Throughout his meandering journey back to the NFL, the one that carried him through Europe and up to Canada, the one that had him chasing after quarterbacks on 110-yard fields and inside of basketball arenas, defensive tackle Tom Johnson never lost sight of where he wanted to wind up.
Once Johnson got his short-lived first stint in the NFL in 2006, he decided he was good enough to stick in the league. It took a pep talk from his father at his lowest point and a half-decade of toiling in lesser leagues to finally play in an NFL game.
It took him even longer to find a place that felt like home.
But nine years, six teams and three other leagues later, the late bloomer finally has found his ideal situation in Minnesota, playing an important role for an 8-5 Vikings team that could potentially clinch a playoff spot Sunday with a victory over the Chicago Bears.
While the Vikings didn’t have high expectations for Johnson when he arrived before last season, he has become a valuable reserve and part-time starter for a defense that ranks ninth in the NFL in points allowed. That’s not too shabby for a guy who once got cut by an Arena Football League team and had to prove himself in the Canadian Football League to get back on the NFL radar.
“You can’t complain with destiny,” the 31-year-old said this week. “I still made it here.”
Diamond in the rough
Baseball was Johnson’s first love growing up in Moss Point, Miss. His father, Tom Jr., was a formidable church league softball slugger, so Johnson was drawn to the game. He played all over the diamond before settling in at catcher. And like his daddy, Johnson could hit for power.
As Johnson was heading into his junior year of high school, his friend Darius Fountain pestered him to try out for the football team. In Fountain’s opinion, if someone that big was athletic enough to do a full back flip, he had to give the sport a shot.
Johnson became a good high school player, earning all-state honors as a senior. But he also had humbling moments as he tried to play catch-up with his peers, like when he got schooled by Andrew Whitworth, who would become a Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, when Moss Point High played Louisiana’s West Monroe.
“You saw [the potential], but he couldn’t quite put the pieces together,” Fountain said.
Johnson received scholarship offers from SWAC programs, but hoping to play on a bigger stage, he chose to start off at a junior college. After two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, he transferred to Southern Miss, which kept him close to home, and started 12 games in two seasons there.
Johnson said he didn’t really have serious aspirations about playing football until after his senior season, when he started getting interest from NFL teams. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2006. He tore a calf muscle and the Colts cut him at the end of camp.
Back home in Moss Point and in need of some steady cash after the birth of his daughter, Autumn, he took a short-term job at a local car dealership. For two months, the 6-3, 288-pound defensive tackle worked 12-hour days trying to sell new and used Chevys and Cadillacs. He sold two or three.
“I hated what I was doing,” said Johnson, who was staying in shape in case an NFL team called. “You question what the next move is going to be. You think, ‘Should I just quit football?’ ”
‘In survival mode’
Moss Point is a small, blue-collar city of roughly 14,000 people just off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Many citizens, including both of his parents at different points, worked in shipyards building battleships and other Navy vessels, hard labor in 100-degree sun.
His mother, Lenora, worked as an insulator at the shipyard before suffering a severe back injury in the early 1990s while squeezing into a nook inside one of the battleships. She has spent weeks at a time at the hospital over the years because of that and stomach issues that stemmed from overmedication.
“When my mom got hurt, it was pretty much one of the hardest things about growing up,” Johnson said. “But when you’re young, you don’t know you have a lot. I had three older sisters, we had a great childhood together.”
Most of Moss Point was flooded or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Johnson was not far away at Southern Miss, where he was heading into his senior year, when Katrina rocked the Gulf. He was on the practice field preparing for the season opener when the sky turned purple and the wind started to pick up.
“Hurricanes down there are like snowing up here. Everyone was like, ‘It’s no big deal,’ ” Johnson said. “The next day you wake up, you’re pretty much a refugee. You’re in survival mode. Stores are closed and people are looting because they don’t have anything. It was a tough few days for us.”
With the power out, cellphone signals down and roads flooded and blocked by falling trees, it took Johnson a week to learn that all of his family back in Moss Point was alive. Their home was damaged, but it could have been a lot worse.
Years later, after finally finding footing in the NFL, Johnson bought his parents a new, bigger house. And last year he told his father he could retire.
“That’s one of the goals that you have growing up, being able to take care of your parents,” Johnson said. “They took care of you and sacrificed for you.”
Journey to the NFL
Johnson reached his low point when he squeezed into slacks and was trying to sell cars. He thought about giving up the dream and finding a job working as a school administrator. Maybe he would coach some football, too. But then his father stepped in.
“My dad told me something that I still hold on to today,” he said. “He said, ‘Man, a 9-to-5 [job] ain’t going nowhere. This opportunity to play football is only going to last so long.’ ”
The Colts had called and offered him a chance to play in the now-defunct NFL Europa league. His father’s words in mind, he took a leap of faith and played for the Cologne Centurions in the final year of the league’s existence.
Johnson was unable to parlay his season overseas into an NFL gig, so he settled for the $2,000 game checks of the Arena Football League.
When he got cut by the Philadelphia Soul, what kept him going was the desire to provide the best life possible for his daughter, who is now 9, just like his parents had done for him. After regrouping with the AFL’s Grand Rapids Rampage, Johnson got his big breakthrough north of the border.
His cousin, Dee McCann, a cornerback who once had a stint with the Vikings, was headed to the Canadian Football League to play for the Calgary Stampeders. McCann told the Stampeders about Johnson and they invited him up for a workout. Johnson said they afterward offered him a contract on the spot.
Even after an unspectacular first season in the CFL, with its 110-yard fields and three-down format, Johnson still eyed the NFL. He hired agent Bardia Ghahremani, who challenged him to pick up his game.
“I told him, ‘You have to give me something to work with,’ ” Ghahremani said. “What did he do? He absolutely went up there and wrecked shop.”
During that breakout 2010 season, Johnson recorded four sacks and 39 tackles while garnering CFL all-star honors. The Vikings were one of 14 teams, according to Johnson, that brought him in for a workout. But he signed with the Saints because of the proximity of New Orleans to his family. He played for three different defensive coordinators and battled injuries. In a reserve role, he had 55 tackles and five sacks in three years with the Saints.
In the spring of 2014, Johnson was a free agent again. This time the Vikings got their guy.
Johnson’s one-year contract with the Vikings received little fanfare and there were no guarantees he would make the team. But coach Mike Zimmer has a reputation for playing the best players, regardless of where they came from. “I think that this is the first time I really got a fair shot to display what I got going on,” Johnson said. “They told us right away that you have to earn your spot. The coaches here definitely know how to pull out the best in guys.”
Johnson stuck around last season, earned a role as a sub-package pass rusher, started a pair of games and led all Vikings defensive tackles with 6 ½ sacks.
“We knew a little bit about him,” Zimmer said. “But we didn’t expect him to be doing a lot of the things that he’s done. … Really, it’s about when you get an opportunity, take advantage of it.”
The Vikings re-signed Johnson in March to a three-year, $7 million contract.
Already ticketed for a significant role in Zimmer’s defensive line rotation this season, Johnson has started six games because of injuries to defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph and he leads both of them in snaps played. In 13 games, he has 25 tackles and two sacks.
And now, for the first time in his football odyssey, which took him from Cologne to Calgary with other stops in between, Johnson finally has a stable professional home.
“I think coming here was the best situation I could have been in,” he said.