It's hard to believe it was just four years ago that Detroit Lions running back Ian Johnson became an overnight celebrity.
The setting was the 2007 Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz. Johnson had just scored the game-winning two-point conversion for Boise State on a trick play in one of the more memorable moments in recent college football history. The shocking ending gave the Broncos an improbable 43-42 victory over mighty Oklahoma and officially put the Broncos on the college football map with the perfect ending to a 13-0 season. As Johnson was interviewed on national television after the game, he dropped to a knee and asked Boise State cheerleader Chrissy Popadics to marry him.
Since then, Johnson has gone from a sophomore football star to an NFL journeyman entering his third season in the league with his third team.
"I did a lot of growing up in that time," Johnson said. "When I proposed four years ago, I was 20 years old. I mean, I was just a kid goofing off thinking about playing football and playing Xbox. And now I'm trying to start a family, I've grown up, we're trying to buy a house."
Johnson was supposed to live happily ever after, but his pro football career has been anything but a fairy tale. Nowadays he's just trying to win a spot on the Lions' 53-man roster after spending part of last fall on the team's practice squad and part of it back in Boise working as a motivational speaker, pondering a future without football.
"The longer you go without that phone ringing, the more your mind comes to say, 'Hey, you've got to start thinking Plan B,'" Johnson said.
Now 24 and still in search of his first regular-season NFL carry, this looks like Johnson's best shot to make a roster. He bulked up to 215 pounds for training camp and prepared himself for an offense that requires running backs to catch a lot of balls out of the backfield.
Said Johnson: "From the moment I got here they said, 'We catch a lot of balls. So however good you were at catching balls, you have to go home and work on that, because however good you are, it's not good enough.'"
Johnson took that advice to heart, and with the season-ending Achilles tendon injury suffered by rookie running back Mikel Leshoure(notes) last week, Johnson has even more opportunity to prove himself. He's been taking reps with the first team and in last Friday's preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson carried the ball a game-high nine times (albeit for 21 yards).
If Johnson doesn't make the Lions' roster, he and Chrissy will head back to Boise and Johnson will stay in shape for another shot at the league. But after last season, the couple decided on a specific timeframe to focus on making the NFL, after which Johnson will move on to a new career he hopes will make use of his business management degree and include more motivational speaking.
"I've got a family," said Johnson, who added he and Chrissy are trying to have their first child. "I've got to provide for that family. As a husband, that's one of my jobs. And if I can't provide playing football, then I've got to find another way to provide. And that's what I'm gonna do."
It certainly didn't appear that Johnson would be fighting for an NFL roster spot after his sophomore season. He had just rushed for over 1,700 yards and an NCAA-best 25 touchdowns and looked on his way to superstardom after an eighth-place finish in the Heisman voting and then the dream moment in the Fiesta Bowl.
But as a junior, Johnson barely rushed for over 1,000 yards while hobbled by injuries in a pass-first offense. And as a senior, he split carries and didn't even reach 800 yards, which resulted in him going undrafted as NFL scouts questioned his size (5-11), durability and pass protection.
Johnson landed on the Minnesota Vikings practice squad for the 2009 season but was cut by the team last August.
"Last year was the first time I've been cut," Johnson said. "I've never been cut before. It's a difficult feeling. It's a difficult transition in life. You're going from, I was in the state of Minnesota for a year-and-a-half to, hey, you've got to take everything you own and get it back to Boise."
He signed with the Arizona Cardinals days later in what appeared to be a serendipitous return to University of Phoenix Stadium — the site of the memorable Fiesta Bowl — but was cut from the practice squad by the end of September. The Lions added him to their practice squad in November, giving his professional football career a reprieve.
But whether Johnson makes it in the NFL or not, he will always be remembered for one thing: Proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend on national TV.
"I'll be happy to be known as 'proposal guy,'" Johnson said.
Back in 2007, Ian and Chrissy endured a media circus that included an appearance on "Good Morning America" and the ESPYs, where they mingled with the likes of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) and then-head coach Tony Dungy shortly before getting hitched.
Johnson — who originally planned to propose when he returned to his home state of California after the game — said he had no idea how much publicity the proposal would receive. His reaction to getting a call from "Good Morning America" the day after the game?
"I guess this is kind of a big deal."
You could say that. To this day, strangers still recognize and approach Johnson about the proposal heard 'round the world.
It even carries over into the locker room. Johnson said when teammates find out he went to Boise State, they pause for a second, then say: "Heyyy, you're that guy!"
His fellow Detroit Lions running backs took it even further recently.
"We had some extra time the other day — and all the running backs thought it would be funny to sit in the running backs room and watch all the YouTube clips of my proposal," Johnson said.
Whenever Johnson's football career ends, it appears he will be successful in whatever he does next. Not only is he forever beloved in Boise for his on-field accomplishments and the way he embraced the local community, he's well-spoken, enthusiastic and eternally optimistic.
Take Johnson's outlook on his rollercoaster pro football career that many would bemoan.
"I would never change the route I took for anything because it's made me a better person," Johnson said. "Being on three different teams made me value the team I am on. It made me want this that much more, made me want to fight that much more and not let any single play be taken for granted."
As the '07 Fiesta Bowl showed, Johnson has a knack for making the most out of one single play.
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