For Green Bay Packers, Charles Johnson Is the Fish That Got Away

The former seventh round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers is now starting for the team across the border, the Minnesota Vikings.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson—Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TODAY Sports.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson—Bruce Kluckhohn, USA TODAY Sports.

It could have been, perhaps should have been, Charles Johnson catching touchdown passes for the Green Bay Packers in 2014.

Instead, the seventh round draft choice of the Packers in 2013 was making catches against them. For the division rival Minnesota Vikings nonetheless.

"I got my first catch, my first start and my first touchdown versus the team that drafted me, just to throw that out there," said Johnson in an exclusive interview with Cheesehead TV.

Not that Johnson is bitter about how his time ended in Green Bay. He's just elated that he's finally made his mark in the NFL. It's been a long, circuitous route to find a home in Minneapolis.

In fact, those within the Packers organization are rooting for Johnson. Even though he scored that first career touchdown in a Week 12 match-up against Green Bay on Nov. 23, those that got to know him on a personal level were happy to see Johnson finally experience success.

"I was super-stoked about that," said Johnson. "It was exciting. Everybody showed me love from the Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, all the DBs, all the receivers. They really like, showed me love, like 'We like that you're coming on. We like that you fought through all your trials and tribulations and injuries.' I appreciate those guys so much. It was good. It was an exciting moment for me."

 

A Layover in Green Bay

This isn't a story about Charles Johnson's pre-NFL path to professional football. Although that in itself is remarkable.

In brief, Johnson started his college football journey in the same state he was raised at FCS-level Eastern Kentucky, where—as an 18-year-old—he was implicated in the theft of a laptop by his roommate.

Starting anew, Johnson tranferred to Antelope Valley College, a juco in California and a school he'd attend for just one season. After coming back to his native Kentucky to be with his father, who was ailing from a variety of health problems, Johnson then transferred to Grand Valley State in Michigan, the last of three institutes of higher learning he'd attend.

Completing his college eligibility in 2012, Johnson was then selected by the Green Bay Packers with the 216th overall pick in the 2013 draft, making the jump from a Division II football program to the NFL.

"It doesn't matter when you're drafted, it matters where you're drafted," said Johnson. "It's cool to get drafted and all, but it's better what organization you go to. I thought Green Bay was a great organization for me to go to. Unfortuantely I was plagued with injuries my whole first year there."

Extraordinary as his trek to the draft was, the narrative gets even more improbable from there.

Just days after arriving in Green Bay for rookie orientation, a three-day minicamp in which only first-year players partcipate, Johnson suffered his first setback.

"Originally in rookie minicamp, I pulled my hamstring," said Johnson. "I told them before, 'My hamstring is going to pull.' I could feel it, and sure enough, the last play, it was like three plays left in the whole practice and we was done with rookie minicamp. I ran that route and it pulled. It was unfortunate. Then I had to sit."

Unfortunate as the pulled hamstring was, if there is ever an opportune time to incur an injury, it's in the month of May when there's still more than two months until the opening of training camp.

Johnson had to sit and watch his teammates during the full-team Organized Team Activities and mandatory minicamp practices during the offseason, but at least he was learning. He would be able get a grasp on the team's offense before reporting back for training camp in late July.

Then just two practices into training camp, the injury bug struck again.

"I came back the first couple days and was ballin', doing well, running with the ones and going back for a slant pattern thrown by Graham (Harrell) ... and my knee gets caught underneath me and I fall back on it, and there goes my knee," said Johnson. "It was crazy."

After multiple MRI exams, Johnson was told he injured his MCL and had a bone bruise, another setback but seemingly not a death knell. So the rehab began.

If Johnson was going to make the Packers 53-man regular-season roster, however, time was running out. He missed the first three preseason games, the best chance of displaying his skills in a game environment.

In time for the preseason finale, Johnson came back. He put in a full week of practice leading up to the game against the Kansas City Chiefs but could tell something still wasn't right.

What remains the only game Johnson would suit up in a Packers uniform, he was targeted on three passes but never hauled one in. Days later, he was relased by the Packers on the NFL's final cutdown date and then re-signed to the team's practice squad.

