NEW YORK (AP) — Ty Johnson sat through some of his high school classes distracted — and driven — by a dream.
He wanted more than anything to play football in college. And Johnson delivered that message to every coach for whom he could find an email address.
One letter turned into dozens and then hundreds. And then he would anxiously wait for a response.
“It’s been a long road, for sure,” the New York Jets running back said. “I’m getting yelled at in math class and whatnot for sending out emails, sending out multiple emails a day. And obviously, you know, the college-level coaches get fired, so they’re going to not have the same email. So, there were a lot of no replies or just, ‘Fill out a questionnaire.’ You know, the questionnaire doesn’t mean anything, really.”
But Johnson didn’t stop.
Not until he became the first football player in more than 20 years from Fort Hill High School in Cumberland, Maryland, to receive a Division I scholarship. And he got to stay close to home, playing at the University of Maryland.
“This is something I wanted to do, something I wanted to do with my life, something I wanted to pursue,” Johnson said. “So I’m not going to take no for an answer, regardless of what comes my way, and just keep moving forward. You’re going to take your L’s — and you’re going to take your L’s on your chin.
“But you’ve just got to keep moving forward and you’ve got to bounce back no matter what.”
That approach has guided Johnson throughout his football journey, highlighted last Sunday by running for a career-high 104 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries — a bright spot in the winless Jets’ stunning 31-28 loss to Las Vegas.
“He had a really big game for us and we saw flashes of it in practice every day,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “He’s got great speed and great vision, so just his ability to get in and out of cuts and be able to go downhill and stop on a dime is obviously key at the running back position and I think he does it really well.”
The 23-year-old Johnson, who was filling in for the injured 37-year-old Frank Gore, became the first Jets player during coach Adam Gase’s two-year tenure to rush for at least 100 yards.
And he did it without showing any of the nerves a second-year player might typically have when thrust into a big spot.
“Just how loose he was, how charismatic he was, you could feel his personality,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “And it was awesome to see as a coach, to see this young kid who’s a great competitor having fun maximizing his opportunity.”
The 1-yard touchdown was Johnson’s first in the NFL — and was predicted by teammate Breshad Perriman moments earlier in the huddle when the wide receiver congratulated him on what was about to happen.
“I didn’t believe I actually scored and hit pay dirt,” Johnson said. “It was just really wild. I was just like, ‘Damn, I just scored.’”
Johnson underhanded the football straight into the air to celebrate, but quickly recovered it — and plans to give it to his mother, Tracy, someday.
She, of course, has been there for all the ups and downs. All the rejection letters in high school. All the huge games at Maryland, where he was the fourth player in school history to rack up 4,000 all-purpose yards.
He lasted until the sixth round of the 2019 draft, when Detroit took him with an eye on his blazing speed. Johnson played in every game during his rookie season, including one start, and showed promise with the Lions while rushing for 273 yards on 63 carries and catching 24 passes for 109 yards.
This season, though, he was behind Kerryon Johnson, Adrian Peterson and eventually rookie D’Andre Swift on the depth chart and was waived on Oct. 1.
“They told me I did a great job and all, and I’m always going to appreciate them for giving me the opportunity and drafting me,” Johnson said. “But it definitely kind of stung a little bit. But it was one of those things like I’ve just got to prove myself to someone else, and that’s fine by me.
“I’ve always got to prove myself, no matter what.”
The next day, the Jets snatched him off waivers.
Johnson was used sparingly during his first few games, mostly on kickoff returns. But injuries to La’Mical Perine and Gore have created opportunities late in the season.
He’s ready for whatever’s next. Whether that’s more carries or fewer, he’s going to keep at it and persevere — just as he did with all those emails during math class.
“It’s just a blessing,” Johnson said. “Every single time there’s adversity, it just makes you stronger at the end of the day and helps you get through more things. It’s definitely been a long road, but it’s all worth it at the end.”
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