Score. Smile. Hypnotize. Repeat.

David Johnson is the best player in your fantasy league, no doubt about it. The Arizona Cardinals running back may be having his moment—you gotta love his flashy ways—but he's just getting started

By Lars Anderson

December 6, 2016

Everywhere he goes, they love him.

At his local grocery store in Phoenix, strangers constantly stop him. Bug-eyed, they ask for a selfie and tell him, You're my favorite fantasy football player!

During the Arizona Cardinals' bye week in early November, he traveled to New York City with his wife, Meghan Brock Johnson. As they walked the streets of midtown Manhattan, a middle-aged man emerged from the mass of humanity. Approaching the best all-around running back in the NFL, he excitedly said, "You're killin' it on my fantasy football team! Just killin' it!"

But where people really love him is inside the Cardinals practice facility in Tempe. On a recent Friday afternoon, he was strolling through the dim light of the locker room when veteran guard Mike Iupati spotted him. "There he is!" Iupati bellowed, causing heads to turn. "There’s my man who soon will get paaaaaaaid!"

Nearby, Arizona running backs coach Stump Mitchell nodded his head. Mitchell looked his 6'1", 224-pound running back up and down, then smiled like a man who had been dealt a royal flush in a game of five-card stud.

"If he doesn't get hurt, David Johnson is going to surpass a lot of NFL records by the time he's done playing football," Mitchell says. "It's unreal the amount of total yards he's capable of putting up in our offense. He'll blow records out of the water. I'm talking about all kinds of records. He can get over 1,000 yards rushing and over 1,000 yards receiving every year. David can do it all: He's elusive, he's explosive and he's powerful. And he has great hands. Plus, he's getting better every single day."

David Johnson runs the ball while straight-arming Su'a Cravens during a game against Washington at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)

How good has the 24-year-old been in his second year in the NFL? On Sunday, he became only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 100 total yards in each of the first 12 games of a season, matching the feat of former Colts running back Edgerrin James, who did it in 13 consecutive games in 2005. Johnson leads the league in total yards from scrimmage (1,709) and touchdowns (15), and he is third in rushing (1,005). By every measure, he’s the top running back in every type of fantasy football league.

"David Johnson is the closest player out there today who compares to the fantasy greats of the past like LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk," says David Sabino, the longtime Sports Illustrated fantasy editor who is now the lead researcher for ESPN's First Take. "Like Tomlinson and Faulk, Johnson has the two best talents that fantasy owners love: availability and reliability."

But Johnson's availability and reliability only partially explain why he is so revered by his Cardinals teammates.

"We all know David's background, and he's overcome as much as anyone just to make it to the league," says A.Q. Shipley, Arizona's center. "David is open with us about his past, and you can't help but admire a guy who has fought so hard to get where he is today."

Indeed, the story of David Johnson—an against-all-odds narrative of perseverance—is a movie waiting to be made.

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He closes his eyes and can see it all again.

Johnson is sitting in the tiny mailroom at the Tempe team headquarters—"I like it in here, because I've been a delivery boy before," he says—as he recounts his childhood in Clinton, Iowa, population just over 26,000.

"My mom might have been the hardest-working person in our town," he says. "She practically worked in every fast-food place you can name—McDonald's, Burger King, Long John Silver's. She worked factory jobs. Life was hard, and it was a challenge for us just to eat every day, but we didn't know anything else."

Regina Johnson, a single mother, already had three kids when David was born December 16, 1991. But it wasn't just David who arrived that day: Regina also gave birth to David's older sister Danielle and younger sister Darnecia. The father of the triplets wasn't in the picture; David later found out he ended up in prison.

Struggling to pay bills, Regina and her children were constantly on the move, bouncing from apartments to houses of friends to cheap hotels. Wanting to unburden his mom—"She always looked so tired," David says—little David tried his best to take care of himself. Sports became his outlet, his great escape.

"Life was hard, and it was a challenge for us just to eat every day, but we didn't know anything else."