 

Onto Ohio

Six weeks into the season, the Cleveland Browns came calling. They knew there was a talent languishing on the Packers practice squad, and Johnson capitalized on the opportunity for a promotion.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Cleveland, Johnson took a physical. Feeling his knee, the doctor told him, "Your ACL feels loose." And so the wide receiver took yet another MRI.

The next day, Johnson was lacing up his cleats, getting ready to run routes for the first time with then-Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner when he was told he tore his ACL and couldn't do any training.

Johnson was incredulous. Although he wasn't playing for the Packers, he was on the practice squad, practicing every day.

It was a whirlwind since being acquired by the Browns and a rather short turnaround. Johnson entertained strange thoughts, acutally saying unless something happened on the plane ride over, he was fine.

"I tried to convince them to just let me play it out because I had been playing through it for six to eight weeks," said Johnson. "Just let me play it out until it's bothering me and I can't cut, because I was able to cut, and I had my own little method in how I compensated, I guess, for the little bit of pain that I was in."

Despite Johnson's pleas, he was shut down and placed on the non-football injury list, a distinction made to protect the team because the injury didn't occur while with the Browns. Surgery was scheduled and his season was ended.

Unfortunately for the rookie, Johnson received a paycheck for just three weeks from Cleveland, mandatory compensation for signing him away from Green Bay. But beyond that, he didn't receive a penny while on the non-football injury list.

It all begs the question, what happened in Green Bay? Why couldn't they discover the torn ACL?

"They told me it was the MCL and I had a bone bruise. That's all they told me," said Johnson. "I can't complain. I had maybe three or four MRIs and they never mentioned ACL. It probably just was missed. Hopefully it was just honestly missed."

Still, Johnson was grateful because the Browns kept him around and seemed intent on developing him in spite wholesale change during the offseason that included a new general manager and a new coaching staff.

At the outset of the 2014 season, Johnson was limited during training camp, taking part in an estimated 25 percent of practice. Less than a year removed from surgery, it was understandably a slow road back.

When final the cutdown date came and went and he was still on the roster, Johnson thought he was in the clear. But one day later, Johnson learned he couldn't take anything for granted. Once again, he was released. And once again, he was asked to join a practice squad.

Not unlike the scenario that played out in Green Bay a year earlier, another NFL team came calling. The Minnesota Vikings needed a wide receiver, and even though the Browns wanted to keep him, Johnson got ready for a new chapter in his life.

On his way out, Cleveland's G.M. Ray Farmer told Johnson it was his fault.

"He was trying to get talent in there," said Johnson. "He wanted to bring more people in, and he knew that I was still recovering from an injury. He knew that he could practice squad me and bring another guy in for active and then put him on the practice squad and bring me back up. I ended up just leaving and heading back with Norv Turner."

 

Finally

In the offeason, Norv Turner went from being offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns to holding the same position with the Minnesota Vikings on the new staff of head coach Mike Zimmer. It was Turner who was the driving force behind getting Johnson to Minneapolis.

Although he was on the roster of the Vikings by Week 3, it took two weeks for Johnson to get up to speed. His first regular-game just so happened to be the Week 5 contest against the team that drafted him, the Green Bay Packers.

In a twist of fate, Johnson's first career catch came oh-so-close to being a touchdown. He caught a pass in the end zone, although the official ruled he didn't get both feet down in bounds.

Johnson was upset, but he stayed the course. He ended up catching one pass against the Packers that day. It didn't go for a touchdown, but he couldn't have been more happy.

"It was only seven yards, but it meant so much more to me, not only because it was against the Packers but because I got a catch in the NFL," said Johnson. "People take for granted how hard it is to get one catch in the NFL because of how talented this league is."

Johnson later went on to make his first start and score that first touchdown against the Packers a few weeks later. He scored on a two-point conversion too, perhaps a case of cosmic karma for misdiagnosing his injury last season.

And yet, Johnson's agent Craig Domman thinks there's a silver lining or a blessing in disguise in what transpired. If Johnson stays on the roster of the Packers and his torn ACL isn't discovered until down the road, maybe his career is set back another year.

