Johnson is the third-string running back for the Browns but played like a full-fledged starter when he stepped into the starting role for the injured Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. But it wasn’t too long ago that Johnson was using social media to get tryouts with the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.
Johnson latched on as a running back for the Orlando Apollos after messaging each AAF team to try and make it in football. He ran for 372 yards before the league went belly up. He would spent his time fishing in the Florida Keys before finally getting a spot on the Browns.
D’Ernest Johnson (22) of the Orlando Apollos runs with the ball during the first half against the Atlanta Legends in an Alliance of American Football game at Georgia State Stadium on March 23, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Chris Thelen/AAF/Getty Images)
D’Ernest Johnson (22) of the Orlando Apollos rushes with the ball against the Birmingham Iron during their Alliance of American Football game at Legion Field on March 9, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Logan Riely/AAF/Getty Images)
Cleveland signed him in 2019. At the time of his signing, the Browns touted Johnson’s performance while he was a running back at South Florida. He finished his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (4,186), including 1,796 rushing yards.
On Thursday night, he proved his worth on the national stage. He had 146 rushing yards on 22 carries and scored his first career touchdown in the first quarter. It was on his back the Browns won the game.
While talking to FOX’s NFL sideline reporter Erin Andrews, an emotional Johnson was at a loss for words. He said it was a dream come true to play in the NFL.
“It’s unexplainable. First off, I want to give thanks to God. Without him I wouldn’t be here,” Johnson said. “I want to give thanks to coach (Stump Mitchell) for just believing in me and coach (Mike Priefer) for just believing in me and giving me a chance. It feels great. Like I say it was always a dream come true for a chance to come out here and play this game and just be able to start.”
Andrews asked whether he thought any of this was possible while he was fishing.
“Playing in the NFL was always my dream. But being on the fishing boat and just … coming where I come from, man, it’s a blessing. Not too many people make it out with what I did and I just got to give thanks to God because without him, like I say, I wouldn’t be here. I’m just soaking it all in and being thankful for the opportunity.”
Johnson explained to reporters afterward he never lost trust in the grind.
Cleveland Browns running back D’Ernest Johnson (30) carries against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, in Cleveland. The Browns won 17-14. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
“No, I never lost trust in the process. Coming from a fishing boat, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL. Even when playing in the AAF, I always dreamed of playing here in the league. Being able to be on this team is a blessing,” Johnson said. “It is always a dream come true to be able to be here. To be able start and come out here and help the team win, that is the best feeling.”
On his performance, Johnson said it was “unexplainable.”
“I wanted to celebrate, but I did not know what to do. I just yelled because it has been a long journey, man. To get your first start and get 100 yards and your first touchdown, that ain’t nothing but God,” he said.
The Browns more to 4-3 on the season with the win.