Jerry Tarkanian's memory is a bit hazy about the game. After all, it was played 20 months ago, and it was no contest. Nevada-Las Vegas beat a San Jose State team made up mostly of walk-ons because 10 players had quit in a dispute with their coach. But one of those walk-ons left an impression on Tarkanian: 6'2" forward Johnny Johnson, who shook off the Rebels' best defensive player, Stacey Augmon, to score 23 points and grab 12 rebounds. "He made some great plays," says Tarkanian. "Here's a guy who takes up basketball in the middle of the season, and he plays us really tough."
These days Johnson is still playing tough, but as a rookie running back for the Cardinals. An NCAA record-setting tailback, Johnson was kicked off the San Jose State football team midway through his senior season for being AWOL during several off-season workouts and three fall practices. The Cardinals picked him in the seventh round of last April's NFL draft, making him the 26th running back selected.
Now after six pro games, Johnson is the league's third-leading rusher, with 531 yards. He gained 108 yards on 30 carries in a 20-19 loss to the Giants on Sunday. "I think about it," Johnson says, "and I have to kick myself, or pinch myself, or whatever. It's unbelievable, what's happened to me."
As a junior in 1988, Johnson became the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,200 yards (1,219) and catch more than 60 passes (61) in a season. Some NFL personnel evaluators were projecting him as a first-round draft choice. Then Johnson jumped at the opportunity to play college hoops—"The chance of a lifetime," he says—and unwittingly sent his football career into a tail-spin. Fatigued from playing football and basketball without a break, Johnson skipped several stretches of spring-football workouts, sessions that then coach Claude Gilbert viewed as particularly important for Johnson because his weight was down from playing hoops.
Five games into the 1989 season, Johnson was missing from a Tuesday practice. He says he was home in Santa Cruz taking care of "personal business." Later that afternoon, the big Bay Area earthquake struck. For three days, Johnson says, he helped his mother repair the damage to her home, and he couldn't explain his absence to Gilbert because of dead phone lines. When Johnson returned to school on Friday, Gilbert heard his story. On Monday, Gilbert booted him off the team. "It was the final episode in a series," says Gilbert. "I went farther with him than I would have with anyone else. He was a great kid, just spoiled and immature."
Johnson's failure to cooperate with pro scouts after the season caused his stock to plummet further. Says Johnson, "Every scout who talked to me asked me the same question, over and over: 'Did I really want to play football?' I just got tired of it, and I cut off contact with teams." His attitude rankled potential employers.
"You just didn't know if you could count on him," says Jet general manager Dick Steinberg. Cleveland made five appointments to interview Johnson. He skipped all five.
Phoenix scout Bo Bolinger staked out the San Jose State campus for a couple of days and found Johnson cooperative and eager to play. In need of a dominant back to replace the injured Stump Mitchell, the Cards picked Heisman Trophy runner-up Anthony Thompson of Indiana in the second round. By the time Thompson, who was a holdout, reported on Aug. 23, Johnson had won the starting job. He had his first 100-yard performance (120) two weeks ago against Dallas.
The 216-pound Johnson doesn't have Bo Jackson's speed or Christian Okoye's power. He's a strider, with deceiving acceleration and good football sense. Now Johnson has to show that he can keep up the pace on the field and that he is mature enough to handle the responsibility of being a pro.
"He's going through the honeymoon period," says Gilbert. "He's a magnificent talent. But the real test will come when things aren't going as well as they are now."
Just six games into his NFL career, Johnson has twice rushed for more than 100 yards.