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Johnson embraces 'old guy' role

Los Angeles Wildcats QB Josh Johnson is leading and thriving in his latest football chapter.

Josh Johnson has fit right in inside every locker room in which he's stepped.

And for him, there have been a lot of locker rooms.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers. The New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts and the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens. Both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. Texans? Check. Raiders? Yes. Redskins? Sure.

Even the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the United Football League, when he wasn't even sure the checks would cash.

Then, the XFL's Los Angeles Wildcats.

Johnson stepped into a league where most players would give their left arm just for one chance to lace up the cleats for an NFL franchise. Johnson has played for almost half of them: 15.

But this locker room? Different. Weird, even. He felt like the odd man out.

Johnson is still just 33 years old, a kid in so many ways, but smack in the middle age of football years. Among his teammates -- 19 of whom are 24 or younger -- Johnson has felt downright ancient sometimes.

Johnson has become the older brother of the Wildcats offense

"I enjoying it, man," he said. "It's a different experience, I'll tell you that for sure. It's kinda like when I got to [the University of San Diego]."

Anyone who saw Johnson then knows how meaningful that time was for him.

'Something Special'

Jim Harbaugh has a secret.

Asked for a "quintessential Josh Johnson" story, the University of Michigan head coach -- once Johnson’s head coach at the University of San Diego -- starts to chuckle.

He's not sure if he can tell it. He says ask Johnson about his favorite Jim Harbaugh story and see if they match.

When I ask Johnson, he laughs, too. The story is never told. Some things go to the grave.

Their relationship is like that. Close. Laugh-inducing. Intimate. Sixteen years after Harbaugh spotted a scrawny kid from Oakland Tech and saw into the future, they remain tight.

Go inside the locker room with Josh Johnson

“He kinda had that 'It Factor,'” Harbaugh said before correcting himself. “Not kinda, I mean he just had it. You could tell right away. The first time he got in scrimmages, the team would move. Got into games, he'd move the offense. The way he'd drop back, he could just slither out of the pocket. Pretty darn fast. That freshman year, we all knew we had something special.”

'Late Bloomer'

A three-sport athlete in high school, Johnson was barely 5-foot-10, 145 pounds in his junior year of high school. He played behind and alongside Marshawn Lynch, his cousin, and earned first-team all-city honors as a senior, but only soothsayers saw a future NFL quarterback in him.

And, perhaps, Harbaugh.

“I was a late bloomer,” said Johnson, who had a growth spurt between his senior year of high school and freshman year of college that saw him sprout three inches and gain 25 pounds. “I looked like I was 10 years old when I graduated high school. To me, he looked at me as a science project. He told me, ‘I’ve met your mom and dad, I’ve watched you play basketball – you’re a natural athlete, and I think you’re gonna grow.’

"He’s impacted a lot of lives since he became this great coach, but me coming from where I come from, he doesn’t realize what he did for me. A lot of things that he ingrained in me, I still live by.”

Mostly, get the ball out quickly, and make sure it’s on point.

In San Diego, he sure did.

On campus

He arrived in America’s Finest City as a freshman in 2004, Harbaugh’s first season. Johnson barely saw the field that year as the Toreros went 7-4, but in 2005, Harbaugh took the training wheels off.

With Johnson leading a high-powered offense, USD went 11-1 as Johnson threw for 3,256 yards and 36 touchdowns with just eight interceptions while completing 70.1 percent of his passes. He also ran for 379 yards on 86 attempts with four touchdowns.

A year later as a junior, Johnson passed for 3,320 yards and 34 touchdowns with just five picks, adding 720 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and the Toreros again went 11-1.

“He never, ever mentioned stats or yards,” Harbaugh said. “The thing I always talked to him about was 70-percent completions. That was the only important thing to him.”

After three years with Johnson, Harbaugh left San Diego for The Farm, taking over a 1-11 Stanford team and restoring the Cardinal in short order. Within four years, Harbaugh had resuscitated a moribund Stanford squad, going 12-1 in 2010 with an Orange Bowl win. Andrew Luck may have helped a bit.

Asked whether Johnson could’ve hacked it in what was then the Pac-10, Harbaugh says, “Well, yeah.”

“No doubt he could’ve played in the Pac-10 -- the year I went to Stanford, he didn’t want to come,” Harbaugh said. “I recruited him, but he wanted to finish up at USD. I recruited him.”

For his college teammates, that loyalty has stuck with them.

“After his junior year, he had the opportunity to transfer, but because he identified so much with our brotherhood, he stuck around,” said former Toreros running back J.T. Rogan, who remains close with Johnson. “There were rumblings about Stanford, but I don’t know if Jim poaching Josh would’ve been flying too close to the sun.”

And it’s not like Johnson needed the Pac-10 platform anyway.

He got to the NFL all on his own. And then, somehow, he stayed there.

