Duke Johnson almost quit football, but armed himself with a reason to be great

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Duke Johnson lifts up his left t-shirt sleeve to reveal a bulging shoulder completely enveloped by the smiling face of his mother, Cassandra Mitchell.

"She's the reason I'm playing football,'' Johnson, the Browns rookie running back, told Northeast Ohio Media Group last month while pointing to his tattoo. "It's all for her.''

If not for Mitchell, who sometimes worked three jobs to provide for her family, the Browns' third-round pick may very well have quit football a couple of years ago.

It was the summer before his sophomore year at the University of Miami, and Johnson felt like giving up. Never mind that he was coming off the greatest freshman season in the history of the U, rushing for a first-year record of 947 yards and 10 touchdowns and setting a single season school mark with 892 kickoff returns and two TDs.

The Miami native (5-9, 206) was struggling with the demands of college life -- the homework, the practice, the social pressures, the football expectations, the creaky ankles and temperamental hamstrings -- and he thought about quitting the team. What's more his dad, Randy Johnson Sr., had died of Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS, four years earlier when Johnson was 14, and the sadness still sometimes engulfed him.

 When Randy Sr. was in the hospital dying from the neurodegenerative disease that can rob a person of the ability to speak, breath, eat or move, Johnson didn't want to see him that way. But his mother insisted.

"He supported me in everything that I do,'' Johnson, who's given name is Randy Jr., told espn.com when he was a senior at Miami's Norland High School. "He used to come to all of my games. He would take me to all of the University of Miami games, also."

But it was the memory of his mother working those three or more jobs -- as a corrections officer in Miami for more than two decades, as a waitress, as a school-board aide and as a seasonal employee at a toy store -- that kept Johnson going that summer. During their bleakest hours growing up, Johnson, his older sister Ranisha and their mom were sometimes forced to sleep in Mitchell's car. Other times, when Mitchell worked the overnight shift, Johnson and Ranisha stayed with their grandmother, Martha Williams.

How could Johnson give up when Mitchell never did?

"I'm knocking on the door (of the NFL) and wanting to quit and I didn't think that was fair to her,'' he told NEOMG.

Instead, Johnson decided to wear his heart on his sleeve -- or just underneath it. He called his mom and asked her to send a photo, claiming he had plenty of everyone but her. When the first batch wasn't quite right, he called back and asked specifically for a headshot. She happily obliged, not realizing what an indelible impression she was making at the time.

Mitchell never gave the request another thought, until Johnson came home a few days later, on the Fourth of July, with an almost life-sized replica of Mitchell emblazoned on his left shoulder.

"I teased him, 'at least you could've given me a nose job,''' she told the Detroit Free Press in February.

The tattoo served as a daily reminder to Johnson of why he was lifting weights until his arms went limp, why he took a pounding from defenders almost twice his weight and why he muscled and churned his way to the top of Hurricanes record book in career rushing yards with 3,519 in only three seasons.

 "I thought about all of the things my mom sacrificed growing up for me to get there,'' he said. "So anytime I'm in any kind of doubt with myself or whatever, I just look at the tattoo and it just kind of reminds me of what's the big picture.''

Besides, as Johnson journeyed through his career at the U and on to the NFL, he came to the unfortunate realization that he wasn't the only one who ever slept in a car or watched his father die when he was young. In fact, all he had to do was look to his left or right in the Browns running back room to find hardship and adversity. Isaiah Crowell was kicked out of Georgia after a felony weapons charge and forced to finish at Alabama State. Glenn Winston was kicked out of Michigan State and spent six months in jail after seriously injuring a hockey player in an assault. And so on.

"I don't really talk about it much because at this level, I look around the guys that are with me, and everybody's got similar stories,'' Johnson said. "Everybody's got the same story. Everybody has something they have to overcome and I don't do well with people feeling sorry for me.

"I just look at it like this is a story of never giving up because we have guys who have been through worse stuff than me and worse situations than I have and they're still here and we're not making excuses.''

