Monson: Left behind, Utah's Brian Johnson still awaits a ride to the NFL
An hour or two after the Sugar Bowl ended, Brian Johnson walked out of the Superdome and turned face-first into an uncertain future. So immediately uncertain, he had no idea how he was going to get back to the team hotel.
"There were no busses to be found," he says now. "I was left behind."
Standing on a dark New Orleans street corner at 1 a.m., with a backpack over his shoulder and the Sugar Bowl MVP trophy in his hand, Johnson felt all alone. And he was -- until a disheveled stranger off the street sidled over to him and asked if he could see and hold the shiny hardware.
Johnson hurriedly punched up Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on his cell and asked, "Where is everybody? Why did you leave me?"
Whittingham's response: "We did?"
It took all of about 90 minutes, then, for Johnson to go from the illumination of the brightest spotlights to the murky shadows of being forgotten. He stood by himself and waited for a ride to show up.
"It was bizarre," he says. "I had no idea what was going on."
He knows now.
The months since his final college football game, the one in which he led the Utes to a remarkable 31-17 victory over Alabama, have brought a whole lot of reality -- and some fantasy, too -- into Johnson's life.
He did what senior football players do. He found an agent. He trained in preparation for the NFL Draft. He discovered that some teams liked him, others did not. He didn't get invited to the pre-draft combine. He participated in his school's pro day. And he realized that NFL scouts like quarterbacks with big arms and they don't like quarterbacks who are shorter than 6-foot-2.
"I could make my arm stronger," he says. "I couldn't make myself taller."
That was real.
What was unreal was Johnson simultaneously finding himself on the cover of the EA Sports NCAA College Football 2010 game, an "honor" that would not only fill his pocket with some cash, but also give him some cachet when the rest of the planet seemed to be dropping him from its consciousness.
The Thursday and Friday before the draft, Johnson was in New York City, hanging out with Michael Crabtree, Mark Sanchez, Jason Smith, Aaron Curry, among others, for the media release of the EA Sports video game. Those other guys were in town for the draft, while Johnson flew home to Salt Lake City to watch on TV the happenings from there.
On Saturday, he sat back as Smith, Crabtree, Sanchez and Curry were selected early, all while his own name was never called.
"It was nerve-racking," he says. "I always thought I'd get drafted and have a great career. It didn't happen. You go from an extreme high to an extreme low."
Seeking the free-agent route, Johnson searched for a team to look at him, and wound up at what amounted to a tryout in Green Bay. He calls his experience there "awesome," but he was sent packing, anyway.
Thereafter, he grew frustrated, staying in shape, waiting for a call.
"Nothing came," he says.
Throughout, Johnson has not gotten down on himself, has not felt sorry for himself, has not turned his back on the dream of playing pro football.
"My confidence has never been broken," he says. "I still think I can play in the NFL. I'm good enough. I just need an opportunity. It's tough to make it if you don't get a shot at all. The percentages are against you, if you're not a highly rated guy."
Besides staying in shape, Johnson has occupied his time by filling in as a sports-talk radio show host, a pursuit that interests him and at which he has shown potential.
"The biggest adjustment for me is trying to get rid of an athlete's perspective, and put the shoe on the other foot," he says. "Now, I get to say what I really feel. Because you don't want to step on anyone's toes as an athlete, you don't want to speak your opinion. You don't want to criticize anyone. Now, I can say what I really feel. It's different, but enjoyable."
He also has thought about coaching, a path many have encouraged him to pursue, considering his acumen for the game, his leadership and his ability to communicate. When he quarterbacked the Utes his senior year, the offense appeared to run smoother when he called the plays.
"I have the rest of my life to coach," he says. "Playing football is still there. I'm considering the [developmental] UFL, it's another chance to get in front of people."
On Tuesday, Johnson was scheduled to get in front of people at a West Valley City computer game store, where he was to sign freshly debuted copies of the EA Sports game for fans and customers. The action cover shot was taken from a sequence in Utah's dramatic win over Oregon State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The cover deal came about when former Utah and Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson contacted Johnson about the possibility. Anderson knew the head of EA Sports, as did Johnson's agent, and the thing came together from there.
He follows players such as Darren McFadden and Matt Ryan, who were on previous issues of the game. And he continues to hold onto hope -- "stranger things have happened," he says -- that he yet will follow those players into the NFL.
"Nobody can predict the future," Johnson says. "I've learned that. There are so many unknowns as to what's going to happen. You just have to make something out of the opportunities you get, and enjoy it. You never know when things will end, and what new doors will open."
He's standing, still, on a street corner in the dark, trophy in his hand, waiting for a ride to show up.