He was on a beach in Florida with his family when his agent reached out. The second David Johnson heard those magical words on March 16—"How would you like to be a Texan?"—he was stoked. No, "super stoked" for a fresh start.
Things had turned south, fast, in Arizona. Now he could reintroduce himself to the NFL.
Then came the backlash. So much backlash. And, this, Johnson never saw coming. The entire world was apparently in agreement: The Houston Texans had gotten fleeced. You simply do not trade the best wide receiver in the NFL for a has-been running back, a second-round pick and a swap of fourth-rounders. DeAndre Hopkins is on the short list of professional athletes who should never, ever, not once even in your worst possible nightmares ever be considered in a trade. Johnson? His breakout 2016 season felt eons ago.
Hopkins is the star who made Deshaun Watson's life better, and giving Watson every possible reason to re-sign should be Priority A through Z. Johnson? He's a rare, rotten combo for a running back: aging, at 28, oft-injured and with an albatross of a contract.
So once everyone realized that Bernie Madoff was not running the Cardinals and that fair-weather sports fan you sneak into your fantasy league simply to swindle was not running the Texans—that this trade was real, very real—all hell broke loose.
That cellphone in Johnson's hand virtually detonated.
This was unlike anything we've seen out of a modern NFL transaction. Players ripped the deal, one by one. Tyrann Mathieu could only say, "Smfh." Cameron Heyward said we should start drug-testing general managers. Jalen Ramsey screamed "WHAT!!??" and Patrick Mahomes yelled "Whoa!" and Leonard Fournette said everybody was losing their minds, to which Calais Campbell responded with a chuckle. Jeff Allen said all GMs should call O'Brien that second because, hey, maybe J.J. Watt could be had for "some toilet paper."
Darius Slayton thought his own eyes were damaged.
Ex-linebacker Emmanuel Acho instructed Bill O'Brien, the Texans head coach, to slap O'Brien, the Texans GM.
Ex-running back Arian Foster wondered if O'Brien was drunk.
Fans, in droves, screamed for players to get out while they could.
Sports media, in unison, flogged the Texans.
And there was Johnson. On the beach. Hearing it all.
The stream of vitriol was "inescapable." The only way he could've avoided it all was by, literally, deleting all social media and throwing his phone into the ocean. But living without a phone during a pandemic didn't seem like a good option, so in came the DM bombs from fans on Twitter and Instagram alike. And, really, Johnson didn't blame them since they were taking their cues from what he calls the "bluechecks" on Twitter. You know this "verified" mob—snarky, smug, on a 24/7 hunt for cheap retweets that, in turn, foster a reprehensible echo chamber. Contrasting opinions, in 2020, are promptly herded to slaughter.
"It didn't help when these commentators were saying stuff and they're 'bluechecks,'" Johnson says, "so when they say it, everyone sees it."
What he remembers most is Michael Irvin, a Hall of Famer, saying on ESPN that the Texans traded Hopkins for "a ham sandwich."
That is essentially how everyone viewed him. As a molding, prepackaged sandwich hastily bought at the gas station.
His wife did what she could. Meghan has always been able to keep negative thoughts out of her husband's head. Both are very religious, too, so staying in the Bible and trusting in a larger plan helped. And the more Johnson thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the only opinion that truly mattered was that of his new head coach.
If O'Brien believed in him, he didn't give a damn what anybody else thought. If O'Brien was willing to deal Hopkins for him, then, well, that speaks volumes about his own talent and what's about to go down this season.
Any fans upset in Houston? They don't know him yet.
Johnson says he will change their opinions.
"I hope to get them over that hump," he says, "to get that Super Bowl ring. … To once again prove everyone wrong and make Bill O'Brien look as great as he can be with what he did."
Because, to Johnson, this is nothing new. All of your venom fits perfectly into the script of his football life. He's been dealing with scathing doubt forever, back to his childhood, to high school, to college, to the pros. It's just that now, he says, it's on a "grander scale." Now, it's "nationwide." But he is processing it like he always has. He'll treat everyone ripping this trade precisely as he treated Kirk Ferentz and Paul Rhoads and the others.
"I thrived on people saying I wasn't good enough to be something," Johnson says. "I was able to change what they said to me into motivation. And I was able to use that in everything I did—weight room, school, anything I did, I was able to use that as fuel, as energy, as inspiration for me to prove them wrong."
So that's the plan: Shut everybody up.
