ALAMEDA – Raiders' rookie cornerback Isaiah Johnson is poised and ready to make his regular-season debut Thursday night against the Los Angeles Chargers. His big moment comes 10 weeks later than expected, after spending more than half the schedule on injured reserve.
It wasn’t like Johnson made a technical mistake and got hurt. His body didn’t give way trying too hard to make a play. Teammate Marquel Lee inadvertently kneed him in the head during the Raiders' preseason opener, an unusual incident that left him concussed with a facial fracture on his right side.
Johnson's concussion-like symptoms went away, but pain from this facial injury did not. He didn’t need surgery. That was a good thing. He did have to wait and wait for it to heal on its own, a drawn-out process extended by the NFL’s rules for returning off injured reserve.
He’s finally ready and eligible to play Thursday night, but Johnson isn’t overly hyped. The University of Houston product stays away from extreme emotions of any kind, even after 21 days of practice building up to this big moment. Adrenaline will be present during defensive cameos and special teams contributions, but Johnson doesn’t want to make this a big deal.
“I’m being completely honest when I say I’m treating this like any other game I’ve played,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m back in the groove. I’m moving at game speed; my eyes are in the right spot to make reads and my body feels good and ready to compete.”
Impatience could shroud an otherwise positive mindset during all that downtime, but Johnson never let himself go there.
“I was at peace with it, because I knew it was beyond my control,” Johnson said. “Everything happens for a reason so, whenever my time does come, I’ll be ready because I was able to stay positive and stay focused. I never once asked the question, ‘Why me?’ Things happen in football, and you take the good with the bad.”
Johnson’s clearly an optimist with mature perspective, but even he admits to some rough times following his facial fracture.
“It had to heal on its own, which made it a waiting game,” Johnson said. “The pain itself was the worst part. There were times the right side of my face wasn’t able to function, and that was the hardest part. The right side of my mouth was numb. My right nostril was numb for weeks. I couldn’t chew on my right side, but you just learn how to maneuver around it.
“It was frustrating, but I really tried to practice being poised and patient and let it heal over time. I think, for the most part, I was able to do that, and I think that gave me perspective.”
Johnson has missed significant time. He also was out most of training camp and the preseason, a developmental vital to most rookies. Then sitting out all that time during the regular season was a difficulty, but Johnson was happy the Raiders gave him a chance to return later in the year.
He tried to improve in any way he could. The Raiders have high hopes for the converted receiver with great size, length and power, preferably playing him opposite Trayvon Mullen at outside cornerback for years to come.
“When you take the physical work away, the mental stuff goes all the way up,” Johnson said. “That’s all I had to focus on for a long time, and I feel like I see the game better and I’m ready to apply everything I’ve learned and use it to my advantage.”