In fourth grade, he excelled on a traveling dodgeball team. Playing schools from nearby small towns, David was such a catching machine that he earned the nickname Glue Hands—the first indication that something was different about this triplet who always seemed to have a brilliant, life-is-beautiful smile on his face.

"That smile was ear to ear all the time," says Jeff Voss, a plumbing contractor in Clinton whose son went to school with David. "It was like he didn't have any problems in the world."

That same year, Regina, battling a problem with alcohol, was arrested for driving under the influence. She landed behind bars.

The triplets moved in with their older sister LaToria for nearly a year. Then they went to live with their mother who, after being released from jail, was placed in a halfway house. Reflecting on those 12 months, David flashes that piano-key grin. That time, he says, was a turning point.

"The halfway house was different, but we had arts and crafts to do, there were other kids around and my mom quit drinking cold-turkey," David says. "It was a new beginning for us."

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David Johnson leaves the field after a game against the New York Jets on October 17, 2016, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Images)

While living there, David started playing a new sport: football. "David was our star running back and linebacker," says Voss, who coached the Pop Warner team David was on. "When we had the ball in David's hands, he always made it look effortless. We gave him rides to games because his mom was so busy at home with her other children. A lot of parents took David under their wing. The entire community helped him."

Yet when adults were out of view, David became the target of a neighborhood bully, an older boy who physically tormented him at a local park. David was so terrified of the bully he often wouldn't go outside to play if adults weren't present. "For years I was scared just to be a regular kid," David says. "I mean, for years."

The bullying stopped in middle school when David began lifting weights like it was his life's purpose. Soon, no one, not even a bully, would be able to handle him—especially on a football field.

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Carson Palmer will never forget his first David Johnson moment.

With less than two minutes to play in the 2015 season opener against New Orleans, the Cardinals had the ball on their own 45-yard line. They led 24-19 and faced a 2nd-and-8. That was when a rookie running back who Palmer knew little about lined up to his left in a shotgun formation.

"I had no clue what we had in David," Palmer says. "You never know how a rookie is going to react when he's in a regular-season game and it's the fourth quarter and we're in need of a first down. You can only tell so much in practice and preseason. It's a different world when everyone is flying around at full speed."



Palmer took the snap, faked a handoff to wide receiver John Brown and dropped back six steps. With a defender in his face, he threw a short pass into the right flat to Johnson, who was running a shallow drag route.

It was the first offensive touch of Johnson's NFL career. He immediately turned his shoulders and—oh my heavens—lit a blue streak up the right sideline. Three Saints defenders appeared to have the angle on him, but he blazed past them as if he magically found another gear. Johnson bolted untouched for a 55-yard touchdown.

"I was like, 'Whoa, what do we have here?'" Palmer says. "For a guy his size, he has a burst that you simply don't expect. It was an eye-opening play to say the least."

Johnson, who has run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, was just revving up.

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David had to grow up.

In the summer before seventh grade, he took a job detasseling corn to help out his family. Rising in the predawn darkness, he'd ride a bus into the Iowa countryside. Wearing long sleeves and pants, he'd spend eight hours walking dusty cornfields in the prairie heat, removing the pollen-producing stems from the stalk.

"The worst part was when the corn was wet and the inside of my clothes would get wet," David says. "I'd get rashes on my legs and elbows."

Once David reached Clinton High, he spent his summers on the school's athletic fields. The football coaches held four conditioning sessions each morning, and the players were asked to attend one. David typically stayed for all four. Then in the afternoon, he usually shot baskets in the gymnasium for a few hours—he would average 15.7 points a game as a senior forward for Clinton—followed often by sprints on the outdoor track.

The Clinton High football coaches fell hard and fast for David, who would graduate with a better than 3.0 GPA, be active in blood drives and be a vocal member of Students Against Destructive Decisions. Playing running back and defensive back for the River Kings, Johnson shattered several school records, including scoring 42 touchdowns his senior year.

