- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Virdell Larkins typically begins and ends his football practices with running. Lots of running.

The Oakland, California, high school coach has players line up in the end zone and race 110 yards to the other side. The team finishes with a series of “gassers” — timed sprints from sideline to sideline.

It’s the kind of conditioning drill you’ll find at most any high school football practice in the country.

What made the Oakland Tech practices unusual this fall was the 32-year-old NFL veteran running every sprint, right there alongside the high schoolers.

Before signing with the Redskins last week, Josh Johnson stayed mentally and physically ready for another opportunity by working out at his old high school, where the football program is now led by his cousin (and former teammate) Larkins.

“He [said] that all the time: If he run with my team, he’s gonna be in shape because I run them boys,” Larkins said with a laugh.

Johnson put the work in even though he had no idea whether he would ever get another backup gig in the NFL — let alone a chance to play.

But on Sunday, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the veteran will make just the sixth start of an NFL career that has spanned 12 teams since 2008.

Working to survive

Johnson’s mother, Rosemary Whisenton, usually gets four hours of sleep per night. Sometimes less.

For 39 years, the 62-year-old Whisenton has worked at Oakland Tech, first as a security guard and then as the school’s treasurer.

She coaches softball, volleyball and cheerleading during the year before working nights at FedEx, where she’s spent the last 12 years handling overnight packages. She also worked at Toys ‘R’ Us for 20 years and at Oakland Parks and Recreation for 26 years.

Even as Johnson made it to the NFL, she continued to work multiple jobs.

“That’s his job, that’s his money,” Whisenton said. “I’m going to continue to make mine. Now, I’m about to retire.”

“Mom’s stubborn,” Johnson said. “She always has been. … I had to learn (she didn’t want help) after my first two years because I always wanted to do so much for her and she was always just so humble about it.”

Whisenton’s work ethic had an impact on Johnson. It taught him to be independent, what it takes to survive and if he started something, finish it.

And as a single mom, Whisenton worked to support not only herself but Johnson and her three other children.

Whisenton knew football was her son’s passion from the age of 4 when he told a babysitter as they watched a game: “That’s going to be me one day and you’re going to be my wife.”

Johnson was right — well, about being in the NFL, at least — but the road to get there was challenging.

At Oakland Tech, Johnson was on a championship team that included Larkins and another cousin — Marshawn Lynch. But the quarterback, undersized at 5-foot-11, did not receive a Division-I offer (Johnson grew to 6-foot-3 in college.)

So he went to the University of San Diego (Division-I AA) and played under coach Jim Harbaugh.

With no scholarship, Johnson had to pay his own way. He took out loans and worked at a hotel, the school’s financial aid office, the campus bookstore, as a janitor and even as a construction worker his freshman year.

Johnson said he refused to take money from his mother.

“I didn’t want her to acquire more debt,” he said. “I already saw she was struggling.”

Johnson doesn’t expect sympathy. Talking with reporters in Ashburn on Wednesday, he said there was nothing unusual about his college experience — he said he just “took care of business.”

A journeyman’s journey

Johnson’s stops in the NFL can be short, especially recently. The Oakland Raiders signed him in March, only to cut him in May. Last season, he was with the Houston Texans for three weeks in November before being released and then re-signed in late December.

This year, with his NFL career seemingly over, he signed with a little-known minor league, the Alliance of American Football, where he still has plans to play for the San Diego Fleet in February.

The unexpected call from the Redskins is just the latest twist.

“I knew I had what it takes to meet expectations,” said Johnson, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2008. “I didn’t know if it would ever come, but as long as the opportunity presented itself, I would try to capitalize.”

The Redskins, of course, needed a quarterback after Colt McCoy broke his leg earlier this month. Johnson was signed initially to back up Mark Sanchez, but took over once Sanchez was benched in the third quarter in last Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.

Johnson was solid, throwing for 195 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He scored on an 8-yard run.

Washington called Johnson because the quarterback is familiar with coach Jay Gruden’s system. The veteran played under Gruden in Cincinnati as the backup to Andy Dalton.

“Jay yelled at me enough out there to where it kind of stuck in my head on certain things on how he wants things done,” Johnson said.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Johnson’s stretch between starting — seven years and 12 days — is the longest at the position since Todd Collins’ streak of 10 years and two days from 1997-2007.

Gruden said Johnson’s persistence helps him a lot.

“The one thing that I really respect about Josh Johnson is he is a very confident guy,” Gruden said. “He believes in his ability to be a quarterback in the National Football League despite being on 12 … teams so to speak. He has a skill set that’s pretty good but hasn’t been able to stick anywhere, but still, the game’s not too big for him.”

Staying strong

The Oakland that Johnson knows is changing. Prices have increased. Demographics are different. When Johnson was growing up, Larkins said they lost friends to violence and saw others sentenced to life in prison.

“We just live in a place where negative things are glamorized and not the hard work to really work through something to get it done,” Larkins said. “So with us growing up, man, we just wanted to be something. We didn’t want to be all this stuff.”

That’s why Johnson remains close to his hometown. Along with working out at Oakland Tech, he assists in coaching at the school, working with quarterbacks and throwing to receivers in one-on-one drills. When he was with the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson even served as Tech’s offensive coordinator.

Johnson also is hands-on with Lynch’s “Fam 1st Family Foundation” as the charity’s president and co-founder.

His role extends beyond just his title. Weeks before signing with the Redskins, Johnson helped organize a fashion show featuring members of his family wearing items from his clothing line, Larkins said. He also pulled funds together to register various Oakland schools on Hudl, a website for athletes and coaches to upload highlight reels.

Johnson wants to be an example — he calls it “being an OG” — to other kids. It’s why he never went to train in a private facility or away from Oakland, he said.

“Kids, from where I come from, we don’t have a real understanding of what success is because you don’t see it all the time,” Johnson said. “So when you can be around guys who have experienced some success … they can see us, so, ‘OK, they can do this but they still like this.’”

When the Redskins called Johnson about their need at quarterback, he was actually at a hospital, visiting a younger player who was diagnosed with cancer after doctors discovered it when the man broke his leg.

That player is Ramone Sanders, a 19-year-old defensive end at Laney College. Sanders, who said he’s been close with Johnson since the eighth grade, described the quarterback as a “big brother to me.”

While Johnson is preparing for the Jaguars, he also took time to call Sanders on Tuesday in a conversation that lasted 5-10 minutes.

“He was just asking me how’s my mind, like if I’m still strong and am I thinking about it,” said Sanders, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. “I just told him, ‘No, just trying to stay strong, you know?’ I’m not worried about it, stuff like that.

Josh was just telling me to keep my head up, don’t let it bring me down and always stay in high spirits,” he added later.

Positivity is important to Johnson. Those around him say they’ve seen him disappointed — but never defeated.

“You’ve got to pull from positive situations wherever that may be to where you can feel good about waking up the next day and going out and putting up another day’s amount of work. … Yeah, it may not go your way, but you did it the best you can. And you still got another opportunity to keep going.”


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