And even though Johnson, the smallest of the Browns backs, poses a significant threat to the playing time of Crowell and Terrance West, they've welcomed Johnson with open arms in the running back room.

"I find it funny because Isaiah and Terrance West were in my position last year and they don't have to do it, but they're helping me out and have taken me under their wing,'' said Johnson. "It says a lot because they just got in the league and they haven't really made a name for themselves with what they're trying to do, and yet, they're still willing to bring a rookie in -- a couple of rookies in -- and teach them the right way.

"You also have Glenn and Shaun (Draughn) who also are in the same situation and they're teaching us the ropes. It's all love in the running back room and we're just enjoying it.''

The brotherhood reminds him of the strong bond he has with the decorated running backs that came before him at Miami, guys like multiple NFL Pro Bowlers Ottis Anderson, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis. Three of them were offensive rookie of the year, and one, Anderson, was a Super Bowl MVP.

"I get something from all of them,'' he said. "All have different stories, different situations. I've talked with Edgerrin and Willis and they just told me to take care of my body to be healthy and being able to take coaching and to be on time. I have Mike James from Tampa Bay. ...he just told me that special teams may be the way. Lamar Miller in Miami, he rushed for 1,000 yards last year and he was just saying 'play football, 'don't make it hard, just be in your playbook.'''

In an open letter to NFL general managers and coaches before the draft, Johnson promised to carry the enormous 'Canes torch.

"I believe that I'm the next great running back to come out of Miami,'' he wrote. "Yes, I fully understand how big the footsteps I'm following in are. Running backs that come through The U realized what it took to play there. It's no coincidence that they've been successful at the next level. Guys like Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James and Frank Gore laid out a blueprint for how to handle business. When you're a running back at Miami, making it to the NFL is an expectation rather than a goal. I have a legacy to live up to.''

Given the all-star lineup of predecessors, Johnson still can't believe he's the answer to the Miami trivia question of who holds the rushing title there.

"Yeah, from the outside looking in, I probably wouldn't guess me, either," Johnson said at minicamp. "Just because what those guys were able to do as far as wins, and I guess the way they were able to do it, that's why those names will always be at the top of my list."

Despite eclipsing Anderson for the 'Canes rushing crown, Johnson doesn't dare mention himself in the same breath with his famous Miami alum.

"Just for the record, in my book I'm not at the top," he said. "I'll probably be fifth, sixth. I'll probably be toward the middle bottom. I won't be one. I still haven't done anything close to what those guys were able to do, as far as winning."

The sixth running back selected in the 2015 draft, Johnson fancies himself a LeSean McCoy, the three-time Pro Bowler from the Eagles and now the Bills -- another quick, shifty back who can make people miss in the open field and also be a threat in the passing game. In addition to bringing the heat on offense, Johnson promises to be a force on kickoff returns.

"It just brings more competitiveness to the room,'' said Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery. "He's a guy that played outside. The best way I can describe Duke is what Thurman Thomas was for Buffalo. It's going to be all over the field. It's a 'Where's Waldo?' He gives you another dimension. He creates one-on-one problems. We hope he can be a little bit like the kid, Giovani Bernard, in Cincinnati.''

In the early going, Johnson, who displayed fine hands and explosiveness in offseason practices, might be used mostly on third down. But the opportunity is there for him to stake his claim to the marquee role.

"It's hard to have an every-down back in this league,'' Montgomery said. "There's too much punishment going on out there on the field. We've got to carve out a role for Duke. It wouldn't be fair [when] we have never put the pads on yet to say, 'He's our starter.' We don't know how he's going to recover from practice to practice yet.

"So with Duke, we've just got to find a way how we're going to utilize him. Like Le'Veon Bell, his first year, he wasn't the guy, but you kind of like working him into being the guy. Duke, I'm not saying he's not going to be the guy. But I don't know the workload he can handle right now."

Johnson is ready to shoulder whatever the Browns have in store for him, and he's got the perfect shoulder for the job.

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