Johnson took rough road from Strath Haven to Broncos

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Getty Images
Posted: February 01, 2014

JERSEY CITY, N.J. - Steven Johnson is using part of his NFL salary to pay back his father for the chance he took six years ago. He wants to ensure that Steven Johnson Sr. is fully reimbursed for mortgaging his Upper Darby barbershop to send Johnson to college.

"Still have about $80,000 left," Johnson said. "Slowly getting that to go down."

A Media native, Johnson is a linebacker and a core special-teams player for the Denver Broncos who took an unlikely path to Sunday's Super Bowl. He was not a varsity player at Strath Haven High until his senior year. He did not receive a scholarship offer to a Division I-A school. He spent a year at a prep school that ended with a significant knee injury.

He typed a heartfelt letter to Kansas to persuade the Jayhawks to maintain their interest, but he needed to pay his own way as a freshman. He slept on couches and shared textbooks before earning a scholarship. He made the Broncos in 2012 as an undrafted rookie and his No. 53 is a reminder that he might have been the 53d and final man on the roster.

"This year, I don't necessarily think I'm the 53d man," Johnson said. "But I always kind of feel that way."

Johnson Sr. said the "deck has always been stacked against" his son. But he wanted him to have a chance. When Kansas appeared to be the opportunity for Johnson to showcase his skills, his father mortgaged the barbershop, Suburban Hair Company, for a $100,000 loan. He could not afford Kansas' out-of-state tuition otherwise, and he knew what was at stake.

"I had to, just to give him the opportunity, because I knew he could play," Johnson Sr. said. "I had no other choice. What am I going to do? The hardest part about it was if I had not done that, I'd have to look in his face and deal with the emotions because he wasn't able to go to the only D-I school that gave him the option."

That Kansas was even interested could be considered unlikely. Johnson was a good athlete as a child, although he hit a rough period as a teenager after his parents split up. He became out of shape and was admittedly chubby and slow.

Johnson described himself like many teenage males in the Philadelphia area during the late 1990s/early 2000s. He knew the names of the top high school football players in the classes ahead of him, he rooted for the Eagles and idolized Brian Dawkins, and he didn't like when the guys in his grade teased him and the girls in his grade weren't interested in him.

So Johnson changed. He embraced religion. He became bigger and faster. By his senior year, he played varsity football and made the Class AAA all-state team.

"I was always the guy who couldn't do it, until my last year," Williams said. "Me in my heart, I always knew I could do it."

The only colleges interested were local schools such as Millersville and East Stroudsburg. His pastor encouraged him to go to prep school to boost his stock, so Johnson enrolled at Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pa. Midway through the season, Johnson tore two ligaments in his knee. Division I schools lost interest. Johnson typed a long note to a Kansas assistant explaining why the Jayhawks should want him. He cried with each paragraph.

Kansas allowed him to enroll, which was when his father took out the mortgage. Johnson didn't play in his freshman season while he recovered from his injury. He stayed to impress the coaches. He slept on the couch of two teammates who became NFL players. His father was getting worried about the unknown.

"I really found out if I wanted to play football," Johnson said.

By the beginning of his sophomore year, Johnson finally earned a scholarship. By his sophomore season, he started and led the team in tackles. By his senior season, he led the Big 12 in tackles and was an NFL prospect.

Johnson thought he would be drafted. He watched 33 linebackers get selected without his name being called.

Some NFL players feel slighted when they are picked in the third round instead of the first, when they are paid $2 million instead of $4 million. Johnson's gripe would be more legitimate. He's in his second season as a bottom-of-the-roster contributor, and he's still surviving.

"Hopefully as his career goes on," Johnson Sr. said, "he'll maintain that same resolve."

Johnson is far from content. He wants to start. He wants to star. He explained how his goal is to reach the Hall of Fame - and he gave the caveat that it's OK if he's not a first-ballot Hall of Famer like teammate Peyton Manning.

It seems like lofty talk from a special-teams player, but so was playing Division I-A ball for him at one time. So was going from walk-on to starter. It's why his father will be paid in full for the chance he took six years ago.

"I've been through so much, and now, I have a role in the Super Bowl," Johnson said. "It's not what I dreamed of it being, being the starting middle linebacker and making the game-winning tackle. But I literally just want to make a difference somehow. And that's really all I wanted to do my whole life."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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