Steven Johnson said he has always had faith in himself and in God’s plan for him.
That was a necessity in his improbable journey to the NFL, where he played for six seasons, and it remains so as he attempts to get back there by showing what he can do as an outside linebacker for the Seattle Dragons.
Through two games, Johnson leads the XFL in tackles with 18, including four for loss. He will be counted on again Saturday when the team hosts Dallas – not just for what he does on the field but for his leadership.
“He was voted a captain by his teammates, and what I appreciate about him is he is a really vocal player,” said Dragons coach Jim Zorn of Johnson, who turns 32 next month and is the oldest player on the team. “When he wants to say some words, his teammates are listening. But he’s not a guy who’s trying to show off and put himself in front of people. He’s just a presence and he prepares well and players get elevated because he motivates by his actions.”
Nothing came easy for Johnson on his football journey.
He didn’t play varsity until his senior season at Strath Haven High School in Wallingford, Pa., making quite a splash when he did with a state-high 123 tackles.
“But nobody wanted me coming out of high school,” Johnson said. “Only Division II schools wanted me and I wanted to go to Division I.”
So Johnson decided to go to a prep school, enrolling at Wyoming Seminary when his pastor suggested it to him.
He got off to a great start playing football at Wyoming Seminary, but then in midseason he tore his ACL, LCL and capsule in his left knee.
“They said I wouldn’t play again and they were down on me,” Johnson said. “My grandma told me to sleep with a Bible on my knee and I did that.”
The knee healed to the point where Johnson wanted to play football again. He sent letters to many Division I schools. The only school to respond was Kansas, giving him a chance to walk on.
“Walking on at Kansas then was not fun, not fun at all,” said Johnson, whose coach when he started there was Mark Mangino, who was forced to resign after the 2009 season for mistreatment of players. “But it made me who I am today, and it built a toughness in me.”
Johnson played in two games as a true freshman, then in 10 as a sophomore, with nine tackles and a sack.
But he wasn’t going to be able to play as a junior because he was out of money for school. He was ready to head home when he was told he was being given a scholarship.
“I always knew God wouldn’t send me somewhere just to drop me,” Johnson said.
It worked out for Kansas and Johnson, who led Kansas in tackles (95) as a junior, then led the Big-12 as a senior with 124.
Despite that, Johnson was not taken in the NFL draft. He signed as a free agent with Denver, and played three seasons for the Broncos, starting seven times.
The next three years, Johnson mostly played on special teams, spending time with Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But after his stint with the Ravens, the NFL offers dried up.
Johnson joined the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football last year, but when that league folded in midseason, he once again needed a place to play.
The Dragons drafted Johnson in the sixth round of the defensive front seven draft, and that has certainly paid off.
“I have so much energy to give to this game,” he said. “I feel like I can play five or six more years, and if God gives me another opportunity to do it, I am going to do it to the best of my ability. And I am going to do what I didn’t do in the NFL to be productive in the XFL.”
Johnson said what is different between his NFL days and now is his total focus on his craft.
“I have totally dedicated myself to football for the rest of the time that I will be able to play it,” he said. “Taking care of my body, attention to detail, and really trying to be a coach’s mind in understanding the game, and in the NFL I didn’t necessarily do that.”
And being a captain, he eagerly accepts a leadership role.
“I am able to be a vocal leader, and get guys going, especially on days when it’s cold and dreary and no one feels like doing anything,” he said. “I’m the guy that will say, ‘Let’s go, and continue to push’ because we want to be a championship team and a championship defense.”