CLINTON — David Johnson admits it makes his head spin just a bit to think of the path his life has taken in the past five years or so, or even just in the past year.
Coming out of Clinton High School, none of the big college football programs in the state thought enough of him to offer a scholarship. They would have taken him as a walk-on, hoping he might help as a backup receiver or defensive back or perhaps on special teams.
A year ago, he was a third-round draft choice out of the University of Northern Iowa who was thought to maybe have a chance to secure a roster spot with the Arizona Cardinals.
Now he’s a rock star.
As Johnson walked into the high school gym where he used to play basketball, wearing a gray t-shirt bearing his own likeness that is sold through his own website, he was greeted by a huge ovation and screams of delight from a line of people waiting just to spend a few seconds in his presence.
Most people paid $40 to get Johnson’s autograph Saturday at Clinton High, but a few paid even more than that to get a preferred place in line.
“It’s definitely mind-boggling, a dream come true for sure,’’ Johnson said of his rookie season with the Cardinals. “I always have to sit back in my locker and look around. Larry Fitzgerald. Carson Palmer. Patrick Peterson. Tyronn Matthieu. It’s just like being in a dream really. I’m just really blessed that I had an opportunity to make it there.’’
Johnson last season went from Arizona’s third-team running back to being the most productive running back in the NFL in the final month of the regular season. He now is projected to be one of the elite backs in the NFL this season, a guy who will be snapped up in the first round of some fantasy football drafts.
The off-season has brought appearances on things such as Celebrity Family Feud and a marquee role in the Amazon Prime series “All or Nothing.’’
It also has brought special things in his personal life. He married his long-time girlfriend, Meghan Brock, and the couple is expecting their first child next winter.
“That’s definitely bigger (than what has happened on the football field),’’ Johnson said. “That’s a true blessing and I’m so excited to be married and then to start our own family and be a dad. I’m a little nervous but we’ll have to see. I might have to read a couple of books to be ready for that.’’
Johnson no longer has any family in Clinton. His mother and sisters have moved away, but he made time to come back to town Saturday after making similar appearances in Cedar Falls.
He spotted all sorts of old friends and familiar faces in line as he spoke with reporters prior to the autograph session.
His old high school coach, Lee Camp, was there, too, taking in the whole scene and marveling at how far his former protégé has come.
“I don’t know if I thought he was capable of reaching this level, but I knew we had something pretty special when he was here,’’ Camp said.
He remembers how hard it was for college scouts to see what he saw, even after Johnson scored 42 touchdowns in his senior season with the River Kings.
One of the few who recognized the potential was Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan, who told Camp he thought Johnson was the best athlete in the Midwest. But Morgan was unable to convince Kirk Ferentz to give the kid a scholarship.
Even UNI, which did offer a scholarship, didn’t initially view Johnson as a running back. The Panthers had him playing defense and wide receiver while redshirting as a freshman even though Camp kept telling UNI offensive coordinator Chris Klieman that Johnson was a running back. One day, one of the other young backs missed practice and Johnson was shifted into the backfield as a fill-in.
Klieman was on the phone to Camp two days later.
“He said ‘We have our running back of the future,’’’ Camp said.
You know the rest of the story. Johnson broke pretty much every rushing and scoring record at UNI, played some of his best games against Iowa and Iowa State, wowed the scouts at the NFL combine and got drafted by Arizona.
He admitted that all those doubts that people had about him helped propel him to where he is today.
“I think that’s what drove me the best, motivated me the most,’’ he said. “In training, off the field, I did all the right things to get to the NFL and I think that was my biggest obstacle that I had to face was proving everyone wrong.
“They overlooked me pretty well,’’ he added. “Iowa was talking about a grayshirt. Iowa State didn’t even look at me. I’m blessed, though, that I went to UNI. I don’t think I would have chosen a different college after I had been there.’’
Johnson said that as he went through training camp with Arizona last summer, he saw that he also was going to be able to measure up at the pro level.
In the first game of the regular season, he caught a 55-yard touchdown pass against New Orleans. In the second game, he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Bears, then also got a rushing touchdown in that game, becoming the first player in NFL history to score touchdowns three different ways in his first two games.
Injuries to other players eventually got him into the starting lineup and in December, he rolled up 599 yards of offense and scored five touchdowns in four games.
That made him a rock star, not just in Clinton and Cedar Falls, but almost anywhere he goes.
And the best, he said, is yet to come.
He said he’s “very hungry, very determined’’ to show that what he did last season was no fluke.
“I only had five games that I started last year,’’ he said. “Hopefully, this time I’ll play with more reps and play more games and get more opportunities to be even more comfortable with the offense, more comfortable with the NFL. I’m very excited to start the season.’’
So are fantasy football aficionados who Johnson said are constantly pelting him with questions about his surprising first year and the prospects for an encore.
One reporter Saturday even asked if he should try to get Johnson on his fantasy team.
“I would,’’ Johnson said with a confident grin. “I definitely would.’’