He hails from a flyover state, a wrestling state. You don't find dynamic offensive weapons in Clinton, Iowa (pop.: 25,093). Everyone tried convincing Johnson to make a living on the mat growing up because that's where the best of the best athletes there made it.
He ignored them, stuck with football and was then, predictably, ignored himself.
So this is where he starts. Explaining why he's about to nuke NFL convention begins with two scholarship offers from two schools (Northern Iowa and Illinois State) that approximately zero kids pretend to strike Heisman Trophy poses for in their backyards. Every brand-name school Johnson spoke to, camp after camp, had an excuse. Even as a Super Bowl champ like Notre Dame's Charlie Weis anointed him one of the 20 best campers out of 400-plus recruits, Johnson was told again…and again…in so many words he "just didn't fit" the system.
And not only was Johnson Costanza'd with the It's not you, it's me routine, he was also flat-out told he wasn't good enough.
The two biggest slaps in the face came from the two coaches, in-state, who should've known him best.
First, the Iowa royalty. No current FBS coach has been at a school longer than Ferentz, who took over at University of Iowa in 1998. Yet even though Johnson was just an hour-and-a-half drive away and scored 42 touchdowns as a senior in 2010, Ferentz didn't seem to care. Even though the man from Iowa who recruited him (Reese Morgan) was a huge fan, Ferentz offered him only a "grayshirt" opportunity, which, Johnson learned, meant he'd need to enroll as a normal student and try out for the team with the hope of maybe—if he was lucky—earning a scholarship down the road. He remembers Ferentz questioning his desire to his face, telling him he didn't do enough when he didn't have the ball.
"So I guess in pass pro," Johnson says, "when there was no one coming to blitz, I guess I wasn't doing enough."
Yet surely Iowa State would've scavenged for Iowa's scraps, right? Not even close. Rhoads, the Cyclones head coach from 2009 to 2015, told Johnson he wasn't good enough to play running back in Division I football and that his only hope was linebacker—and sent him the painfully generic letter hundreds of recruits receive. That lifeless, mass-produced letter that only requires a school to change the name at the top.
"And," Johnson says, his voice rising, "He messed my name up!"
Rhoads addressed the letter to "David Jacobson."
Northern Iowa it was, because Northern Iowa recruited him as "an athlete."
Of course, even then, the head coach wanted him to play defense. Mark Farley gave Johnson a whirl at wide receiver in camp and really wanted to move him into a safety/linebacker role because Farley's a defensive guy himself. Looking back, he admits this was "very close" to happening and believes Johnson was such a team player he would've made the leap, too. But Johnson told him he likes scoring touchdowns, a couple of injuries at running back opened up an opportunity and then Johnson, at running back, could not be stopped.
Says Farley, "His approach was, 'I'm going to show you I'm a tailback' instead of tell you I'm a tailback.'"
So it's no shock his two best games came against the schools that dissed him. He didn't tell anyone he'd light up Iowa and Iowa State when he got his shot at revenge. He showed them. In 2013, Johnson torched Iowa State for 240 total yards and four touchdowns in a 28-20 upset win. In 2014, he nearly led Northern Iowa to an upset of Iowa with 237 yards and a score.
"He just took his game to another level," Farley says.
Then, more disrespect.
At the Senior Bowl, in Mobile, Alabama, in 2015, Johnson was walking around with Todd Gurley and some other prospects he trained with when an NFL scout let everyone walk on by but him. The Browns scout thought that Johnson was lost, that he didn't belong.
"He 21-questioned me," Johnson remembers. "And they're like patting me down, asking me if I'm in the Senior Bowl and if I play linebacker. What school? What's my name? And then he's like, 'You look like a linebacker. I'm guessing you're a linebacker.' I said, 'No, I'm a running back.'"
Johnson, who was listed at 6'1", 224 pounds at the time (same as he is now), had an excellent week, an even better combine, was drafted in the third round by the Cardinals and since then, injury to injury, has had every reason to be demoralized.
There was the Grade 2 hamstring pull in his first training camp. "C'mon, rookie!" Johnson can still hear ex-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians shout. "You think you're going to make the team?" Arians' scheme was hard enough to learn without being a rookie sidelined with a soft-tissue injury. And "everyone knows," Johnson adds, "B.A. didn't like rookies."
He persisted, toiling as a third-stringer but seeming to score a touchdown every time the ball was in his hands. And, eventually, he won over Arians. After reaching the end zone seven times on 54 offensive touches in the Cardinals' first 11 games (and once more on a kick return), he became the starter in their 12th and put up huge numbers down the stretch: 864 yards and six touchdowns on 152 touches in the final seven games, including two in the playoffs.