"I think for Charles, not too many players would be in the position he's in today if they'd gone through a similar path," said Domann. "He hit bottom. Anytime you get an opportunity to go to a different team and you find out you have a torn ACL, that's a big-time shocker. But to his credit, he's been able to persevere, overcome his injury. Regardless of the team he's played for, regardless of the jersey he's wearing, he just goes out and plays ball, and that's why he's in the position he's in today."

It would appear Johnson has settled in nicely in Minnesota. He finished the year starting six of 12 games, catching 31 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns.

A Homeric-like odyssey completed, Johnson can now concentrate on being the best player he can be.

"It's been a long journey, but I mean, but it's nothing that I couldn't handle," said Johnson. "My life getting to where I'm at today has been long and it's always been some ups and downs, some twists and turns and some crazy things happening. That's just how it's continued so far in the NFL and I'm now at a place in Minneapolis that really likes me and I think it's going to be good for me.

"I finally got the opportunity. That's all it really is. You don't know who a person is, you don't know who a player is until they get an opportunity. I like to say when hard work meets opportunity, you create your own success. I've always worked hard. I just haven't had the opportunity because of injuries."

 

You can listen to Johnson's interview with Cheesehead TV on Monday's episode of Railbird Central, live at 8:30 a.m. CT.

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].

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Comments (12)

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RCPackerFan's picture

February 05, 2015 at 01:47 pm

I really liked Johnson. I thought he was a player that was going to be really good for the Packers. Unfortunately he decided to leave, and the rest is history.

I wish him the best of luck personally, but due to the team he plays for, I can't root for him that much.

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The TKstinator's picture

February 05, 2015 at 06:16 pm

Can't make the club in the tub.

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Imma Fubared's picture

February 05, 2015 at 06:54 pm

Another piece of evidence that GB Staff keeps the pets it likes and (AJ Hawk) and gives up on some guys because this is not room at the in.

Just how the hell can all these undrafteds not only make the team but start is beyond comprehension.

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4thand1's picture

February 05, 2015 at 11:06 pm

Its inn, not in, crackhead

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Point-Packer's picture

February 06, 2015 at 12:00 am

I could probably make the Vikings. And I'm drunk and fat. Charles Johnson still wouldn't make this team.

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Flow49's picture

February 06, 2015 at 01:51 pm

I'll take Adams, Aberderis and Janis. I don't think this is a Vonte Leech like loss. Although at this point I might take Johnson for Boykin he regressed last year.

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Denver's picture

February 07, 2015 at 03:24 pm

I'm hoping Abbrederis winds up making Johnson (or even Janis) an afterthought.
I wouldn't be surprised in the least.

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Bearmeat's picture

February 07, 2015 at 09:27 pm

Abbrederis and Johnson/Janis are completely different prospects. Abby was a production player in college who doesn't have "normal" NFL measurables. Both Janis and Johnson jump off the page at you athletically, but they didn't have big time college careers. They are H/W/S prospects.

I'd take Johnson over any of them right now. But time will tell on Janis/Abby.

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4thand1's picture

February 08, 2015 at 01:56 pm

The Packers sure take their time to get young guys on the field. I wonder if they would have got C J Mosley if he would have rode the pines behind hawk for most of the season? Although they did get Adams involved pretty quick.

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Denver's picture

February 08, 2015 at 01:58 pm

I hear you, Bearmeat, but I was going for who hopefully ends up with the most productive career of the three. My money is on Abby.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

February 08, 2015 at 01:41 am

Don't agree that one 7th round pick is as good as the next, but I get what you're driving at. Most of these guys won't make it, but a special few will. Most exhibit some attribute that is good: maybe route running, suddenness out of their breaks, high pointing the ball.

Hardly anyone mentions the other 7th rounder still under contract, Dorsey. He might prove me wrong, but despite the Height/weight/speed stuff he has, I don't think he is in the same league as Janis or Johnson.

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Icebowler's picture

February 08, 2015 at 11:18 pm

Wow, this is the first I heard that the Packers had misdiagnosed his ACL injury. At the time Cleveland signed him off of our practice squad, everything I read said the he apparently hid the injury from the Packers. Supposedly, he was full out practicing at the time. If this is true, it's a big black eye for the Packers medical staff.

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