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D’Ernest Johnson was cold DM’ing Alliance of American Football teams three years ago

In his first start, the Browns uncovered a new NFL star. But three years ago, he was a guy on a fishing boat just looking for a shot.

Running back D’Ernest Johnson of the Cleveland Browns runs with the ball after making a first quarter pass against the Denver Broncos at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 21, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Sometimes you can’t write a script this good. And after 168 total yards and a touchdown in his first career NFL start on Thursday Night Football, D’Ernest Johnson of the Cleveland Browns truly started from the bottom.

And thanks to injuries and some good fortune, now he’s here.

The running back out of South Florida made one of the most memorable catches in school history, capping off a career where it was well-known amongst his teammates he was criminally under-utilized. He finished having played 49 career games with 2695 total yards and 30 total touchdowns, but those that watched him knew it should have been more. He was always the most versatile player on the team, and was beloved by his teammates.

But after going undrafted in 2018 he ended up working on a boat fishing for mahi mahi in Key West, a few hours from his hometown of Immokalee, Florida. Immokalee is a village on the edge of the Everglades, which has turned out plenty of NFL stars, including Edgerrin James. But it seemed like the guy known as the “Junkyard Dog” in college wouldn’t get a chance to draw a check in the NFL.

But he wouldn’t let his dream die, and when the Alliance of American Football was formed in 2018, Johnson saw an opportunity to prove once again he belonged. So he cold DM’d every team in the league, and that unintentionally former USF softball player Courtney Kramer, the social media director for the Birmingham Iron.

Johnson eventually latched on with Steve Spurrier and the Orlando Apollos and his old offensive coordinator in David Reaves. For the shortened 2019 season, he had 592 yards in eight games on 86 touches. He averaged $5,125 per week for those eight games.

But they impressed the Browns enough that he landed a spot in training camp in 2019, and then on the 53-man roster. He finished his rookie season with four carries for 21 yards and six receptions for 71 yards receiving. But showed he belonged, and now just needed an opportunity.

With injuries all over the Browns offense heading into Thursday night against the Denver Broncos, the Junkyard Dog finally got his first start. And 60 minutes and 168 yards later, he made the most of it.

And this is why we love sports.