It was enough to convince one of the brightest minds in football to build an offense completely around him, and in 2016 Johnson blew up.
His speed. His hands. His route running.
He looked like a generational weapon.
Heading into Week 17 in 2016, Johnson had 1,233 yards rushing and 841 receiving, giving him a chance to become just the third player in NFL history—following Roger Craig (1985) and Marshall Faulk (1999), and preceding Christian McCaffrey (last year)—to go for 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He'd also scored 20 touchdowns.
Then he suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury and had to be carted off the field.
Then, after rehabbing that, in the first game of the Cardinals' 2017 season, he fractured his wrist. The team trainer told Johnson he'd only seen that type of wrist injury twice, ever, and the doctor who performed the surgery said it was something he sees in firemen falling from ladders, not football players. "The injuries started happening, but they were freak," Johnson says.
He would miss the rest of the season.
By the time he returned in 2018, the Arizona offense, now Arians-less, was a disaster—a plodding, basic between-the-tackles running scheme with a bad offensive line. He had a decent comeback year (1,386 yards from scrimmage, 10 touchdowns), but then in 2019, he dinged his ankle and his back, new coach Kliff Kingsbury chose to roll with Kenyan Drake (and even Chase Edmonds) instead and Johnson saw his role "basically diminished."
He tried to stay positive, but seeing no more than five carries in a game over the final two-and-a-half months was something he had never experienced in his life.
If Johnson was so dynamic, wouldn't the 40-year-old wunderkind with the gently coiffed hair and the futuristic abode know exactly how to use him? This was a new low.
"Man, it was rough," Johnson says. "Kliff just went with the hot hand. It's part of the business. Obviously I was very upset and frustrated by it, but he's the head coach.
"In the NFL, everyone says the running back shelf life is short. They don't last long. You better get as much as you can out of them and then ship 'em away. As soon as you get hurt one time, everyone's ready to say, 'You're done.'"
To the ham-sandwich rack he went. Maybe, for good. This challenge is, truly, unlike any other. Never before has the criticism been this loud, public, unanimous. He can sense everyone's doubt. People are labeling this one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history. Good. His skills have faded. Fine. Inside his mind, Johnson believes those injuries were "freak" accidents. Not red flags.
Inside his mind, Johnson knows his best is yet to come.
And one more person still believes: O'Brien.
So Johnson isn't done, yet.
Those "bluechecks" are, verifiably, the worst. Unified, they often succeed in warping reality.
A dozen or so folks jam as much sarcasm and indignation as they can into 140 characters and the match is lit. The gasoline is poured. The Twitter wildfire takes off. An alternate universe becomes accepted as fact while the doers—those not spending all their time on the life-consuming app, those not part of the mob—know the truth of a matter is much more complex.
"There are so many people out there who don't know, honestly, what goes on in a football organization," Johnson says. "They just see social media and all these bluecheck people talking. They don't see what's going on behind the scenes."
Unfortunately, here's the thing: Those in the know, in this case, do agree with the bluecheck mafia. There isn't just a public echo chamber; there's a private one. When asked if the NFL scouting community agrees that the Texans made a huge mistake dealing Hopkins, one high-ranking AFC executive quickly replies, "Yes," adding that Johnson has only one or two seasons left and that most around the NFL believe O'Brien is "running the Texans into the ground."
"The trade from a value standpoint is terrible," the personnel executive says. "Trading for an expensive, aging running back is awful."
One AFC scout says dealing any receiver for any running back "is hard to swallow" in today's NFL. One NFC West scout calls Johnson "nonexistent" since the knee injury, adding that he might've peaked too soon. And this scout definitely wasn't thrilled to have Hopkins scooped up by a division rival.
"No one wants to see D-Hopkins," he says. "I don't know what they were thinking. Immediately, I was like, 'Did he do something wrong?'"
This scout heard that Hopkins' and Jadeveon Clowney's personalities didn't mesh with that of O'Brien—that both stars were "disgruntled" on their way out. (Clowney was traded to the Seahawks last August.) O'Brien himself explained the Hopkins trade by saying the wide receiver had three years left on his contract and wanted a raise "and we weren't going to be able to go in that direction." Still, multiple personnel men agree that, even if this is all true, some of the best coaches and GMs find a way to make it work. For Watson's sake, any headaches might've been worth it. Hopkins is special, arguably the best receiver in football. He seemed to have a potentially historic rapport with Watson, one that'd be ludicrous to split apart.
