Done with football at 27, ex-NFL linebacker has no regrets
By the time the Chargers called during the offseason to offer him a tryout, James-Michael Johnson had had enough.
Still reeling from a year in which he spent time with five teams and got cut six times, the NFL linebacker passed on the chance to grind it out in camp.
He retired at age 27 after four seasons.
He wasn’t sad to see his playing days come to an end.
“It’s just better now, knowing that if I go to work every day, work hard, get better at my job and learn everything I can in the occupation, that I’ll continue to progress,” said Johnson, now 29, who works as an emergency medical technician near his hometown of Fairfield, California, with hopes of joining a fire department. “Everything’s not based on my 40-yard dash.”
While the league this week will celebrate the longevity of 41-year-old Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady and others like him, stories resembling Johnson’s — a short stay in the league, followed by a virtually unnoticed retirement — are far more common.
A first-of-its-kind analysis, conducted by The Associated Press , found that the average amount of experience on opening-day NFL rosters has dropped from 4.6 to 4.3 years over the past 14 seasons . That’s despite provisions in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that had the potential to extend players’ careers.
Had Johnson chosen to stick it out and made it onto the Chargers’ roster, they could have gotten him for cheap. Under one of the provisions covering veterans, he could have received a one-year contract for the 2017 league-minimum $775,000, and it would have counted as only $615,000 against the team’s salary cap.
But Johnson, a fourth-round pick in 2012, had stuck around long enough to qualify for a modest pension and, with the help of the NFL, had a decent 401(k) started. He loved helping people and looked forward to a different kind of life.
So he decided to give up the game before some assistant coach or general manager he barely knew made the decision for him.
Johnson — who played what is considered one of the league’s most disposable positions — said that he had never even heard of the salary provision that might have helped him, but that it didn’t sound like a realistic way of keeping guys like him around.
“They’re always going to go with the younger player,” Johnson said. “You’re always going to go with the first-year undrafted free agent over the fourth- or fifth-year guy, when you’re dealing with the roster bubble and a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
Eric Winston, president of the NFL Players’ Association, agreed: “There are very few positions outside of quarterback where teams are going to want to keep a veteran who’s decently paid and doesn’t start.”
There were other factors at play in Johnson’s decision.
The Hollywood hit “Concussion” came out during his final season. The movie is based on the real-life investigation into the brain disease caused by multiple hits to the head — a disorder discovered in more than 100 deceased former NFL players who donated their brains to science.
Johnson estimates he has had scores of head traumas over his dozen years of football at the high school, college and pro levels. He tells of one instance — not all that uncommon — when he got hit so hard against the Cowboys that “I felt like someone had thrown a grenade at me.”
“I don’t remember how I got to the sideline,” he said. “But when you watch the film, you see me, and you say, ‘All that happened was he got hit, hopped up and jogged off.’ Nobody knew anything bad had happened to me.”
Because of what he knows now, Johnson feels compelled to someday spell out the risks to his 4-year-old son, James-Michael Jr., if he wants to play football.
“I still wonder how that’s all going to play out for me when I’m 45 or 50,” Johnson said.
Though he misses the competition, he doesn’t miss football itself. In fact, he barely ever watches it.
His best memories of the NFL will be what happened off the field. He loved the Tuesdays when he would be invited to schools, food banks or charity events for a chance to meet people in the community. He made friends in all the locker rooms he was part of.
Fresh out of football, Johnson considered scouting and coaching, only to be turned off by both.
Invited to an NFL rules meeting, Johnson said he felt the priority wasn’t to make the game safer or more fair.
Meanwhile, coaches he looked up to in college described a transient existence of slowly working your way up the ladder in a career that is ultimately dependent on head coaches who commonly get fired every four or five years.
To Johnson, it sounded not all that different from the life he had just left. In all, he got cut seven times by six teams.
Though his paychecks are not as gaudy these days, Johnson feels as if he can breathe again.
“Now, I know if I do my job to the best of my ability, I can keep coming to work,” he said. “Someone’s not to call me up into the office and say, ‘We looked at the tape, and we’re thinking about bringing in a younger, better player today.’”
AP Data Analyst Larry Fenn contributed to this report.