"David is such a good person that I'd trust him with the key to my house," says Lee Camp, the head coach at Clinton High when Johnson played at the school. "David was always so mature and classy. One game, we gave him the ball five times and he scored five touchdowns. In that same game, he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. He was our franchise player."

So why did no Division I schools offer him a scholarship?

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David Johnson wears anti-bullying cleats prior to a game against Washington at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Images)

Bruce Arians will never forget his first David Johnson moment.

In Week 2 of the 2015 season, the Cardinals traveled to Chicago. Arians knew Johnson had arresting potential—he'd seen it come to life seven days earlier when Johnson took his first NFL touch into the end zone—but he wasn't sure if his rookie runner could be a franchise-building back.

Arians watched Johnson jog onto Soldier Field to receive the opening kickoff. As Johnson neared the goalpost, he looked into the stands and spotted several of his old friends from Clinton, who had made the two-and-a-half-hour drive. His mom was there too. Tightening his chin strap, Johnson nodded at them as they screamed his name.

He caught the ball eight yards deep in the end zone, and then it was magic: He started sprinting like he was Gale Sayers.

Johnson veered slightly to his right as he crossed the 10-yard line. At the 25, he cut to his left, burst through an opening and made the jump to hyperspace. On the sideline, Arians was hypnotized as he watched his rookie run untouched into the end zone for a 108-yard return, the longest play in Cardinals franchise history and tied for the second-longest kickoff return in NFL history.

"That was when I really knew we had a difference-maker in David," Arians says. "The game just comes so naturally to him. He has as much deceiving speed as anyone I've seen."

As Johnson cantered back to the sideline, he looked up into the grandstands and saw his crew from Clinton. They were yelling as if they'd seen the rapture.

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Playing high school football in the small river town of Clinton—on the western shore of the Mississippi—David attracted little attention from big-time colleges. How unknown was he? David received a letter at his home from then-Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads that was addressed to "David Jacobson."

David met with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was blunt in his assessment of his play. "You're not giving enough effort when you don’t have the ball in your hands," Ferentz told David. "You look disinterested out there."

David watched game film to see if Ferentz's analysis was correct. He was shocked at what he saw. "He was right," David says. "I kept seeing myself on film watching the ball. I needed to block more and carry out my fakes. Basically, I needed to be a guy who wasn't lazy."

Only two schools offered him a scholarship: Northern Iowa and Illinois State. David chose Northern Iowa, 146 miles away in Cedar Falls. In the late '90s, Kurt Warner had risen from the tiny FCS school to reach the NFL, and David was determined to follow the quarterback's trail.

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David Johnson (No. 7) jumps up and over defensive back Sam E. Richardson (No. 4) during a game against Iowa State at Jack Trice Stadium on August 31, 2013, in Ames, Iowa. (Getty Images)

Days after graduating from Clinton High, David and his mother packed his stuff into her Ford Bronco and began the trip to Cedar Falls. But before they reached David's new home, the Bronco sputtered to a stop on Highway 30, the engine dead. In a panic, David called his high school coach, Lee Camp, who picked up his star player a few hours later and helped him move into his dorm room.

"David was so nervous about being late for his first meetings at Northern Iowa," Camp says. "He's big into first impressions—anyone watching him in the NFL knows that—and it really bothered him that he got behind schedule."

In Cedar Falls that summer, David went to work—as an asbestos remover. Beginning at 6 a.m. each weekday and ending at 3 p.m., he donned a protective suit and mask and scraped away at what he said looked like "black tar" in buildings on the Northern Iowa campus. The money was good—$13 an hour—but there was one small hazard: Johnson was told during training that he could develop lung disease in 25 years.

"Those days of working on that asbestos crew were so long, especially because we'd go and lift weights for two-and-a-half hours after we were done," says Xavier Williams, a nose tackle for the Cardinals who attended Northern Iowa and worked with Johnson in the summers. "Those were the hardest days of my life, man. We'd eat gas-station hamburgers for our lunch. If you had seen us back then you'd never have thought we'd ever make it to the NFL."