Adds the AFC exec: "The worst thing you can do is piss off your quarterback. That'll get you fired. Ask Mike McCarthy."
Instead, O'Brien is embracing an injury-prone, aging running back due $13.4 million the next two seasons. Unheard of today. Last season's Super Bowl participants both featured undrafted backs, one of whom had been cut six times.
And yet none of this matters if O'Brien and Johnson find a way to make it work.
If Johnson is featured, if Johnson shines, he'll get the last laugh and O'Brien will look like a genius. When the head coach first called his new running back, he told him he wants the back to be a leader in his locker room. He knew how he worked. He said he's watched Johnson since he came out of Northern Iowa, too, and how Arians used him that 2016 season was precisely how he'd use him in Houston.
To which, Johnson was ecstatic.
Johnson loves O'Brien's blunt, no-B.S. style—the fact that O'Brien sincerely does not care what people think.
Together, now, they have a chance to prove everyone wrong.
"That's what it is. Me and him," Johnson says. "Honestly, who cares what people are saying outside the organization? What matters most is what people think in our organization. Our teammates and coaches. The owners. That's how me and, from my perspective, that's how I think he handles it. He worries more about the team. Like he says all the time: 'You can't win in March. You win in January and December.'
"Me and him have the same mentality. Who cares what they say? If we get wins, then what else are they going to say?"
And Johnson puts it on record. This is what everyone can expect.
"My biggest thing is I'm still myself—2016," he says. "If anything, I'm smarter. I know defenses even more. I know the game of football even more in the league. So I feel like I still have the same speed and strength and everything … but even more smarts.
"They're getting a guy who's going to always work hard. They never have to worry about me off the field. … They're going to get a guy who's dedicated to the team and really dedicated to proving everyone wrong. I'm still striving to get that 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. So I'm going to do everything in my power—everything I humanly can—to get to that."
Arians found a way to get Johnson one-on-one with a linebacker or a strong safety, constantly, and Johnson is confident O'Brien can scheme up the same mismatches.
He plans to finish what he started, assuring you'll see a 1,000/1,000 back in 2020.
"Yes, you will. I'm telling you, I'm doing everything I can."
If there is a needle to thread, then what does it look like?
The moment Johnson's career torpedoed the wrong direction—when he sprained his MCL the night he should've been making history—former All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew was up in the booth watching it all.
Jones-Drew was calling the game for the Rams. He also works as an analyst for NFL Network and has some personal experience with Johnson's skill set. Jones-Drew, too, was a running back often unleashed in the passing game, averaging 46 catches per season in his prime years, from 2006 to 2011.
When he looks at Johnson, Jones-Drew still sees "one of the most versatile backs in the game"—a player who can kill defenses on 16-yard speed-outs—accelerating and cutting and catching like a wide receiver.
"You can't find those," Jones-Drew says. "Those backs are very rare to find."
And that could be the key to the trade. Value-wise, Jones-Drew concedes, the trade "is crazy." But he does believe Johnson is a player with a ton of football ahead of him (he notes that he hasn't even hit 800 career attempts) and can be a go-to resource for Watson in an evolved Texans offense.
Granted, it's hard to imagine that trading Hopkins would help any quarterback, but Watson has been sacked 106 times the last two years.
"The reason people say [the trade is] crazy is you see the way DeAndre Hopkins was utilized, and you also saw the way the running backs were used in that system," Jones-Drew says. "They weren't. So why would you trade for a running back if your system is not built to utilize that position? It comes down to the coaching: Are you going to utilize him? The trade is fine if you utilize David Johnson.
"If you don't? There it is."
What could this utilization look like? Theoretically, scouts say, Watson can get Johnson the ball in space as much as possible via screens, swing passes and actual routes, and then work the deep play action off that. To date, with Watson, the Texans offense has mostly consisted of elongated improvisation that ends in a 50-50 ball to Hopkins. The uber-optimistic view now would be that a quicker, more timing-based scheme helps Watson stay healthy.
Something needed to change. Maybe this is it.
The Texans could rely on more scheme and less freelancing to, potentially, strike the kind of balance Andy Reid has in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes.
Jones-Drew repeats that Johnson is on the short list of backs who can run the full route tree like a wideout. And while Johnson doesn't shy away from contact—"He doesn't have to hit," Farley says, "he wants to hit"—his greatest weapon is a downhill cut that sneaks up on defenders, the Northern Iowa coach says.
