On the day the NFL schedule was released in May, Tanya Johnson immediately marked the calendar for this Sunday, when her son John would return to the Washington D.C. area with the Rams for the first time as a pro.
Her husband, John Johnson II, anticipated that a crowd of 30 to 35 friends and family members would be on hand among about 80,000 at FedEx Field to cheer the safety who grew up in nearby Hyattsville, Md.
But because of COVID-19 protocols that forbid fans in the stadium, the Johnsons will have to watch the game at home on television. And they might not be able to see their son beforehand at the team hotel.
Tanya is fine with that. Safety first. But she said her son texted a possible solution.
“He kind of said, ‘Well are we going to organize a drive-by at the hotel? LOL,’ ” Tanya said, laughing, during a phone interview.
Johnson, a fourth-year pro, said this week that he is looking forward to his return to “the DMV,” the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area where he grew up.
Johnson starred at Northwestern High, which is about a 20-minute drive from FedEx Field.
“That’s my neck of the woods, for sure,” he said during a phone interview.
Johnson, 24, is returning home as a leader for a Rams team that is off to 3-1 start. He is the signal-caller for a defense that ranks 12th in the NFL, a unit that has forced six turnovers and made multiple big stops that have clinched victories or keyed momentum changes.
“He’s so intelligent, he’s got such great natural football instincts, I think his calm demeanor rubs off on the rest of the guys,” coach Sean McVay, said.
After watching safety Eric Weddle handle play-calling responsibilities last season under former coordinator Wade Phillips, Johnson said he wasn’t sure he wanted a role that requires a headset inside his helmet to hear instructions from a coach.
“I want to think and digest and feel things out and communicate on the field without having someone talking to me,” he said.
But when new coordinator Brandon Staley broached Johnson with the idea, he tried it.
“That first day of practice, I was like, ‘Oh man, this is kind of cool,’ ” he said.
Staley said Johnson’s acumen, personality and importance to the defense made him a natural to have the headset. Johnson’s teammates agree.
“He’s smart, he listens well, he’s a great communicator, so we couldn’t have a more perfect signal-caller in there,” cornerback Darious Williams said.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey said Johnson has done a great job calling plays, making adjustments, and helping other players line up correctly — including Ramsey, who has been deployed in multiple ways.
“Everything,” Ramsey said of Johnson’s responsibilities, “and still be on top of his game.”
Rookie safety Jordan Fuller starts alongside Johnson, and said he was trying to emulate his teammate’s calm but effective way of playing.
“You see some guys, they kind of look a little, I don’t want to say frantic but a little bit more stressed out,” Fuller said. “But he’s like calm, cool collected throughout the whole game and throughout every single play.”
Johnson developed his athletic skills and people skills while growing up in a family that also includes brother Travis, who is six years older. Johnson said he inherited a passion for the Dallas Cowboys from his father. He was an independent child, his parents said, and excelled in basketball as a youngster.
But Steve Rapp was a young offensive coordinator at Northwestern High in 2008 when he recalled watching Johnson go through football workouts as an eighth-grader.
“He was skinny as a twig at that point in time,” Rapp said. “But I saw a competitor, a dude that wanted to compete, a dude that wanted to lead and a dude that wanted to be the best.
“It was like, ‘All right now. We got something.’ ”
Johnson played basketball and football his first two years of high school. But before his junior year, he decided to focus exclusively on football.
Tanya Johnson was loading the dishwasher when he informed her of his decision.
“Mom, I don’t think I’m going to play basketball anymore,” Johnson said. “I’m going to play football.”
“OK, John,” his mother replied. “Just do whatever makes you happy.”
John’s father, however, did not get that message.
As he often did, he set out to watch his son play in a preseason basketball scrimmage. But when he arrived his son was not on the court. He was told John no longer played basketball.
“I was some kind of mad,” his father said, laughing. “My head liked to pop.”
John Johnson II still thinks his son could play basketball but is happy with his career path.
After sending recruiting tapes and attending football camps up and down the East Coast — sometimes several in one day — Johnson accepted a scholarship to Boston College. He played cornerback for two seasons before switching to safety.
The Rams selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft, but he suffered a groin strain on the first day of rookie camp and was forced to sit out organized team activities.
“I thought I was going to be the first third-rounder to get cut,” he said, laughing.
He finally practiced during training camp, played exceptionally well in a victory over the Dallas Cowboys and was in the starting lineup for the fifth game.
In 2018, Johnson started alongside Lamarcus Joyner in a secondary that also included cornerback Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Johnson intercepted four passes during the season, and then made the play of his young career: He intercepted a pass against the New Orleans Saints in overtime of the NFC championship game, setting up a game-winning field goal that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Johnson’s 2019 season ended after six games when he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. But he returned strong, and with veterans that once dominated the Rams locker room having moved on, he has emerged as powerful voice.
“We’ve always had these big personalities, which hasn’t given him a chance to flourish and show his full personality,” safeties coach Ejiro Evero said. “And now he’s finally in a leadership position and a position where everyone looks to him, and it’s just great to see his command.”
Johnson is earning $2.3 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract, according to overthecap.com. The Rams committed massive sums to Ramsey, quarterback Jared Goff and defensive lineman Aaron Donald, and also gave receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods extensions in recent weeks. So Johnson’s future with the team is uncertain.
“I want to be here,” he said. “And the guys that got theirs — those are well-deserved, 100%. So for me, it’s go out there and keep being myself.
“In this business, you can’t get too involved in it because you’ll end up getting hurt or things may not go your way. But I’m optimistic.”
That’s the attitude Johnson’s parents have adopted for Sunday.
They are looking forward to watching their son on television, and for him to show the locals he has done well. Johnson’s father predicts his son will intercept a pass.
“He’s at home — he knows everyone is going to be watching,” his father said. “He’s going to get him one.”
Rookie edge rusher Terrell Lewis will be activated from the injured list to the roster and will play Sunday, McVay said. … Linebacker Micah Kiser (groin/chest) was limited in his first practice this week and is questionable for Sunday, , McVay said. Troy Hill (ankle) also is listed as questionable. McVay said Michael Brockers was given a veteran’s rest day but the defensive lineman was listed on the injury report as limited because of a toe issue.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.