Matt Johnson missed all of his rookie NFL season with the Dallas Cowboys — aside from 12 snaps in an exhibition game — because of hamstring and lower-back injuries, but fans of America’s Team know a Cowboy when they see one in public.
“I get recognized more and more,” Johnson said. “... I think they’re the best fans in the world. That tells you how big they take Cowboys football.”
The 2007 Tumwater High School graduate used his combination of speed and strength, good range and ball tracking in the secondary to develop into a must-have safety. That’s why the Cowboys took Johnson out of Eastern Washington in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft and signed him to a four-year, $2.4 million contract.
But the fans haven’t seen him in action enough to form an opinion on what the 23-year-old can bring to the team and to the 4-3 scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Johnson hopes to prove himself now, beginning with his commitment to stay in Dallas most of the offseason. Johnson says he hasn’t felt this good in “four or five years,” and if all goes well, he could be a starter in the Cowboys’ secondary — and perhaps on special teams, too — as he enters his second season in the NFL. He’s currently listed on Dallas’ depth chart as the
starting strong safety.
“I feel great,” Johnson said. “I want to prove to my teammates and coaches they made the right choice (in drafting me). Hopefully, the fans will like what they see.”
Johnson talked about his rookie season that never developed, dealing with frustration and setbacks of one injury after another. First, it was his left hamstring, which led to him missing most of training camp. This came after he missed most of last spring’s minicamp and the Cowboys’ organized team activities because of Eastern Washington’s academic calendar.
Then, during an exhibition game against the St. Louis Rams, he felt pain in his right hamstring. It acted up again two days before Johnson was set to make his regular-season debut Oct. 21 in a Week 7 game against the Carolina Panthers. He was kept on the active roster until moving to injured reserve in November.
“I could deal with one injury, but then have it happen again or another hamstring or lower back, it was tough,” he said. “It always seemed to be happening a day or two before I could play. That was the most frustrating.”
It led to constant questions from friends, family and the Dallas media wondering when the rookie would even practice, let alone play. At one point, Johnson stopped answering his cellphone.
But he frequently spoke with longtime Tumwater assistant football coach Rick McGrath, a close family friend, for advice and reassurance.
“He was heartbroken a few times,” McGrath said. “He was frustrated more than anyone.”
Johnson now realizes what might have caused the hamstring flare-ups, as well as lower-back troubles: weight room workouts and routines. So he’s taking more preventive measures such as changing his running style and reducing the amount of weight when doing lower-body workouts.
“I’ve been taking better care of my body,” Johnson said.
Over the past few weeks, he has worked out daily at Eastern Washington’s facilities in Cheney, awaiting the start of the Cowboys’ training camp July 21. At 212 pounds, he’s at his ideal weight, down 8 pounds from his college days.
Nate Brookreson, Eastern Washington’s strength and conditioning coach, said Johnson has the physicality of an “action superhero.”
“He’s a freak,” said Brookreson, a 2001 North Thurston High School graduate. “He looks as good as he’s ever looked.”
Upgrading at safety has been a priority for the Cowboys. Johnson will battle for a starting job with recent additions Will Allen, a nine-year veteran who was signed in free agency from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and rookie J.J. Wilcox, a third-round selection from Georgia Southern.
Against today’s pass-happy NFL offenses, teams need safeties who are versatile and athletic, and Johnson apparently showed the Cowboys what they were looking for while playing at EWU.
At Tumwater High School, Johnson and his twin brother, Zach, helped the Thunderbirds reach the Class 2A state semifinals in 2006. Matt Johnson was a second-team all-Evergreen Conference pick despite missing five games because of an ankle injury. He and Zach signed with Eastern Washington, and they helped the Eagles win the 2010 Football Championship Subdivision national title as redshirt juniors.
Matt Johnson finished his career, which had its share of injuries, too, ranked fifth all time in tackles (341) and tied for second in career interceptions with 17.
Johnson, the first Tumwater graduate to be drafted by an NFL team, is adjusting to life in the league and in Texas. A Cowboys fan growing up — his first replica jersey was Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith’s No. 22 — he lives near the team’s practice facility and enjoys country music and hunting, but he has kept his Washington roots. Griffey, his chocolate lab, is named after former Seattle Mariners slugger Ken Griffey Jr.
Those Evergreen State roots also include a piece of Tumwater. He and Zach, who is looking to sign with an NFL team as an undrafted free agent, got tattoos of a commonly used Tumwater football acronym “NGUNNGU” — Never Give Up, Never, Never Give Up — when they turned 18.
Now, that acronym is more relevant than ever.
“I want to prove myself to the coaches and continue to show them what I can do,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned how to be a pro on and off the field and learned how guys do it the right way. I know what’s expected and what they expect out of me.”
Said McGrath: “I love that kid to death, and I’m proud of him. I can’t wait to see what he does this year. I’m rooting for him like no one’s business.”
Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 firstname.lastname@example.org theolympian.com/southsoundsports @megwochnick