METAIRIE, La. — Rufus Johnson looks at the Saints’ defensive playbook and understands its difficulties and intricacies and knows he has a ways to go before he has it all covered.
He also believes that once he has it mastered, he could be pretty good.
But that’s not what drives him. That’s not what keeps him playing the game.
It’s his father, Rufus Johnson Sr., who is in the hospital battling an illness who keeps Rufus Jr., going with a full heart and a clear vision.
“When I do get to talk to my dad, I got a feeling I keep my father strong,” said Rufus Johnson Jr., who said only that his father is battling a diabetes-related health issue. “I’m the reason my father is still here. … I’m going to keep on pushing because I’m afraid I’m going to let some of my family down.”
Letting his family down seems unlikely, however.
Johnson already has escaped a neighborhood he described as “not really the best.” In Pleasant Grove, an area in Dallas, Johnson said there weren’t “really the best role models around.”
“In every young mind you always seem to veer the wrong way sometimes, but you always got those people behind you telling you, you need to go this way,” Johnson said. “You need to stay focused on football, you need to stay focused on school. I had some tough times sometimes.”
After a career somewhat hidden at Tarleton State, the 6-foot-5, 272-pounder was mined from the nether regions of college football by the Saints after strong performances in a winter all-star game.
The path follows that of former left tackle Jermon Bushrod (from Towson University) and starting right guard Jahri Evans (from Bloomsburg State). All came from small schools.
Johnson can only hope he’s as successful as an NFL player as those two. Evans is considered one of the top interior linemen in professional football while Bushrod just signed a big contract with the Chicago Bears after starting four seasons in New Orleans.
Already he’s catching the eyes of his coaches and teammates.
“We’re playing this young kid from Tarleton State and changing positions is the first thing he doing,” Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He has got a lot on his plate but talent-wise and physicality, this kid is going to be good.”
“I think as a pure pass rusher, you say, we’re not sure yet,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “But as an athlete, I think he has got everything you need to be successful.”
For now, Johnson is comfortable with the pass-rushing part of his new job as an outside linebacker. It’s the coverage part that needs work but once that’s down, watch out.
“I’ve got good athletic skills,” Johnson said. “I can rush passer pretty well. Once I get used to coverage-wise, I’ll be pretty good.”
Johnson was recruited by BCS conference schools such as Mississippi State and Baylor, but math scores derailed those plans. So he ended up at Tarleton State, a smaller school of nearly 9,000 undergraduate students in Stephenville, Texas.
He started 19 of 20 games there, including eight of the nine games he played in in his final season. He was named the Lone Star Conference’s defensive lineman of the year and earned Division II All-American honors after finishing with 50 tackles and 17½ tackles for a loss, including 10 sacks.
The Saints took him with their sixth-round pick and while he wasn’t completely surprised he was taken in the draft, he still found himself emotional when he learned it happened.
“I’ve been playing football since I was 6 years old and just realized I’d be able to accomplish my dream,” Johnson said. “That’s where the emotion came from, and my dad, trying to take care of my dad.”
He added, “When I say not the best role models I’m speaking about people – drug dealers – or people that just don’t really have goals, I would say. Growing up, I’ve seen quite a few bad things and I just thank the Lord I have my mom and my dad who don’t let me go astray. I’ve seen a lot of bad things, I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff happening to people and I’ve seen people come and go, so having this opportunity to be here and not out there ... I’m just grateful, super grateful.”
This weekend, his dad will likely be super grateful.
While some of Johnson’s teammates will take the weekend to relax or play, he’ll go back to Dallas and visit his dad, who remains in the hospital on a breathing machine.
“I can’t wait to see him,” Johnson said.