THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — There's not a crystal ball in the world that would have forecast Charles Johnson's first visit to northwest Minnesota a year or even six months ago.
Johnson's path to the NFL was long like the Mississippi and winding like the Red Lake River, but he found a home in the Vikings offense in 2014 and is excited for multiple reasons about what 2015 can have in store.
"I wouldn't even know what to think. What are you talking about?," Johnson said when asked what he'd think if he had been told a year ago that he'd attend the 20th Arctic Blast. "I had never heard of this place, and it's very different. People are great up here. They really respect us, and it's been a great time so far."
Johnson joined teammates Harrison Smith, Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen, Phil Loadholt and Brandon Fusco in attending the annual fundraiser for the Vikings Children's Fund. It was a continuation of new experiences that have been extended to the former seventh round pick of the Packers who was signed from the practice squad of the Browns by the Vikings in September.
After battling injuries since he entered the league, Johnson's talents emerged as the season progressed. He had his first catch at Green Bay in October but began a rise in production at Chicago in mid-November with six catches for 87 yards. That day began a seven-game stretch that included 25 of Johnson's 31 catches for 415 yards and two touchdowns, including a 56-yarder from Teddy Bridgewater against the Jets.
Johnson ranked eighth in the NFL during that period in yards per catch, among qualifying receivers:
1. DeSean Jackson, 19.3 yards per catch
2. Michael Floyd, 19.2
3. Rueben Randle 18.9
4. Nate Washington 18.1
5. Kendall Wright 17.3
6. Julio Jones 17.2
7. Sammy Watkins 16.7
8. Charles Johnson 16.6
9. Coby Fleener 16.5
10. Eric Decker 16.5
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner had seen Johnson's abilities before the 2013 NFL Draft when they were in Cleveland and made a push for Johnson to be added in Minnesota. Johnson and Bridgewater didn't have the benefit of an offseason program, but they gained rhythm as the season progressed. It culminated in Bridgewater being selected by fans as Pepsi Rookie of the Year.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph was able to join Bridgewater in Arizona for the award, but Johnson sent his congratulations via social media.
"I sent him a Tweet out, 'Hey, Teddy, I'm proud of you,' " Johnson recalled. "It's exciting for a guy on my team, a young guy I really admire as a quarterback and a person to get that award. It's big for not only him. It's big for us as a unit because it shows we're building something around him, and I think Teddy is going to be great for the future, and we're all here to support him and we're all here to help him."
Johnson is looking forward to building confidence between he and Bridgewater rep by rep when players return for the offseason program this spring and in July when the Vikings trek to Mankato for training camp.
Part of a receiver and quarterback growing closer, Johnson said, is getting farther from defenders when running routes.
"I go out there every day and try to get as much separation as I can to make it more comfortable to see me to get the ball to me easier," Johnson said. "Each week I watched him grow and get a little more anticipation, a little more confidence, throwing the ball a little better. Each week we grew together, so he was seeing me grow, and I was seeing him grow and we just clicked together. You just play to win and make the plays."
Johnson, who was diagnosed with a torn ACL after arriving in Cleveland, is also increasing his own trust and confidence in his knee every time he takes the field. The ACL cost him his entire first season, and the rehab dominated his 2014 season.
"Right now, I'm relaxing a lot," Johnson said. "I still work out a little, but I'm relaxing because this is the first time I get a break in like three years. I'm taking it all in until I have to start training and really look forward to having an offseason to train for training camp because last year I was rehabbing for the ACL, so I look forward to resting and then training for camp."
Johnson's weekend included helping teammates officiate a football game between Vikings alumni and staff and a team from Thief River Falls, a visit to a hospital and autograph and photo sessions with fans at multiple "Blast Points."
"I think it's important for us to not only brighten days for people at the hospital, but the whole community's days, and just to come up here and show that, although we have a job that people find to be so glamourous and glorious, we're just like them," Johnson said. "We're normal people just like everybody else. We just want to, if us being in their presence is exciting for them, why not do that for somebody? It's important, and I wouldn't change it for anything. It's been great."