Chris Johnson doesn't want to talk about his contract. Seriously. He's put his numbers out there, told the world and the Tennessee Titans what he thinks he deserves, and now, it's up to the other side to either meet or move Johnson's finances. Most likely, the hyper-talented running back will get a higher wage than the $550,000 base salary and various incentives he may be due in 2010, based on a re-working of a 2012 bonus detailed here. None of that was of paramount importance this week, as he was one of several NFL stars in attendance for the Nike 7ON Tournament, and a product photo shoot as well.
Before the shoot on Wednesday (you can see the "Wild Bunch" thing he had going with Calvin Johnson(notes), Steve Breaston(notes), and DeSean Jackson(notes) in the picture below), I asked Johnson about his high school football days - and why, incredibly, he was not listed as a major prospect by any of the scouting sites. He was very much under the radar at Olympia High in Orlando Florida, because ... well, if you get hurt and miss all the camps and drills that the recruiters see, that will happen. "And if people don't see you, they don't know you," Johnson told me. "Exposure really, really counts. I didn't have the grades coming out of high school, and then in my 12th grade year, I broke my leg. That affected a lot of things."
Johnson was recruited by just three colleges - East Carolina, UConn, and Eastern Kentucky. East Carolina was the easy choice because "they were the only [Division I] school that wanted to let me play running back ... UConn wanted me to play cornerback. Eastern Kentucky did want me to play running back, but East Carolina was D-I."
Johnson was also a Florida State track champion, but he said that there was never a doubt as to which sport was more important. "No, it was football, mainly. I just ran track in the off-season to get better at football - used track as sort of an offseason workout."
Johnson played with and against some talented players back then. "[Linebacker] Brandon Siler(notes) - he's with San Diego now. [New England Patriots safety] Brandon Meriwether - I didn't play with him, I played against him. [Cincinnati Bengals linebacker] Keith Rivers(notes); a couple different guys who are in the NFL now."
Still, it's quite possible that nobody in Johnson's football circle had his pure talent, a fact he acknowledged by addressing true NFL value when I asked him if he felt he was underrated in any regard. "I'm not sure - I don't know how I'm rated [as a receiver]. Where I think I'm underrated is when I'm running between the tackles and in my pass-blocking. As far as my receiving skills, I feel that I'm a complete back. Not sure about underrated overall, but I don't know which team wouldn't have me. If we could do a re-draft, and draft everyone in the NFL all over again, I feel that I'd be the first running back to come off the boards."
Still, that talent wasn't enough to prevent an 0-6 start for the 2009 Tennessee Titans - it was after the bye that things turned around for the team. Johnson blew up, the offense changed to a more screen- and option-friendly version, and Vince Young(notes) became a better version of the quarterback who had fallen below expectations. What did he think was behind that 8-2 finish, and so many hopes for the 2010 season?
"We started winning because we were more confident - we knew we had a good team, and we just had to believe in ourselves. So, when Vince came in the game, and started making plays, everyone bought into it. This was the first year I played with [Vince]; in my rookie season, he got hurt in the first game. I'm not sure what has changed, but I've always believed in Vince. When he got in there, it wasn't that different; he was just ready to play football."
What is Johnson looking forward to most in the 2010 season? "I'm looking forward to breaking records. We didn't really lose anyone on our offensive line, or on our offense overall, so I'm looking forward to having another great season."
And that was the thing most on Johnson's mind at that moment - not the contract or the upcoming labor problems. "Everyone's worried about it, but it's the kind of thing where there's nothing we can do about it, so we just have to stay ready to play football and hope that it works out."