In November of 2014, former Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson walked out of the Vols’ locker room for the last time as a player, as he had been kicked off the team after being accused of rape.
Now, after nearly four years, plenty of heartache, and one “not guilty” verdict by a Knox County jury on July 27, Johnson is back playing the game he loves after being away from football since his dismissal from the Vols.
This time, though, Johnson isn’t wearing Tennessee orange.
Instead, the former Volunteer donned the slightly darker orange of the Denver Broncos on Monday afternoon for his first practice in the NFL.
For three-and-a-half years, A.J. Johnson worked like not many in his situation would have done.
He lifted. He trained. He even performed martial arts, all just so he could be prepared for a day that Johnson said “knew was going to come.”
During his time in Knoxville, Johnson netted more than 400 tackles. He was also a three-time All-SEC selection, and while those numbers are impressive, Broncos coach Vance Joseph said Monday that he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It’s been three years since he’s actually played football, so we’ll see,” Joseph said.
“At that time, three years ago, he was a serious prospect. He’s got great size, he can run, he’s a very, very intelligent player. So, we’ll see.”
Johnson said he’s ready to “work his tail off” for his new team, and in order to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster, that’s just what he’ll have to do.
But, while Johnson’s football traits are still being evaluated, the Broncos already have faith in his character as a whole.
In a statement Monday, general manager John Elway said that the team “has had several conversations with him since he’s been cleared and have become very familiar with his background and character. Our organization is confident A.J. is ready to move forward and resume his playing career.”
The confidence Johnson maintained in his future may beg some curiosity because the NFL went so far as to rescind Johnson’s combine offer back in July of 2015 given the suspicion and turmoil surrounding him at the time.
Regarding the faith he maintained throughout the process, Johnson was direct and to the point.
“God is good, man,” he said Monday after practice,.
“I had a lot of faith. I knew God was going to take care of me. I knew this day was going to come.”
Indeed he is taken care of, at least for now, as the $50,000 signing bonus he received “may well be a record for Broncos undrafted rookies,” according to Denver’s 9News insider Mike Klis.
Now, Johnson isn’t looking back at the past.
Instead, he’s gearing up for the future, saying on Monday that he wakes up happy and is “glad to be out here” for a second chance that perhaps only he thought would arrive.