LATROBE, Pa. — It’s been nearly one year since David Johnson tore up his right knee during the first quarter of the initial preseason game in 2012, and the tight end-fullback hybrid still can’t get on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson, a 2005 graduate of Pine Bluff High School and four year letterman at Arkansas State, began the Steelers training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List and didn’t even hit the field during the team’s initial practice session Saturday afternoon at Saint Vincent College.
Due to intermittent and occasionally heavy rain, Johnson and his fellow PUP members — tight end Heath Miller, linebacker Sean Spence and nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu — primarily worked out indoors. Johnson spoke for the first time since the injury Saturday morning before lunch.
“No, I wasn’t surprised to start camp on the PUP List,” Johnson said. “I knew about it, and I was ready for it. (But) I feel real confident with the way things are going so far, and I’m excited to be back with my teammates. OTAs, that was (six weeks) ago, and I felt pretty good.
“I know there are still some things that I need to work on, but like I’ve said I feel real confident about where I’m at right now. You know, it’s a long season, so I don’t want to jump the gun and lose even more time. (And) hopefully, when the season rolls around, I’ll be ready. I’m working hard to get there.”
There’s no denying Johnson’s work ethic. He clearly was raised with it by his parents, Lois and David Johnson Sr., and honed it throughout college and four years as a professional. But he also acknowledged that he took that training up a notch this past year.
“I’ve been focused on working out in the training room and trying to get prepared to come back this season,” Johnson said. “Guys would come in to talk with me, but I pretty much concentrated on what I needed to do to get healthy and get better. That’s why I think my role will increase this season.
“I’ll still be a fullback and tight end, probably, because I’m good in both areas. And anything they’ll ask me to do, they know that’s what I’ll do, but I hope to catch more passes this season and get more playing time. The big thing for me is to continue to work on my conditioning and to improve through my off-field workouts before I can get involved with practice.
“Last year, I was about 265, and I’m at 255 now because I’ve worked hard on better nutrition,” Johnson added. “That’s just a product of growing up, and I developed that myself. I understand that I need to eat healthy and live a healthy life to be successful in football, so I try to live my life that way.”
Johnson was selected in the seventh round during the 2009 NFL Draft, and he appeared to be rounding into a solid player after two modest seasons. Johnson played in 15 of 16 regular-season games as a rookie and every contest in 2010. His three starts that first season were at fullback, while his five 2010 starts were at both fullback and tight end.
During those 31 games his opening two seasons, Johnson tallied six catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns. His third NFL season clearly was his best. Johnson started all 16 regular-season games and had 12 receptions for 91 yards and one touchdown with his longest catch good for 25 yards. His blocking steadily improved, and his athleticism made him dangerous in the open field. Each start was at fullback, so he was an additional blocker who occasionally caught a pass.
“Yeah, he had a pretty good season the year before he got hurt,” Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel said. “We like DJ a lot, and we expect him to be a good player for us when he gets back to practice. I don’t know when that will be, but we’re looking forward to it.”
With Johnson and Miller on the PUP List, the club brought in veteran Matt Spaeth, a former Steelers player, and also signed rookie free agent Peter Tuitupou from San Jose State to the tight ends group that included first-year player Jamie McCoy and second-year pro David Paulson.
“We’ve got a really good room, to be honest,” Miller said. “(And) the four guys that are going to be working are really sharp. Matt has played here and has played in the league a long time. We know he’s more than capable. Paulson did a great job (as a rookie).
“And Jamie McCoy has been around for a while (primarily on the practice squad). He’s a really good player, and our new guy, Pete, is sharp. So, I’m excited to see what he can do when we get the pads on. We’re going to be OK until David and I get back.”
While many believe that Miller will not be ready for the regular season, Johnson’s rehab process is much further along since being injured Aug. 9 and being placed on the Waived-Injured List on Aug. 13.
“That was a really tough time for me,” Johnson said. “Obviously, the injury was serious, but it was tough because we switched up the offense, and I wanted to become more of a role player, more accountable to the team, and I was ready to have an even bigger season than I had in 2011.
“But things happen in this game, and injuries are part of it. So, you just have to take them how they come and keep rolling with them. But the Steelers re-signed me, and that really meant a lot to me. They know my work ethic. I’ve been here for a while, and they saw how much I grew up. I was only 21 when I was drafted, so I’ve come a long way.
“They saw my maturity level and how hard I worked, and they had confidence in me that I would come back and be better than ever,” Johnson added. “My teammates were the same way. They appreciated how hard I worked and that I was there for them even though I wasn’t able to play.”
While Johnson said he really didn’t lean on any particular teammate after the devastating injury, his family provided plenty of comfort. His mother visited Pittsburgh and stayed for a while after Johnson’s surgery, and his siblings — older brother Tyree Madison and younger sister Cessiley, a 2013 PBHS grad and future nurse, also were supportive.
These strong family ties and faith kept Johnson going after only his second major injury as a football player. It’s also why Johnson returns to his hometown as often as possible. He broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg as a high school sophomore, but he made it through college without anything serious. That also made this one difficult to accept.
“They had to repair the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and MCL (medial collateral ligament) in my right knee, but the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) healed on its own,” Johnson said. “And it feels pretty good right now. I probably was back walking pretty good after a few months, but as far as running and everything I guess it probably was the end of February or early March. That’s when I started running and was able to do things like that. And now I can’t wait to get back on the football field with my teammates.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would not provide a prognosis for Johnson’s development and return to action, but the way things have gone so far that date certainly appears to be sooner rather than later this season.