In 2008, Chris Johnson set a new 40-yard dash record at the NFL Scouting Combine. He then skyrocketed up draft boards, causing the Tennessee Titans to select him 24th overall. The following is a first-person reflection from Johnson on his record-setting run and the training that led up to it, as told to Bleacher Report's Sean Tomlinson.
Three numbers changed my life forever. Four. Two. And four.
Of course, I'm referring to the 4.24 40-yard dash I clocked at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine. It was one-hundredth of a second faster than my target goal, even. And as crazy as it sounds, I didn't know what the record was coming in. I just knew that I wanted to run fast. So I did.
But my story doesn't start with that run. Obviously, my story hasn't ended there either.
No, my story started back in high school, when I was running track.
There was a point in time around 10th or 11th grade when I was running track and started to become faster and faster. Before I knew it, I was the fastest kid on the track team. Football was always my sport; I just did track to get faster and stay in shape throughout the offseason. But I kept pushing myself and kept getting faster. I went from football-first to just first.
There was only one problem. And I'll never forget those four words from my trainer, Tom Shaw, who ultimately prepared me for the biggest run of my life.
You pop too much.
Being fast can come naturally. But as far as the 40-yard dash is concerned—the premier event every year at the NFL Scouting Combine—you have to learn how to run with the right technique, and in training, you also learn how to start properly.
For me, I already knew how to run fast. The only problem when I ran track was my start. I often had a slow start, so throughout the combine training process I focused on that, and I ended up really improving.
I used to pop up a lot, meaning that when I came out of my starting stance, I was springing upright too soon. I had to stay low and then rise more gradually. As long as you’re in your drive phase and digging, you have to stay low. Because as soon as you pop up, you’re all the way out of the drive phase, and then you lose that initial power and burst. You’re just straight running.
I worked on my start with Shaw at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida, for more than two months leading up to the 2008 combine. The right form became habit. Then at the combine, we were already there a few days before the 40-yard dash.
Once the on-field day finally came, it was like, “Oh man, I’m tired and ready to go home.” You don’t work out until the last day, so it takes a while to get loose.
You’re already exhausted from all the interviews and everything that comes before the on-field day. But then you wake up and it’s time to compete.
The adrenaline gets pumping. I don’t know how it is for the bigger-name players, but for me, coming from a smaller school [East Carolina], the combine on-field work was an opportunity to compete with guys who went to all those other great schools and all the 5-star recruits. I had a chance to show I belonged with them the whole time.
I know my 4.24 record-setting time in the 40-yard dash boosted me up the draft board, because before the combine, I was projected to be a second- or third-round pick. I already had tape to show my abilities and stats to back them up. When you toss in the 40-yard dash time on top of all that, it was like, “Who is this guy?”
My school was big enough to be in Division I, and we were playing schools that people know about. But it wasn’t like I was from an Alabama, Auburn or Miami. So when I had the film and then the 40-yard dash time, I think teams went back and looked at my film even more.
Before running, I was nervous that day in Indianapolis, but good nervous. I’m so used to running track, so I knew I had to go out there and just run. I had to worry about my start and coming out. I had run a million straight-line races. The 40-yard dash is obviously a much shorter distance, and I just had to focus on those 40 yards.
When I crossed the line, I immediately knew it was a good run. But I still thought I could go faster, because I actually didn’t get off to a good start. Instead of going straight, I stepped to the right a little bit and stumbled. If everything was absolutely perfect, I probably could have run a 4.18 or 4.19.
When I was doing my interviews, some of the teams asked me what I thought I was going to run. I said, “I’m going to run a 4.25.” And they just laughed at me. I thought “whatever” and then ran a 4.24, lower than what I said anyway.
Now, I feel like that day changed my life. Looking back eight years later, setting the record helped to push my career forward.
But at the same time, I also think everyone already knew I was fast. Breaking the record just solidified that.
A lot of people run fast, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have a good NFL career. In my first preseason game, I broke off a long run up the middle against the St. Louis Rams for 66 yards. That’s when my career started rolling.
The 40-yard dash helps more prospects than it hurts. But if a team out there likes a certain player, no matter what he does, it's going to grab him. So, sometimes it really doesn’t matter.
A prospect’s 40-yard dash speed doesn’t always translate to football speed. The 40-yard dash is straight running. You have track guys who are way faster than an NFL athlete, but they can’t properly harness that speed to be successful in the game of football. Often, it just doesn’t work that way.
Running track helped me to get much faster. But I don’t think I ever had to really translate that speed over because I was always a football-first guy.
Coaches, scouts and general managers already know if your speed will come with you to the field. They’ve watched so much film that the 40-yard dash is sort of like the icing on the cake. That day in 2008, I proved to them that I have the cherry on top of the icing on the cake.
Chris Johnson ran for 814 yards on 196 carries for the Arizona Cardinals last season before suffering a fractured tibia and has over 9,000 rushing yards in his eight-year NFL career, including a 2,000-yard season in 2009. Chris will enter free agency next month as an unrestricted free agent.