Whirlwind career begins

Since 1990, the list of successful fifth-round NFL quarterbacks is a short one. Mark Brunell in 1993, for one. But A.J. Feeley? Tee Martin? Rhett Bomar? The fifth round is where quarterbacks go to die.

The other fifth-rounders in Johnson's class -- USC's John David Booty, Oregon's Dennis Dixon, and Tennessee's Erik Ainge -- played a combined seven NFL seasons between them. Only Dixon saw any action, starting three games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009-10. All three were out of the NFL by 2011.

Johnson, from tiny USD, stuck.

After being selected by the Buccaneers with the 160th pick of the 2008 NFL Draft following one of the great seasons of quarterbacking in football history -- Johnson threw 43 touchdowns with just one interception while completing 68.4 percent of his passes as a senior for the Toreros – he played four seasons in Tampa Bay.

He would make four starts for the Bucs in 2009 with middling results; throwing to an anemic receiving core, he completed 50 percent of his passes for 685 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

The coach who’d drafted him, Jon Gruden, was gone after his first season, and the team selected Josh Freeman with its 2009 first-round pick, and the writing was on the wall.

He'd start one more game for Tampa Bay in 2011, but it would be another seven years before he got another shot. In between, had a football journey that could've been a Greek epic. Odysseus faced fewer bumps along the way.

There were promises made and not kept, jobs won then not won. There were soul-sapping days in the UFL and frustrations at every stop.

“Football has disappointed all of us (in the XFL),” Johnson said. “From an aspect of not always being able to do it at the highest level. People can get misunderstood. I only played nine games in my NFL career, but I was never on a practice squad, always a backup, trying to live up to expectations, trying to display professionalism and the seriousness of (my) work.”

Johnson was always the steady presence. The list of NFL starting quarterbacks he has backed up is about as far from Canton as it gets -- including Brandon Weeden, Andy Dalton and Mark Sanchez -- but Johnson was always the rock to lean on.

“Especially when you come from the inner city, the thing that makes you great in football is your love for football,” he said. “You think your love for the game, working hard, showing up every day, that’s going to get you the opportunity, but in the pros it’s not the case.

"There are guys who are naturally in a better position than you because of the business. That doesn’t mean you won’t get an opportunity, but it’s a humbling experience for your ego. Everything you’ve been raised to believe, it gets wiped away in that moment.”

Experience pays off

At 33 years old and surrounded by a group of teammates who average 26 years, Johnson tried to take some of that wisdom and experience -– and, yes, disappointment –- with him to the Wildcats.

“This is a situation for people to grab the bull by the horns,” Johnson said. “Their hunger is the same as mine, their passion is the same as mine. I understand their thought process. I was once in their shoes. I always try to be an example of a guy who has been disappointed, like most of us in the XFL.”

At his latest stop, he enjoyed a swimming start. In just four games, Johnson tossed 1,076 passing yards -- ranking second in the league, despite missing Week 1 -- and 11 touchdowns with just two interceptions, displaying some of the same dead-eye that got him into the NFL in the first place.

His latest work? A league-best, four-touchdown performance in a 41-34 Week 5 win over the Tampa Bay Vipers.

“He's been a victim of this business, but I still think he's got a lot of football left to play,” said Rogan, his college teammate and longtime friend. “He’s got such a high football IQ. It’s not unreasonable for me to think he could play as long as he wants. Into his 40s, even. You’ll have to write this article eight years from now.”

That could prove difficult for Johnson. The age gap might just be too much to overcome. He’s already struggled with some of his younger teammates, who sometimes look at Johnson like he’s talking about the telegraph.

"I'm really like the old dude now," he said. "Stuff I talk about, the things I reference from back in the day, some of these kids really don't know. They don't have a clue. It's kinda mindboggling. I feel like a kid myself, but this is really the first time I've felt 33. When I dropped Atari on them, they were like what is that. I was talking about Oregon Trail, they don't know what that is."

The one thing they've had little trouble understanding: Johnson’s love for the game. It’s what keeps him playing, a dozen years after his professional football debut. It’s what Harbaugh and Rogan saw all those years ago in San Diego.

Rogan laughs as he remembers the days he used to find Johnson in the apartment he shared with his starting center Jordan Paopao, dead asleep with game film on. Always studying.

“Football is really important to him, but so is always getting better, falling asleep with the tape on, looking for ways to grow,” Rogan said. “He was never comfortable being in the spotlight. He was just such a great teammate. I can't imagine having a better teammate than he was.”

A dozen years in, Johnson still tries to be.

“The way I was raised, everything I went through in life, I just feel like it was preparing me for this,” Johnson said. “Football is the one thing I’ve loved as much as my family. It’s the first thing I really loved. The fact I've been able to do it for so long, to get paid for it, I just look at it as my true test of life, and my greatest blessing.”

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