When he heard the news, Charles Johnson cried.
He really cried.
Johnson and his Orlando Apollos teammates were in their meeting room before practice in April when they heard the news that the Alliance of American Football was going under. Just like that — poof — it was over. Johnson, 30, broke down in front of his younger teammates, some of whom looked at him askance. They didn’t understand, he said. This was important to him.
“I cried like a baby that day,” Johnson said this week.
After what they had built in Orlando — a team with a 7-1 record and championship dreams — Johnson was simply sad for everyone to go their separate ways. Those who got to know him best understood his emotions.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” fellow Apollos receiver Jalin Marshall said by phone. “I got to know Charles really well and got to know what kind of guy he was. Anytime you’re having fun and there’s something like that in your life, it’s very emotional for all of us.”
But things worked out for Johnson. Almost immediately, the former NFL receiver had plenty of teams interested. After all, he was the leading receiver in the AAF and was playing for the league’s best team. Before long, he was in Philadelphia signing a contract with the Eagles, getting another chance in the NFL.
For most, the AAF will be a mere footnote in the history of American football. It will be more remembered for mismanagement of money and shadiness from the folks in charge than for its one shortened season on the field.
But for Johnson, it will always hold a special place. The AAF helped him fall back in love with football.
Finding joy in the game
Initially, Johnson was hesitant to join the AAF. From 2014-16, he played in 39 games (17 starts) for the Minnesota Vikings and caught 60 passes for 834 yards. He had more than a cup of coffee in the NFL. But then he joined the Panthers, suffered a knee injury and was released. Then he spent last spring and summer with the Jets and was released. At some point, Johnson admitted on Wednesday, he lost his love for the game.
Three of his friends — RB Matt Asiata, LB Steven Johnson and DB Robert Nelson — were already in the AAF and kept sending Johnson messages urging him to give it a go. Johnson said the one common theme in all of them was the word “fun.” They sold him on the one thing he needed without necessarily knowing he needed it.
“I didn’t know that personally,” said Steven Johnson, who has been friends with Charles for years and was on the Arizona Hotshots in the AAF. “He never told me he wasn’t having fun. But I can kind of relate. Me and C.J. are about the same age (Steven is 31, Charles is 30) and when you get to a certain time in your career, the NFL can start taking a toll on you and the fun can just be sucked out of the game.
“For me, when I was playing in Arizona, when I was talking to him, I was like, ‘Man, this fun. You gotta come out here.’ It was almost like being in college again but playing in the NFL at the same time.”
That’s how it started. Steven Johnson and Nelson were trying to convince Charles to join them in Arizona, but Orlando owned his rights and was unwilling to give him up, so he went to Florida. He got to Apollos training camp a couple weeks late, but Marshall said Johnson immediately became one of the leaders in the receivers room. Johnson said he would watch tape and see himself smiling again.
According to Marshall, Johnson talked all the time about how the AAF had restored his love of football.
Is it worth it?
While Johnson is in Philadelphia, his family is back home in Kentucky, living life without him. He’s missing milestones in the lives of his children and he’s missing irreplaceable time with his ill father. He’s not giving all that up for nothing.
“So I’m going out every day,” Johnson said, “and I’m like, ‘I’m missing all that to be here, so I’m not going to waste it.’”
The payoff for Johnson is pretty simple. He gets to play football, the game he loves again. That’s his job. There are way worse ways to earn a paycheck.
“I tell the guys, especially in the AAF, once I stop having fun, once I stop loving it, I ain’t going to play,” he said. “There’s no point.”
More veteran than most
As soon as his age was brought up, Johnson grinned and proudly declared he’s not old. In the real world, that’s true. He’s just 30, hopefully plenty of time left on Earth. But how much time does he have left playing football?
Johnson is the second-oldest receiver on the Eagles’ roster behind only DeSean Jackson at 32.
But Johnson hasn’t looked old at OTAs this spring. He was in great shape coming from the AAF and it has shown. His wealth of experience compared to his younger competition has been apparent this spring too. With some guys missing time, Johnson has gotten reps with the first team on several occasions at OTAs.
“In the NFL, the age is always going to be something everybody looks at,” he said. “I just don’t even focus on that. I still feel young, I still feel like I can go out there and compete against anybody. They can line me up against a 21-year-old and I can guarantee you he’s not going to beat me in a race, he’s not going to be more explosive than me. That’s just my mindset.”
Like so many from the defunct AAF, Steven Johnson and Jalin Marshall are waiting for their next opportunities. There were so many players in that league left without a next step.
“I’m still training, hoping I get one more shot, but if anybody deserves to make it or get a shot, it should be him,” Steven Johnson said.
We won’t know for another few months whether or not Johnson will be able to parlay his AAF success into a regular-season job in the NFL. For many, he’ll forever be remembered as the leading receiver in the fledgling and short-lived league.
Johnson said having that distinction is cool, but he’ll remember the AAF for a much more important reason.
Said Johnson, “I had fun.”
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