Once on the field, David remembered the slights from his state's schools. In 2013 against Iowa State, he scored four touchdowns in the Panthers' 28-20 win. A year later against Iowa, he was clearly the best player on the field, finishing with 237 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in a 31-23 loss to the Hawkeyes.

"Yeah," David says, "I had just a little bit to prove in those games."

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A.Q. Shipley will never forget his first David Johnson moment.

With just over six minutes to play in the third quarter against the Bears in September 2015—about two hours in real time after Johnson had raced 108 yards on the kickoff return—the Cardinals faced a 2nd-and-9 on Chicago's 13-yard line. Johnson lined up six yards behind the quarterback.

Shipley snapped the ball to Palmer, who pitched it to Johnson on a simple sweep left. Running behind a pulling Shipley, Johnson darted to the outside, juked a Bears safety at the 10—Johnson swatted him away like a fly—and then loped into the end zone.

"You knew on his first NFL carry that he was going to be good, just by the way he let the linemen set up the blocks and then just how easy the game seemed to come to him," Shipley says. "He's going to be a force in this league for a long, long time."

The 13-yard run was freighted with history: Johnson became the first NFL player to score a touchdown rushing, receiving and on a kickoff return in his first two games. His jersey and cleats from the Chicago game now reside in the Hall of Fame.

After the Cardinals' 48-23 victory, Johnson met his mom and childhood friends outside the locker room. What a sweet moment it was, Johnson hugging and high-fiving those who mattered most to him—those who knew how far he had come.

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David Johnson runs past cornerback Tramaine Brock during a game against the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium on November 13, 2016, in Glendale, Arizona. (Getty Images)

He was a record-breaking phenom at Northern Iowa, setting 15 school marks, including most career rushing yards (4,682) and touchdowns (63). Many NFL draft analysts pegged him as a second-round pick.

On draft day, the Cardinals staff thought they had landed their running back of the future in the second round. Arians, sitting in the Cardinals draft war room in Tempe, was on the phone with Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah as Arizona's time to make the 55th overall selection approached.

But as Arians was telling Abdullah how excited the Cardinals were to have him, Abdullah received another call. Hang on, Coach.

At the last moment, Detroit, picking one spot before Arizona, decided to make Abdullah a Lion. Arians and Cardinals general manager Steve Keim looked at each other in disbelief. "You're kidding me," Keim said. "Golly, you gotta be kidding me." Four-letter words were then uttered.

"It's been a long road for me to get here, and I know I have to keep fighting like crazy to get better. But everything I've gone through in my life has prepared me for this."


In the third round, with the 86th pick, Arizona moved to Plan B: Johnson. "We had watched what David had done against Iowa, and we knew he'd be a great fit for us," Arians says. "It was a no-brainer. He's so big and fast and can catch the ball. Plus, his maturity level was just so high. You never have to worry about his work ethic."

Not even Arians, though, suspected what the Cardinals were getting: a player who, two years later, would become the dream of every fantasy owner in America.

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It's a sunny autumn afternoon in Tempe, and the Cardinals are finishing a walkthrough practice. One of the last players on the field is Johnson, who is pressing his coaches for details about his assignment on a certain play.

Johnson became the full-time starter at running back last December after injuries to Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson. He finished the final five weeks of the season leading all NFL players with 658 total yards. So far in 2016—a season that has been shrouded in disappointment for the 5-6-1 Cardinals—Johnson is on pace to do what has never been done before: gain 100 total yards in every game.

"You can't appreciate how good David is until the pads are on and everyone is going full speed," Shipley says. "He's so sudden and explosive with the ball in his hands, and he always is falling forward after contact. Even if he's hit at the line, he’s still going to get two yards."

"It's been a long road for me to get here, and I know I have to keep fighting like crazy to get better," Johnson says as he walks off the practice field. "But everything I've gone through in my life has prepared me for this. Hopefully I'm just getting started."

The triplet who is now a rising star in the NFL then jogged into the team complex, afraid he'd be late to a team meeting.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71

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