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After Giving Football a Go, Tom Johnson has Gone After QBs

Tom Johnson finally gave in as a sophomore in high school.

He hasn't since.

Johnson, who grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, had recently burned out on baseball after 10 years when he experienced a growth spurt and prodding from a friend to give football a try.

"Fine; I'll go to check it out," Johnson said to himself more than 15 years ago.

He wasn't lured by potential glory on Saturdays or Sundays but did get hooked by the atmosphere on Fridays.

"It's like something totally different," Johnson recalled. "Those Friday Night Lights are for real. Ever since then, I've started enjoying it. The passion, the camaraderie, it became something that I was trying to strive to do to get better, and I didn't know I was getting better. I didn't know I was that good at it."

Johnson's talent developed because of his relentless commitment to make the most of his opportunities. His drive has now positioned him to start in tonight's game under the lights of Monday Night Football.

The defensive tackle's journey to this moment, however, mimicked the curvilinear course of the Mississippi River.

It started with two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, plus two more at Southern Mississippi, the latter of which included a displacement by Hurricane Katrina. The colossal storm caused tornadoes, even 100 miles inland, postponing the Golden Eagles 2005 season opener and prompting the whole team to relocate from Hattiesburg to Memphis, Tennessee, to prepare for a game the following week against Alabama.

After his senior season, Johnson joined the Indianapolis Colts in 2006 as an undrafted rookie. He was waived during roster reductions but returned in 2007 and was allocated by the Colts to NFL Europa's Cologne Centurions. A year later, he was back stateside, playing for the Philadelphia Soul and former Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League.

He went farther north and west in 2009 for the first of two seasons with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders before returning south and playing as close to home as he could in the NFL. Ironically, New Orleans was never a place where Johnson was able to settle in.

The Saints had three coordinators in as many seasons, going from Gregg Williams in 2011 to Steve Spagnuolo in 2012 and Rob Ryan in 2013.

"With me not having a deep NFL resume for new coaches, I had to prove myself over and over and over to get a good chance to blossom into the player I wanted to be," Johnson said.

But when Johnson signed with Minnesota as a free agent in 2014, he arrived to an "open slate" and became much more than a journeyman, responding with a career-best 6.5 sacks after totaling 5.0 in three seasons and 40 total games with the Saints.

"You've got a defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer), and you've got a great [defensive line] coach in Coach 'Dre (Andre Patterson), being able to hone what I do well and giving me the opportunity and telling me to let loose and get out there and play," Johnson said. "It just goes to show that having a little opportunity with support from the coaching staff, a lot can happen."

Zimmer concurs, chalking up Johnson's success in Minnesota to a combination of the player's attitude and effort and the defense being a good system fit.

"Tom has been a really good success story in the fact that he played in [Europe], he played in Canada, had been cut by a couple teams," Zimmer said. "I think part of that shows, not only that Andre has done a nice job teaching him and coaching him, but sometimes when guys get in the right systems, things click. I know he wishes it probably would've clicked earlier in his career. He's been a good find for us, and we're lucky we have him."

Johnson's 14 sacks the past three seasons are the 11th most by a defensive tackle since 2014 and the most in that span by a player who wasn't primarily a starter. Johnson has thrived as a nickel rusher when the Vikings have used the combination of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen at defensive end and moved Brian Robison inside to the other defensive tackle spot.

For most of the offseason, the Vikings lined up the first-team combination of Hunter and Griffen at the edges with Johnson at the 3-technique alongside Linval Joseph. After starting eight games in 2015 and returning to a rotational role last season, Johnson said he plans to keep applying the "same principles" and doing what the coaches expect.

"[Patterson] tells us we've got to be technicians in everything we do," Johnson said. "You do repetitive things over and over again and do it the right way so it becomes a habit."

Johnson has enjoyed the Vikings defensive line's opportunity to make improvements as a unit thanks to a significant level of continuity. 

"I don't take it for granted," Johnson said. "Being in the same system for four years gives you a chance to jell in between each guy. B-Rob, Linval, Everson, we're out there in the nickel package a lot, so extending that now with [Hunter], everybody feels comfortable.

"It's one of those things where you can feel each other," Johnson added. "We don't open up a lot of lanes; everybody feels like they know where they're supposed to be on each play, which makes guys able to play faster. The camaraderie between the guys and being in the system for so long gives you the opportunity to let loose and have accountability for each other."

Able to relate

The severe flooding and devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey is quite relatable to Tom Johnson, who makes his offseason home in Houston and trains with Danielle Hunter at the O Athletik gym co-owned by former Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and trainer James Cooper.

*Images of Harvey's destruction, combined with experiences relayed by friends and family members of teammates reminded Johnson of Hurricane Katrina, even though the storms caused damage in different ways. Katrina, one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, made landfall on the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, a day before Johnson turned 21 as a member of the Southern Miss football team. *

"When it hit, it was bad, and you knew it was bad. The flooding, the wind moving cars, trees and all of this, it was drastic. You felt like a refugee.

"Big oak trees falling and blocking out the roads, so you're secluded," Johnson recalled. "You've got to wait until somebody comes to free up the roads and try to maneuver the detours. In your apartment, you don't have food."

His parents' house suffered damages but not near what other homes endured. The storm personally affected Johnson for a few days, but he knew others who were impacted for weeks and months, trying to rise from ruin.

The cleanup effort on the coast of Texas will be ongoing for quite some time. Johnson said he was impressed by the way people helped others through courageous rescues and convicted fundraising.

*"You want to see unity in times of need," Johnson said. *

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