INDIANAPOLIS — There was a palpable lack of energy on the Texas practice field that morning.
Every NFL team had sent at least one representative to Austin, but the assembled crowd felt like it was checking a box at the Texas Pro Day, sleepily rolling in to evaluate a Longhorn class that would produce just one draft pick in 2016.
Marcus Johnson knew he had to wake up those scouts.
“So much anxiety and pressure being put into that moment,” Johnson said. “If I go out there and lay an egg, I may, at the most, get a workout, maybe bring me in for a rookie minicamp.”
He had no more eggs left to lie.
All of the ones he’d ever had were in that basket. A star-crossed college career had come to an end that December, and Johnson decided to throw everything he had into the NFL, giving up his final semester to train full-time for his pro day.
Everybody around him — parents, coaches, advisors — told him to stay in school and get his degree.
“I felt like a lot of people were saying that, and I felt like it was too passive,” Johnson said. “Obviously, that’s important, but in my mind, this is what I’ve always dreamed of, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
By the time he was finished, the scouts were lining up to talk to him.
‘Longest week of your life’
Nearly every NFL player can tell a story about the day their career could have ended. An injury. A missed opportunity. A lack of eyes at a critical moment.
Johnson has been through so many of those days. Almost always in the month of August, sometimes in the first few days of September.
The first time might have been the toughest.
Johnson was a junior at Texas. Two-a-days had just started; a doctor found a polyp in Johnson’s nasal passage. The doctor seemed confident the polyp wasn’t anything to worry about.
The next word he used hit Johnson hard.
“My heart dropped. When the doctor tells you there’s potential for a rare form of cancer, you just sit there. It’s indescribable. In that moment, nothing else seemingly matters,” Johnson said. “There were so many different thoughts.”
He’d always had trouble breathing. Chalked it up to allergies. Johnson underwent surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove the polyp, only a month before the Longhorns were supposed to open the season.
Five days, maybe a week, went by before Johnson got the biopsy results.
“Longest week of your life,” Johnson said.
No cancer. The young receiver returned to the Longhorns and made 27 catches for 313 yards, setting the stage for a breakout senior year, even after a torn meniscus cost him most of spring practice and the summer.
“That was my mindset,” Johnson said. “It was all or nothing that season.”
A high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the season opener threw a wrench into those plans.
“Missed that game, missed two games after that,” Johnson said. “It was tough, man, trying to practice, barely being able to practice. … Then come game day, you take your Toradol, whatever you can to fight that pain, but then after every game, it felt like a setback that next day.”
Almost as soon as he felt his ankle go, Johnson set his mind on two goals.
Play against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, when he knew the world would be watching; Johnson caught four passes for 35 yards and a touchdown that day.
The other goal was the Texas Pro Day.
“There was a lot of doubt,” Johnson said. “Your family, friends, a lot of people just say ‘It’s a tough break,’ ‘You gave it all you had.’ It makes you feel like there’s no shot.”
Johnson looked like an NFL receiver that day in Austin.
At 6-1, 204 pounds, he ripped off 22 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, more than any receiver at the NFL Scouting Combine that year. Johnson posted a vertical leap of 37 inches, covered 11 feet, 3 inches on the broad jump.
Most importantly, Johnson tore through the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.
“That turned me into a priority free agent,” Johnson said. “I went from no calls, no interest, no all-star games, no combines to having 8 to 10 teams offer me a free agent contract.”
The decision came down to the Eagles or the Colts.
Johnson picked Philadelphia. Their wide receivers coach, Greg Lewis, put more effort into recruiting the undrafted rookie than anybody else; the depth chart looked like it might be ready for a climb.
“I had worked my way up to the 1’s and 2’s; I was rolling,” Johnson said. “That was my first introduction of, ‘I can do this.’ It didn’t quite show at Texas, but I’m here at the highest level, and I’m moving up the depth chart.”
A Grade 2 quadriceps strain early in training camp halted his momentum. The Eagles cut him then released him from the practice squad early in the year.
Three months passed. From the outside, it looked like Johnson’s NFL dreams had come to an end.
“I was doing workouts for teams, but nobody was bringing me in,” Johnson said. “Then Philly called.”
Johnson finished the season on the practice squad, then established himself as a backup receiver and a special teamer on the Eagles team that caught fire and rode its momentum all the way to a Super Bowl win over the New England Patriots.
Personally, though, Johnson remembers that season for a decision he made off the field, one that he says has sustained him through setback after setback.
“That was the year that my faith changed, that was the year that I gave my life to Christ,” Johnson said. “That was the year that I said, ‘Lord, I’m not going to try to keep doing things on my own.’”
He’d grown up in the church, but he’d fallen away in college.
Turning back to his faith gave Johnson a new source of strength.
“Everything that happened at Texas, in my rookie year in Philly, it was a like a three- or four-year span, I couldn’t catch a break,” Johnson said. “The one thing I’m proudest of is that during those times, I didn’t give up on myself. I always knew what I was capable of, it was just a lot of unfortunate circumstances and bad timing on things, and it all started to make sense once I gave my life to Christ and got traded.”
A chance in Indianapolis
Johnson was traded twice in a span of six months. First from Philadelphia to Seattle in March, then from Seattle to Indianapolis at the end of training camp. Frank Reich had been Johnson’s offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, and he hadn’t forgotten about him.
