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Wednesday, April 17, 2002
Updated: April 18, 3:11 PM ET
 
Johnson's journey to NFL has been long
By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

It only seems like former Kentucky defensive end Dennis Johnson, one of the more intriguing underclassmen in this year's NFL draft and certainly among the best pure pass rushers in the lottery, has played football forever.

In truth, Johnson pulled on his first pair of shoulder pads when he was 6 years old but wasn't permitted to participate in an organized game until second grade.

Of course, the fact that first meaningful encounter with the sport came as a member of the varsity at Harrodsburg (Ky.) High School sets Johnson apart from those prospects whose road to the NFL commenced in an age-group league. So does the reality Johnson played seven years at the high school varsity level, earned letters six times and received all-state recognition on five occasions.

Dennis Johnson
Dennis Johnson (56) had 12 sacks last season for Kentucky.
And, please, no dismissive remarks here about how Johnson must have been a really slow learner.

"No, actually, he was a very good student," said Johnson's father, Alvis Johnson, his former high school coach and now an associate athletics director at Kentucky. "But we had an unusual situation at our high school, with just 300 or so students enrolled, and not near enough players to fill out the team."

And so Dennis Johnson, who was an outlandish 5-foot-7 and nearly 170 pounds in the second grade, dressed for high school varsity games. So did older brother Derrick, a third-grader. Mostly the two boys held the blocking dummies at practices, but on a few occasions when Harrodsburg was on the long end of a lopsided game, Dennis got onto the field for the final minutes.

While his classmates were still learning to tie their shoes, Dennis Johnson, playing mostly offensive guard at the time, was trying to tie up opposing linebackers. When other kids in his neighborhood were chasing each other in games of "tag" after school, Johnson was chasing quarterbacks in practice. And on Saturday mornings, as most of his peers sat in front of a television watching cartoons, Johnson was in front of a film screen while his father broke down tapes of the previous night's game.

His older teammates would talk in the locker room about dating, but Johnson didn't even speak to girls at the time. He would finish his second-grade classes, walk to the high school for practice, get home in time for dinner and then do his homework.

It was, Johnson recalled at the combine workout last month, an accepted regimen for he and his brother. Their father needed to pump up the body count at a Class-A school where the roster numbered just 45 players, and Dennis and Derrick were happy to oblige. Never, said Dennis Johnson, did he fret over potentially disastrous physical consequences, since he was as big or bigger than many of the kids against whom he played.

"It didn't scare me, not at all, honestly," Johnson said. "Now my mother, that was another story, because I know she held her breath every time we got in a game. She probably had her hands covering her eyes or something, and I'm sure she was praying the whole time, knowing her. Me, I never thought twice about it. I just loved being out there."

Kentucky was one of only five states at the time that permitted students to participate at the high school varsity level before they reached even junior high school. The rule was essentially to help the smaller-enrollment schools, like Harrodsburg, be able to compete. But because of the publicity generated by the Johnson boys, the state's governing athletic association altered the guidelines, ruling that an elementary student could not play on the varsity.

The game is in my blood. Seems like it has been forever.
Dennis Johnson, former Kentucky defensive end

The new rule stipulated that students had to be in junior high school to play at the high school level and so Dennis Johnson, believed by the National Federation of State High School Associations to be the youngest player ever to participate in a varsity contest, could not suit up for his father again until seventh grade.

The closest case to Johnson's, in terms of youngest participant in a varsity sport, was believed to be a female cross-country runner in the firth grade. An Alabama girl also won six straight state cross-country titles beginning in the seventh grade.

The stretch between the second and seventh grades was a painful four years, Johnson acknowledged, hauling equipment back and forth for his father but not being able to pull on the red-and-white Harrodsburg uniform. He could practice with the varsity, and did on occasion, but not suit up for games. It didn't matter that Dennis and Derrick towered over their teachers and were stouter than some of the varsity starters.

"We understood the rationale (behind the new rule), but we really could have used my two boys," said Alvis Johnson. "They wouldn't have dominated, no way, but they could have played some. And, Dennis, well, he was willing to run through a wall for you."

"I really thought," Dennis Johnson, said, "that I could have held my own even in third or fourth grade."

Ironically, it was opposing offensive linemen who were forced to hold Johnson once he got to seventh grade and rejoined the varsity squad. A starter at defensive end, though he was just 11 years old, Dennis Johnson called the alignments and switches for his father, had more than 70 tackles and was an honorable mention all-state performer.

Over his final five varsity seasons, Johnson started on the offensive and defensive lines and made all-state every year. He was named "Mr. Football" in Kentucky after his senior season. Given his youthful start, the honor might have been a bit tardy.

"As small a town as we were, people would drive from all around to see him play," said Derrick Johnson. "He was kind of a legend in these parts."

That stature increased in college, where Johnson started three year for the Wildcats and set a school record in 2001 with a conference-best 12 sacks. He opted after his junior year to apply for the draft, in part because he now has a family of his own.

At 6-4 5/8 and 258 pounds, Johnson certainly looks the part of the weakside end. He is regarded as a likely second-round draft choice, could perhaps squeeze into the bottom of the first round, and is valued because teams covet anyone who can pressure the passer with the kind of regularity he has demonstrated. Despite his sleek frame, Johnson's body is still relatively undefined, particularly through the shoulder and chest, and he may need to spend more time in the weight room.

If that's what it takes to get to the next level, Johnson will do it, because he feels football has been a birthright. Then again, when you're first exposure to the game is as a 6-year-old playing at the varsity level, how else are you supposed to feel?

"The game is in my blood," Johnson said. "Seems like it has been forever."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.