Boise State’s Ian Johnson Fighting for NFL Roster Spot
It’s hard to believe it was just four years ago that Detroit Lions running back Ian Johnson literally became an overnight celebrity.
The setting was the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and Johnson had just scored the game-winning two-point conversion on the Statue of Liberty play. It gave Boise State an improbable 43-42 victory over mighty Oklahoma and officially put the Broncos on the college football map with the perfect ending to a 13-0 season. When Johnson was interviewed afterward, he dropped to one knee on national TV and asked Boise head cheerleader Chrissy Popadics to marry him.
Since then, Johnson has gone from a sophomore college football star to an NFL journeyman entering his third season in the league with his third team.
“I did a lot of growing up in that time,” Johnson said. “When I proposed four years ago, I was 20-years old. I mean I was just a kid goofing off thinking about playing football and playing Xbox. And now I’m trying to start a family, I’ve grown up, we’re trying to buy a house.”
Nowadays Johnson is just trying to win a spot on the Lions’ 53-man roster after spending part of last fall on the team’s practice squad and part of it back in Boise, ID, pondering a future without football while working as a motivational speaker.
“The longer you go without that phone ringing, the more your mind comes to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to start thinking Plan B,’” Johnson said.
Now 24 and still looking for his first NFL carry in a regular-season game, this looks like Johnson’s best shot to make an NFL roster.
For starters, he feels at home with the Lions and bulked up to 215 pounds for training camp. Johnson also prepared himself during the offseason for Scott Linehan’s offense that requires running backs to catch lots of balls out of the backfield.
Said Johnson: “From the moment I got here they said, ‘We catch a lot of balls. So however good you were at catching balls, you have to go home and work on that, because however good you are, it’s not good enough.’”
Johnson took that to heart and with the season-ending Achilles tendon injury suffered by rookie running back Mikel Leshoure last week, Johnson has even more opportunity to prove himself.
Johnson’s recently been taking reps with the first team and in last Friday’s preseason opener against Cincinnati, Johnson carried the ball a game-high nine times – albeit only for a total of 21 yards.
The plan is for Chrissy to travel to Detroit around the third preseason game and stay with Johnson all fall if he makes the practice squad or roster.
If he doesn’t, they will head back to Boise, and Johnson will stay in shape for another shot at the league. But after last season, Ian and Chrissy decided on a specific time frame to focus on the NFL, after which Johnson will move on to a new career he hopes will make use of his business management degree and include more motivational speaking.
“I’ve got a family,” said Johnson, who added he and Chrissy are trying to have their first child. “I’ve got to provide for that family. As a husband, that’s one of my jobs. And if I can’t provide playing football, then I’ve got to find another way to provide. And that’s what I’m gonna do.”
[Related: LSU’s JaMarcus Russell heads back to college]
It certainly didn’t appear that Johnson would just be fighting for an NFL roster spot at the age of 24 after his sophomore season that concluded with the Fiesta Bowl win and subsequent proposal. He had just rushed for over 1,700 yards and an NCAA-best 25 touchdowns that season and appeared on his way to super stardom after an eighth-place finish in the Heisman voting.
But Johnson barely rushed for over 1,000 yards as a junior while hobbled by injuries and in an offense that took to the air.
As a senior, Johnson split carries and didn’t even reach 800 yards, which resulted in him going undrafted in 2009 as scouts questioned his size (5-foot-11), durability and pass protection for the next level.
“Last year was the first time I’ve been cut,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been cut before. It’s a difficult feeling. It’s a difficult transition in life. You’re going from, I was in the state of Minnesota for a year-and-a-half to, hey, you’ve got to take everything you own and get it back to Boise.”
He inked with the Cardinals days later in what appeared to be a serendipitous return to University of Phoenix Stadium – where the Fiesta Bowl is held – but was cut from the practice squad by the end of September.
That’s how Johnson ended up back in Boise until the Lions called and added him to their practice squad in November, giving his football career a reprieve.
But whether Johnson makes it in the NFL or not, he will always be remembered for one thing: Proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend on national TV.
“I’ll be happy to be known as ‘proposal guy,’ ” Johnson said.
Back in 2007, Ian and Chrissy endured a media circus that included an appearance on “Good Morning America” and an appearance at the ESPY Awards that summer where they mingled with the likes of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and then-head coach Tony Dungy shortly before getting hitched.
Johnson – who originally planned to propose when he returned to his home state of California after the game – said he had no idea how much publicity the proposal would receive. His reaction to getting a call from “Good Morning America” the next morning?
“I guess this is kind of a big deal.”
You could say that. To this day, strangers still recognize and approach Johnson about the proposal heard ‘round the world.
It even carries over into the locker room. Johnson said when teammates find out he went to Boise State, they pause for a second, then say: “Heyyy, you’re that guy!”
His fellow Detroit Lions running backs took it even further recently.
“We had some extra time the other day – and all the running backs thought it would be funny to sit in the running backs room and watch all the YouTube clips of my proposal,” Johnson said.
Whenever Johnson’s football career ends, it appears he will be successful in whatever he does next. Not only is he forever beloved in Boise for his on-field accomplishments and the way he embraced the local community, he’s well-spoken, enthusiastic and eternally optimistic.
Take Johnson’s outlook on his rollercoaster pro football career that many would bemoan.
“I would never change the route I took for anything because it’s made me a better person,” Johnson said. “Being on three different teams made me value the team I am on. It made me want this that much more, made me want to fight that much more and not let any single play be taken for granted.”
As the ’07 Fiesta Bowl showed, Johnson has a knack for making the most out of just one single play.
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