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Like a lot of guys who grew up in Lincoln Heights, a Northeast neighborhood mere blocks from RFK Stadium, Allen Johnson’s earliest memories involve rooting like crazy for the Redskins.
But fanaticism for the Skins and proximity to their venue were never enough to get Johnson into RFK to catch a game in person. Before Friday night, Johnson, now 25, had never seen his favorite team play at home, except on television.
“All my friends were Redskins fans just like me, but none of us ever went to the games,” says Johnson. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go. But there were never any tickets for sale, and nobody ever offered us tickets. Ever.”
Nobody offered him a ticket to the Redskins/Bengals game, either, but Johnson was there nonetheless.
Not just to see the Redskins.
He was one.
The Cincinnati game was but the latest chapter in what’s been a pretty dreamy year for Johnson, who played defensive back at H.D. Woodson High School and North Carolina State University and would love to do the same for the Redskins. Johnson’s small story—of a longshot trying to hook on with the team he’s long worshiped—has been eclipsed by the all-consuming Gus vs. Heath saga, but not for lack of melodrama. Plain and simple, he’s a real-life Rudy, decked out in burgundy and gold.
Johnson had pretty much accepted that his playing days were over last December, when the gun sounded in the game between N.C. State and the University of North Carolina. In that contest, which traditionally closes out the regular season for the intrastate rivals, the Tar Heels edged Johnson’s Wolfpack in the closing seconds.
“When I walked off that field after losing to North Carolina, I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I’d be playing again,” Johnson recalled. “I was thinking that this was an awful way to end it all. But I was prepared for it to be done. I started thinking about just finishing up school.”
But in the off-season, as Johnson went back to hitting only the books (he’s still 16 credits shy of a degree in sports management), NFL scouts came calling on him in Raleigh. In his years with the Wolfpack, Johnson had never put up eyebrow-raising stats as far as tackles and interceptions were concerned. But the scouts told him his size (6 feet, 200 pounds) and speed (4.4 in the 40-yard dash) made him worthy of a closer look. With big, lanky receivers overwhelming much smaller defensive backs in the pro game these days, pint-size cornerbacks, even those with the freakish quickness and reaction time the position requires, are falling out of vogue.
After hearing from the scouts, Johnson got back into his workout regimen, just in case. But when the NFL’s draft weekend came and went without any team calling his number, he accepted again that he’d suited up for the last time.
Then, quite unexpectedly, Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly rang him up and offered him a free-agent contract. Once the deal was signed, the team ordered him to start working out at Redskin Park, alongside many players he’d rooted for from afar, and one—Darrell Green—he’s idolized since grade school.
Proximity, as things turned out, only enhanced the idolatry.
“There is a lot about this whole experience that’s been great, but getting to see Darrell Green at work has been the best part,” Johnson bubbled. “You see Darrell on TV, and you admire him, but to see him up close, day in and day out, it’s something else. He’s so fast, so quick! And no matter what people say, I can tell you he’s still got it. After all these years, he’s by far the fastest guy on the team. He’s amazing. A-may-zing.”
Allen’s de facto fantasy camp moved to Frostburg with the team in July. In the first two preseason games, Johnson’s playing time, as is usually the case with free-agent rookies, was limited to special teams. And in the week of the Bengals game, the only home date on the Skins’ preseason schedule, coaches told the players that the first- and second-teamers would get most, and maybe all, of the special teams assignments. That meant Johnson, a third-teamer, shouldn’t expect to get on the field other than during warmups.
But even if he wasn’t going to be getting on the field much, Johnson was more than a little anxious about performing at RFK. Not only had he never seen a Skins game there, he’d never been inside the stadium for any event.
“This is my homecoming,” he laughed a day before the game. “Actually being at RFK, well, that’s going to be something. I just hope none of my coaches catch me standing on the sidelines just staring in the air, looking around the stadium at everything that I used to see on television.”
A lot of Johnson’s friends and family were also interested in catching the game live and in person. But Johnson found out that RFK passes are tough to get even for Redskins. For the “around 100 ticket requests” that came his way last week, Johnson was only able to procure four seats. Those went to Johnson’s mother and godmother, his high-school sweetheart, and her mom. All of them had been Redskins fans long before Johnson signed on with the team.
To the dismay of the Johnson clan, the coaches stuck to their pregame plan, awarding all the playing time for most of the game to those considered shoo-ins to make the squad. Free-agent rookies are the opposite of shoo-ins. So Johnson could do nothing but watch from the sidelines as the Bengals pounded on the home team, building a 28-7 lead by the end of the third quarter.
The Skins’ dismal performance sent most of the 42,903 fans heading for the parking lot well before the last period. But Johnson’s loyalists stayed put. And with two minutes left in the game, they got their payoff: “Johnson, get in there!” came the call. Not from the special-teams coach, either; defensive coordinator Ron Lynn inserted Johnson at cornerback, a far more prized assignment.
Then, on his very first play on the RFK turf, Cincinnati ran a sweep over the left side. Right at Johnson. Tailback Deland McCullough turned the corner and headed his way, behind a wall of Bengals. Johnson, using his God-given gifts and the defensive fundamentals coaches at every level of football had drilled into him, shed his blocker, lowered his shoulder and dove head-up into the ball carrier.
“Tackle by Allen Johnson,” RFK’s announcer said over the stadium PA.
By that point in the lopsided contest RFK was basically empty. Johnson probably played before larger crowds during his days across the river at H.D. Woodson. And even to all but a few of those who remained, his tackle didn’t mean a darn thing: The Redskins were still going to lose this game by a very large margin. But the announcement of Johnson’s defensive deed triggered a brief, tumultuous celebration in a small section of the grandstands behind the Redskins bench, one raucous enough to echo throughout the nearly vacated stadium.
“I guess that was my mom,” Johnson said bashfully after the game, walking off the field and toward the locker room with Green and the other Redskins.
As he got dressed, Johnson talked about how exciting his first trip to RFK had been, and shrugged off insinuations that the pressure to make the team would dampen his spirits or in any way ruin his weekend.
“I know cuts are coming up next week,” he said. “But I’ll sleep OK these next few days. I wasn’t expecting to play at all tonight, so just getting in the game was really, really nice. If I don’t make the cut, well, I’ll go back to school and finish up. If I make it, I’ll keep on going to see how far I can take this thing. Getting signed by the Redskins was a dream to begin with. It would be nice to keep the dream going, but no matter what, life will go on. Like I said, it’s already been great.”
Outside the dressing room, Johnson hooked up with his personal cheering section, and they walked toward the players’ parking lot together. There, one of the Hogettes stopped Johnson and asked for his autograph. He obliged with a big smile, then got in his car and began the short drive home.—Dave McKenna
The Redskins cut Johnson Tuesday.