Duke Johnson puts mom at center of success

Duke Johnson is a mama's boy, and proud of it.

He heeds her advice on life, uses the struggles he saw her endure years ago as motivation on the football field today, and tells her everything — or so she thought.

One day in the summer of 2013, after a standout freshman season at Miami, Fla., Johnson, the nation's ninth-leading rusher last year, called his mother with a request.

"I was on my way to work, working midnights, overtime, and he was like, 'Mom, I need a picture of you,' " Cassandra Mitchell recalled. "He said, 'I have pictures of everybody and I don't have a picture of you,' so I was like, 'OK, no problem.' "

Mitchell scrolled through her phone and sent Johnson seven or eight photos. There was one of her with family, a couple at Duke's football games. Then Johnson called back.

"He's like, 'Mom, I need a head shot,' " Mitchell said. "I'm just like, 'A head shot? Boy, I don't like taking no close-ups with this big nose.' He said, 'Mom, I need a head shot.' So me, I sent it not thinking anything."

A few days later, on the Fourth of July, when Johnson showed up with what appeared to be a bandage covering his massive left shoulder, Mitchell went into a momentary state of panic fearing her son hurt his arm and didn't tell her.

"What happened?" Mitchell asked, only to take a closer look and see plastic film covering an image of her face on her son's arm.

"I was like, 'Boy, didn't I tell you to get no more tattoos, but that's so sweet,' " she said. "So I teased him, 'At least you could have given me a nose job.' "

Johnson, who will try to prove his worth as the best running back in the 2015 draft at this week's NFL combine in Indianapolis, said the tattoo is a tribute to the woman who raised him, the hardship they survived and everything she sacrificed to make his football dream come true.

Growing up in the Liberty City section of Miami, an area that has produced many an NFL player, Johnson saw his then-single mother work three jobs to provide for him and his sister, Ranisha.

A corrections officer for most of the last 19 years, Mitchell also worked part time as an office aide at the school board, as a waitress at Pizza Hut and seasonally at Toys R Us when Johnson was growing up, cabbing from job to job around town.

Duke, Ranisha and Mitchell shared a single queen-size bed for part of his youth, and when his mom worked the overnight shift, first at the South Florida Reception Center and more recently at the Miami-Dade County Jail, Duke often stayed with his grandmother, Martha Williams.

"Freshman year of college there was a lot going on for me," said Johnson, whose father, Randy, died of ALS when he was 13. "It was hard on and off the field. I had a lot going on and I just thought about what my mom had went through growing up and she had endured, and I kind of said if she could go through it, it's nothing for me to go through this, it's nothing for me to keep pushing and keep going. So I decided to get the tattoo as just a reminder to myself anytime that things get hard, anytime things get tough, I can look over and she's there.

"That just reminds me of all the things that she did and how tough she was raising me and my sister, so that's something that's really big for me. If something's going bad I can look over and instantly be able to get better."

Though he said he had a tough time adjusting to the rigors of college, not much has gone bad for Johnson on the field the past few years.

He set a Miami freshman rushing record with 947 yards in 2012 and nearly broke Willis McGahee's school record with 2,060 all-purpose yards, including 892 on kick returns with two touchdowns.

Johnson rushed for 920 yards in eight games as a sophomore before a broken right ankle ended his season, and last year he amassed 1,652 yards to set a school record for most rushing yards in a career (3,519).

Among the backs he passed on Miami's all-time rushing list are McGahee, Edgerrin James, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis and Ottis Anderson.

"Just knowing the guys who played before me and doing some of the things they did and me growing up, watching them, just seeing the way they played and what they were able to accomplish, just knowing that I'm the leading rusher now, it's amazing," Johnson said. "I think it's mind-blowing for one, just the names of the guys who came through here and then went to the next level and did the things that they did. It was amazing to me."

Now, Johnson is out to duplicate their success in the NFL.

McGahee, the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft, James (No. 4 in 1999) and Anderson (No. 8, 1979) were first-round picks — Portis and Gore were second- and third-rounders, respectively — and all five had long, successful careers.

Johnson, at 5-feet-9 and 205 pounds, is the smallest back of that group, but longtime Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey said he has the same work ethic and drive as his predecessors.

"As great as all the guys were, he's kind of in a category of his own because to me he's kind of a mixture of Frank Gore and Portis," Swasey said. "Frank Gore don't have the speed that Duke will have, but Portis does, and then the vision, I think he has vision like Frank Gore has. So he's kind of a combination, but he's also real good out of the backfield. That's where he — I think that takes him to another level in my eyes. He's a better route runner than I seen out of any of them. As far as a receiver, he's a guy you can put out there and he can do damage at receiver."

Johnson is projected to go in the first two days of this year's draft, and how he performs at this week's combine will help determine where he slots in a deep running back group.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Georgia's Todd Gurley, who is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, are considered the draft's top backs, but Johnson's speed, special-teams ability and hands could interest a team like the Lions that values versatility in its backfield.

Johnson, who is still taking classes at Miami as he works toward the degree he promised his mom he'll get one day, said he expects to run a low 4.4-second 40-yard dash and in general put on "a good show" at the combine that could help him climb draft boards across the league.

"I'm just hoping my overall combine gets me into Round 1," he said. "The medical, have the doctors look at me, making sure everything from the medical to the board work to the interviews to everything, I'm just hoping this whole experience that I can make an impression on someone who's willing to put a check in front of me."

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