“In a lot of ways, Marcus is a prototypical receiver in the NFL,” Reich said at the time. “I don’t think he’s had the right opportunity, but I think he’s got a chance at getting that here.
An Indianapolis roster short on players at the position gave Johnson the chance he needed.
Six games into the season, he hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck in New York, the first of his career and the sort of big play he’d always been known for making during his days as a Longhorn.
He felt like he’d arrived.
Then Jets defender Trenton Cannon hit him two steps out of bounds on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter of the same game, tearing Johnson’s ankle ligament and ending his season right before he could build on the touchdown he’d scored earlier in the day.
“It was like God was showing me, despite the setbacks, that I was capable of doing it,” Johnson said. “You can do this. Keep fighting, like you’ve always done. This isn’t anything new for you.”
What was new was the severity of the injury.
Up until that point in his career, Johnson’s injuries had mostly been bad timing, rather than the kind of surgical repairs that take the better part of a year to rehabilitate. When Johnson tried to recapture his momentum in training camp with the Colts in 2019, he could tell he wasn’t the same player.
“That’s the thing about this league,” Johnson said. “When you see guys get hurt, and it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s healthy, he’s back,’ that doesn’t mean he’s back. It just means he’s been cleared. There’s a whole other component of the game where you have to get back in the rhythm of everything. … That training camp, I just felt sloppy.”
By the end of training camp, he’d started to make a push, but former Colt Deon Cain had established himself as the front-runner for the No. 4 spot on the roster, and Johnson suffered a concussion in the preseason finale that proved to be a headache for both him and the Colts.
Because of the concussion’s timing, two days before the NFL’s annual roster reductions, Johnson had to be waived/injured, which pushed him onto injured reserve the next day, even though his injury wouldn’t keep him out the entire season. Indianapolis released him with an injury settlement, but as part of that settlement, the Colts couldn’t bring him back for at least three weeks after he got healthy, even though injuries were ravaging the wide receiver position and Cain failed to pan out.
Johnson stayed positive. He’d built a life in Indy, getting heavily involved with Young Life, a Christian organization aimed at helping teenagers grow in their faith, focused on the Pike area of Indianapolis.
“I just had the confidence I’d be back,” Johnson said.
The Colts signed him to the practice squad as soon as the injury settlement restrictions were lifted, then promoted the wide receiver to the active roster in early November, and Johnson finally had his chance to shine.
Despite playing in an anemic Indianapolis offense, Johnson made 17 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns down the stretch, establishing himself as a bona fide NFL deep threat in a three-catch, 105-yard performance in a loss to Tampa Bay.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” Johnson said. “It was that moment where I was like ‘This is what it was all for.”
‘Keep that chip on your shoulder’
Johnson felt like he’d established himself in Indianapolis.
Then reality hit. The Colts decided not to tender Johnson as a restricted free agent this offseason, even though it would have cost the team just a shade over $2 million. After a month of testing the waters elsewhere, the veteran receiver ended up signing back in Indianapolis for $825,000.
“Part of it I understood, but part of it, you keep that chip on your shoulder. They didn’t believe in me quite enough to sign me to a tender, so that alone was enough motivation,” Johnson said. “In my mind, it’s not about the contract or the money, it’s about me establishing myself in this league.”
Once he re-signed, Johnson threw himself into preparation for this season, trying to stay in peak condition since the uncertainty of the COVID-19 lockdown meant he felt like he could be called back to action at any time.
Then the month of August hit him hard again.
The Colts hadn’t even started training camp yet. Johnson ran an out, might have planted his foot awkwardly, might have overextended a little bit, but whatever the reason, he suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain, an injury serious enough to cost him all two weeks of the NFL’s abbreviated training camp.
The Colts released him at the end of training camp again.
“That was the first time I said, ‘That might have been the last time I play as a Colt,’” Johnson said. “I felt like I’d done enough that another team would pick me up fairly quickly.”
Two games later, Johnson was back in Indianapolis, signed to the practice squad after Parris Campbell went down with an injury to his PCL and MCL. A week and an injury to Michael Pittman later, Johnson was back in the lineup against the Chicago Bears, and he hauled in a 36-yard pass from Philip Rivers, who’d already taken notice of Johnson in August, before the hamstring injury.
“The chemistry is there,” Johnson said. “For him to have the confidence to throw that up to me in tight coverage and let me go up and make a play, I felt like that was the icebreaker.”
Another 36-yard grab led to three catches and 53 yards against Cleveland, then Johnson exploded with a five-catch, 108-yard performance against Cincinnati, sparking the Colts’ comeback with a 55-yard bomb that got Rivers into a zone in the second quarter.
Back before this season started, before the draft, the Colts said they wanted to add explosive playmakers on offense.
Five of Johnson’s nine catches so far have gone for 20 yards or more, the traits he’s had since his Texas days on display with Rivers.
“First. … the speed. Marcus is explosive,” Reich said. “The second thing is just the ability to make a 50-50 catch.”
It’s another well-worn NFL story, part of the NFL lore.
A discarded player keeps fighting, battling for his spot in the NFL, then gets the right opportunity and makes the most of it.
“Guys are injured, and they’re gone, and the next thing you know, they are having 100-yard games,” Rivers said. “You just really never know how it can play out.”
Especially if they refuse to give up.