DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ David Johnson ready to reclaim his future in 2018

Apr 22, 2018, 5:00 PM | Updated: Apr 23, 2018, 9:02 am
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)...
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

David Johnson is proud of his new skills. Like changing a diaper without fumbling. Swinging a baseball bat without embarrassment. Renewed respect for a profession that can put you on the shelf with impunity, taking away everything that makes you special.

And he plans to hit back hard in 2018.

“My goal is 1,000 receiving yards and 1,500 rushing,” he said.

On the surface, Johnson is the same as ever. Always smiling. Mannerly and eager to please. Optimistic to the point of delusion.

During his MVP-caliber season two years ago, Johnson famously flirted with the 1,000-1,000 club, a feat accomplished by only two players in history (Marshall Faulk, Roger Craig). Nobody has reached the plateau he is now chasing.

But deep down, this is not about numbers. It’s reclaiming his future, jumpstarting his stalled status, exceeding expectations all over again.

“I just have to beat my stats from 2016,” Johnson said. “That’s my goal.”

Johnson’s rise to NFL prominence is the stuff of legends. He grew up in poverty, without a father, eating whatever his mother brought home while working at various fast-food restaurants. He was bullied mercilessly in elementary school, spending much of his childhood in terror. His athletic talents went largely unnoticed, and he ended up at Northern Iowa, starring for the football team while cleaning toilets for $9 an hour.

He learned humility and the virtue of hard work, forging a temperament that belied the angry chip on his shoulder.

“I’m never going to lose that,” Johnson said. “But this time, it’s because of injuries. I lost a whole year. And now that I’m back, there all these young running backs who have come into the league. I have to go out and show my dominance again. I have to prove that the David Johnson of 2016 is back. That’s he’s an improved David Johnson. That’s the biggest thing.”

Johnson is invigorated by the Cardinals’ revamped offensive line. He loves the new system installed by new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who has promised a stronger commitment to the running game. He wants to be a shining light once again, carrying the football and the championship hopes of his city.

The running back has worked hard to impact the community. He has delivered Christmas presents to Cardinals fans who ordered replica jerseys. He’s helped out at homeless shelters. His foundation just announced a program with Phoenix Children’s Hospital called “David’s Locker,” donating video games and iPads to patients and their families to help relieve their stress.

“This stuff means a lot to me because I want to give back to people who aren’t as fortunate, who might be having tough times,” Johnson said. “If I’m able to put a smile on their faces, and let them enjoy that day by what I can do or interactions with me and other football players, it means a lot. It really hits home for me, and brightens my day as well.”

Johnson credits Larry Fitzgerald for much of his education. The Cardinals’ wide receiver is the current face of the franchise, but those days are numbered. When he retires, the torch is scheduled to be handed to Johnson, and Fitzgerald understands the importance of that succession plan.

“He’s taught me a lot of stuff,” Johnson said. “How to conduct myself. How to always be a professional no matter where you’re at because you never know who has a camera on you. How to always be well-dressed and how to be financially smart. Learn the word, ‘no.’

“He’s taught me to save money, especially now that I have a young son. How to develop the right work ethic. How to talk smack with my teammates, and how to be smart about it and not rude.”

Johnson has the ability to listen and implement good advice. He was ribbed for the unbecoming first pitch he once tossed at Chase Field, and didn’t fare much better in a batting practice session. His ability as a hitter was playfully mocked by Fitzgerald early last week, in advance of Fitzgerald’s annual celebrity softball game.

Johnson responded by hitting a home run in Fitzgerald’s event over the weekend, celebrating as he rounded the bases. That show of defiance should make Cardinals fans feel really good about how their running back will respond when he takes the football field in September.

“Last year was a rollercoaster,” Johnson said. “To be gone that long, to us having our son, to sitting on the sidelines and not contributing … it really made me feel down. But the silver lining I took from the injury was talking to Carson Palmer, learning even more about the game when I wasn’t a part of the game. I know I’ve been blessed with a talent that could be gone with one play, one day, at any time.”

There are no guarantees. The previous two signature plays from Johnson have been injuries, felled in each of his past two NFL games. Meanwhile, Tyrann Mathieu was once designated as the next face of the franchise in Arizona, only to lose his grip following a series of injuries. Mathieu shares the same comeback mindset as Johnson, except he’s in a Texans’ uniform.

His recent history has even influenced how his child will be raised, proven by this exchange with his wife, Meghan.

Q: Will your son be allowed to play football?

David: “That’s his decision.”

Meghan: “No, it’s not his decision.”

David: (silence)

Meghan: “He can eventually play football when he’s 18 and out of the house. And he can play flag football. Just not tackle.”

David: “We’re not going to stress anything on him.”

Meghan: “He can play baseball, golf, something different.”

Johnson is a dutiful husband, smart enough to let his wife make the big decisions. But the football field is his territory, his respite. And in 2018, it will be his proving ground. All over again.

“I can’t wait,” he said.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona Sports Station.

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