Wide-eyed and full of excitement, Isaiah Johnson couldn't wait to take the field for his first preseason game in the NFL. All those hours in the weight room, studying film, and practicing finally paid off; he made it to the NFL, but little did he know he'd have to exercise more patience.
During the Raiders' first preseason game of 2019, Isaiah Johnson took a knee to the head, resulting in a fractured face, thus derailing a majority of what appeared to be a promising rookie campaign after impressing during training camp.
As a mid-round pick, Johnson was determined to prove to everyone that he wasn't just a special teams pick by Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock, but those plans had to be put on the back burner.
"My rookie year was a huge surprise," Johnson expressed. "What I expected going into my rookie year, I honestly expected to open a lot of eyes and show people that I was not just the mid-round pick the Raiders got to play special teams. I wanted to show people I could play defense just as much as I could play special teams, and I could contribute towards the goal of what the team was trying to achieve."
Major injuries are tough to overcome as a rookie, and in most cases, it's not the physical recovery that's the issue. Establishing confidence in the NFL is necessary, but that's hard to do when you're forced to watch from the Injured Reserve list; however, Johnson coped with it better than most might.
"I just understood that it wasn't my time yet," he said. "A lot of people get in a rush and feel like this needs to happen now, or they have a point to prove. When I fractured my face, multiple people on the team were asking me how I was okay and managing to deal with it. I feel like, if I would've fractured my face before we got to training camp I would've been way more devastated, but because I got to show I could play during training camp I was little more at ease."
While Johnson was sidelined, fellow rookie cornerback Trayvon Mullen established a starting role and used his rookie campaign to gain valuable on-the-field experience, but Johnson says the experience he gained is just as valuable.
"The reality of it is, it's a good thing that [my injury] happened because a lot of rookies get thrown into the fire, which can be good or bad, but for me, after I fractured my face, it gave me the opportunity to break down the game mentally and understand different concepts, understand the finer points of the game and the playbook, and the NFL period. Now, I can take all of that and apply it in Year Two, knowing I took the time to learn all the things that I learned while I was injured."
As a wide receiver in high school, Johnson early on in his career figured out schematically the inner workings of an offense, and it helped him transition to a cornerback in college, but nothing has benefitted him more than getting extra time to immerse himself in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's system.
Rather than mope, Johnson displayed a rare level of maturity throughout his rookie year and turned nothing into something positive. He deserves a fair share of credit, but he says that defensive backs coach Jim O'Neil played an important role in his growth on the sideline.
"I will be honest, if there's one thing I love about Coach O'Neil, I love his energy," Johnson told. "I mean this in the best way possible, in football — and life in general — it's good to have people who know exactly what they're talking about and apply it to your situation or life in general. He's really good at applying things to us and understanding things for us within the scheme and in the game of football, and just letting us play."
Johnson eventually recovered from his injury and ended up playing five games in 2019, but in a limited capacity. O'Neil helped Johnson stay patient, but the 24-year-old is eager to show his position coach and everyone else that his rookie season wasn't lost. As he prepares for his sophomore season, Johnson is confident in the knowledge he gained and when he's finally able to pair it with his athleticism on gameday, it will be worth the wait.