis. Terrell Davis. Barry Sanders. O.J. Simpson.
None of them reached the 2,000 mark again in their careers.
"He has high expectations," Titans coach Jeff Fisher says. "It's not a selfish 'me' thing. He knows if he reaches a milestone, the team has success. He's not counting right now. The only number he has in mind right now is one, one win, and we've got to get to the next one."
If Johnson was D-list material before, he's certainly gained ground. He's become friends with Lil Wayne, and can be seen in a YouTube clip awkwardly hugging and eating lunch with country star Faith Hill. Sometimes, when people in Nashville walk up to Johnson and tell him how great he is, it seems to embarrass him, Titans receiver Nate Washington says.
But Johnson denies that, and says he's completely comfortable with the trappings of relatively new fame. He has a manager, Mike Mu, who has also worked with quarterback Vince Young and the late Steve McNair. Mu handles some of his scheduling. On his off day last week, Johnson was booked solid.
He has appeared on at least 10 preseason magazine covers. Just two years removed from being the best running back nobody knew about, Johnson is everywhere. Turn on the TV late at night and he's doing an ad for a used-car dealership. Drive down Jefferson Street near downtown Nashville and Johnson's jersey is being sold in a corner lot.
"I just got off the phone with somebody who wants to do an autograph signing," Mu says. "We're getting a lot of everything. But people still don't know who he is."
'You can really see his confidence emerge'
Let's go back to that moment at the kitchen table in Orlando, when Johnson's life seemingly could have gone a hundred ways. He spent months in night school after that, studying and cramming to improve his test scores. He leaned on his mom and his grandma and Mike Cullison, his coach at Olympia High school, who were all convinced that Chris would somehow make it.
It helped that Cullison was friends with former ECU assistant Jerry Odom, who believed in Cullison and Johnson. It was a nervous time. Johnson didn't qualify until the summer of 2004, roughly a month before fall camp started at East Carolina. When an assistant burst into Thompson's office with the news, it "was like an explosion," Thompson says. It was such a remarkable turnaround that the coaches jokingly called him Lazarus. He came back from the dead.
Despite all the excitement, ECU didn't announce the Johnson commitment. They didn't want to tip off any other schools that he was eligible. They knew then that he was a once-in-a-lifetime find, the shiny gem hidden in the last tiny crevice.
Johnson started seven games as a freshman, and racked up 1,562 all-purpose yards. With CJ at running back, former Pirates quarterback Patrick Pinkney says, everybody's job got easier. Open a hole, and Johnson would do the rest. The first three years, he showed flashes. In his senior year, he had a new resolve and did massive work in the weight room. He had 301 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Memphis.
"He talks more now," Pinkney says. "You can really see his confidence emerge. When he was in college, you really couldn't tell. He was so laid-back he didn't really say much."
In his final college game, Johnson had 408 all-purpose yards in ECU's win against Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. But did the NFL notice? The 2008 draft was loaded with running backs and far bigger names. There was Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall and Felix Jones.
Eyes definitely focused on Johnson that February, when he blazed a 4.24 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine. It is believed to be the best electronically timed mark ever at the combine. Skeptics wondered if Johnson was just another stopwatch wonder.
But back in Nashville, Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was deep in research. He'd just gotten back from the combine, just gotten an earful from a chatty defensive back who shall remain nameless but spent the weekend hyping himself up pretty good. Cecil pulled out some tape to study the cornerback, but his attention was quickly diverted by a running back on the other team. It was Johnson, who was sprinting and breaking tackles.
Cecil is a defensive coach, mind you, but he proceeded to grab six more East Carolina tapes, just so he could marvel at Johnson.
"We were like, 'Who is this guy? Is this guy for real?'" says Cecil, who also notes that the Titans scouting and offensive staffs already had Johnson well on their radar. "We were just captivated by the fact that the kid could run inside, and then you saw the speed outside.
"I watch 300, 400 games every year. When you put him on, this guy is different. Nobody's seen a guy like that since Barry Sanders. I actually played against Barry. I was at Green Bay when he was at Detroit, so I know firsthand. These kind of guys don't come along every year."
'He's so electric'
True story, corroborated by at least two people: Chris Johnson was at a pool party in South Beach once, hanging with his childhood friend Mike Sims-Walker, who's a receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In walked Ted Ginn Jr., who was a receiver for the Miami Dolphins. Ginn challenged Johnson to a footrace.
"Ted Ginn and Jerry Porter were talking a lot of smack," Sims-Walker says. "We actually agreed to race them. Ginn was talking around like he was ready, but as soon as we got to the elevator, they made some kind of excuses as to why he couldn't run. We told them we'd meet up the next morning. They never called.
"Everywhere we go, he gets asked to race."
Sims-Walker never challenges him. "I'm a realist," he says.
They're family-tight. They got a condo together in their hometown of Orlando, and spend their offseasons as roommates, hanging out with old friends. It's a long way from their modest beginnings, and they'll occasionally laugh and reflect on it.
But Johnson doesn't talk much, at least publicly, about those days. Sims-Walker says their childhood days were "rough, as rough as it can get probably, with lights being cut off, fighting. A lot of violence in the neighborhood.
"I think that drives a lot of us that grew up in that environment. You learn how to appreciate things. You remember where you came from and where you're at now, and it humbles you and drives you. You never want to go back there."
There is little chance that Johnson will. He skipped offseason workouts in the hopes of a new contract. Always thinking big, Johnson, who owns a pink BMW and a Dodge Ram, told The Tennessean he deserved to be the highest-paid running back in the league. For 2010, he eventually settled for a reported salary bump of roughly $1.25 million.
His workload is immense -- Johnson already has amassed 756 touches in just over two seasons -- and it's clear this next contract will be his big payday. Fisher sharply answers "no" when asked whether he fears Johnson, who's considered somewhat undersized, might break down. For starters, his running style allows him to absorb contact well. And his speed makes him occasionally untouchable.
"He's so electric," says Titans tight end Bo Scaife.
"I try not to get caught up watching him so much. I just hurry up and wait for him to get past me, so then I can let go and see what he's going to do. You just never know what he's going to do."
Game 2, shut down
It is the Wednesday before the Steelers game, and a crowd has converged around the shoes strewn about Johnson's locker. One red pair of sneakers has CJ2K KNOWS painted on the heels. Johnson is off lifting weights, which is something he does after just about every practice.
He started the season strong, with 142 yards and two touchdowns against the Raiders, and his followers started thinking that maybe CJ might do this, might give Eric Dickerson's record a run. It's way too early to know.
In a later interview, he's asked if he can keep his string of 12 straight 100-yard games alive against the Steelers. Johnson makes no prediction. He knows how tough the Steelers' defense is.
Sunday rolls around, and CJ is shut down. He collects just 34 yards on 16 carries, and has an 85-yard run called back on a holding penalty.
"I promise we will never have another offensive outing like we did Sunday," he later types on his Twitter account. "We gonna get it straight."
After the game, a few Steelers suggest that Johnson got tired of being hit. He bristles at that notion. They don't know who he is.
But why chase it? Why even utter it? Friends close to Johnson say he does it to challenge himself, to drive his undersized body and his common name to places nobody expected.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.