It's not jittery, not sudden. Rather: smooth, slicing, devastating.
"He has that Eric Dickerson cut," Farley says. "You have a bead on him and you find out he's faster than you think, because once he gets up to speed, he has one more gear left in him."
So, hey, anything's possible. Johnson has an opportunity to shock the world. One AFC East scout who initially criticized the trade (like everyone else) now has talked himself into giving it a chance, saying O'Brien isn't as clueless as everyone's making him out to be.
"God, look what he did with Christian Hackenberg one year," he says, referencing the QB's 2013 freshman year under O'Brien at Penn State. "Everyone thought Hack would be the greatest quarterback of all time. Now, he's throwing baseballs."
Jones-Drew thinks back to how so many thought the Steelers were stupid for giving up a first-rounder for Minkah Fitzpatrick, and now they look like geniuses. Sometimes, a trade that doesn't seem to make sense ends up working. He's giving O'Brien and the Texans "the right to make it make sense." If they feed Johnson, if they win, there's nothing anyone can say.
Jones-Drew also thinks back to how much everyone doubted Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette a year ago—before Fournette got himself right in the offseason and promptly put up 1,674 total yards. If Johnson takes care of his body, like Fournette did, Jones-Drew believes the 2016 version can reemerge.
None of this is a matter of "if," to Farley. He loves showing recruits pictures of what Johnson looked like his first year at Northern Iowa versus what he looked like when he left. Farley saw what criticism did to Johnson, up close, then. Johnson was squatting 665 pounds by the time he was NFL-bound.
Now, it's not only a handful of D-I head coaches doubting him. It's everyone.
"I can't imagine the work he's putting in right now," Farley says. "He's quiet, unassuming, humble, and that makes him really dangerous."
As Johnson turns the roster over and over in his head, that dangerous side isn't so quiet.
He sees a potentially dominant Texans offense, daring all defenses to "pick your poison." There are Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller V, Randall Cobb and Stills. And he praises Duke Johnson specifically as another weapon who can create in space.
His excitement picks up.
Says David Johnson, "I feel like we're definitely going to hush up all the naysayers this season."
He's a dad, out on the trampoline with his two kids as early as 6:30 a.m.
He's a devout Christian. Everyone who knows Johnson knows faith is central to his life. Hence, the Nike swoosh serving as the "J" in "Jesus" on his Twitter background with the message, "Just Praise Him." How he treats others is what Johnson's most proud of in life.
He's a son who'll never forget Mom's sacrifice because Mom raised six kids on her own. Dad was never around—"We just never spoke about him," Johnson says—and any relative who wasn't around during "the struggle"? Johnson doesn't have time for you.
He has never gotten into serious trouble. He was suspended once, as a kid, for throwing a snowball at his sister.
But there is, no doubt, a different side to Johnson that always bubbles to the surface when people don't believe. As quiet as he is, no doubt, he cannot wait to stick it to anyone who thinks he's a ham sandwich.
"Most definitely," he says. "That's a guarantee. That's added motivation. C'mon man. I want so bad to prove all these people wrong. Not just them, but showcase my ability and just let people know I'm still the same if not better than 2016. I definitely can't wait."
So it's no wonder his training—despite the pandemic—has been intense this offseason.
He couldn't help but return fire on social media a bit by posting a picture of himself training in early June. He's scowling. His eyes are piercing. He's dragging a sled of weight attached to a belt around his waist, and all Johnson wrote was, "To much is given, much is tested! (Luke 12:48)"
He kept going into July.
And into August.
It was a clear message, to all, to keep talking. Keep doubting.
Like the rest of America, Johnson watched The Last Dance 10-part documentary, and he loved learning more about the most ultra-competitive mentality in sports history. Be it completely making up something LaBradford Smith said or contrived anger toward George Karl, Michael Jordan invented ways to constantly stay pissed off, stay hungry.
And here is Johnson, with no need to make anything up.
He's had very real reasons to be pissed off, from Ferentz to Kingsbury to every functioning fan in mid-March.
These are real people writing him off. Often, to his face. He's using it, like Jordan would.
"Every level of football, I've had at least a few people who told me I wasn't good enough," Johnson says. "I'm a has-been. All done. You've seen the best of me. And, somehow, I always prove 'em wrong."
He pauses, and his voice packs with more certainty.
His rebuttal is coming soon.
"Hey, we'll see what happens this season."
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.