Browns HC Kevin Stefanski calls D'Ernest Johnson 'a warrior' following breakout performance

D'Ernest Johnson's life once sent him to the deck of a commercial fishing boat. On Thursday, it directed him to the best night of his professional football career.

Johnson received his first career NFL start on Thursday night not necessarily on merit, but out of necessity, taking the place of both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on a short week for the Browns.

The former USF and Alliance of American Football star looked like he'd spent most of his Sundays on the sideline and was ready to let it rip. He did that and more, gaining 146 yards and scoring a touchdown on 22 carries, powering Cleveland to a win the Browns desperately needed.

He even caught the attention of an NBA superstar.

Johnson was one of many Browns called into action due to a lengthy injury report that knocked out starting quarterback Baker Mayfield, right tackle Jack Conklin and a handful of others. Case Keenum replaced Mayfield and operated the Browns' offense without much of a difference in style Thursday night. It certainly helped that Johnson picked up right where Chubb and Hunt left off.

"We got a team win. I could single out a bunch of guys, but D'Ernest Johnson to me is a warrior and a great teammate," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game. "What he has fought through in his career and then to go have a night like that and to end it how he did on that this down, I thought was just outstanding."

Johnson can thank the short-lived AAF for giving him his best and likely final chance of making something of a career out of pro football. He was a standout runner for the league's Orlando Apollos, which also featured players (Garrett Gilbert, Ishmael Hyman) who received opportunities with NFL teams and managed to stick around as backups or practice squad members for at least some of the last few seasons.

Johnson received an offseason invite to Cleveland in 2019 and joined the running backs room, surprising enough folks in Berea during the preseason to earn a place on the team that season. He's since toiled in the shadows, surfacing only occasionally to contribute in small bursts. Thursday night was his most complete performance since his days at USF -- one he'd been working toward for years.

"No, I never lost trust in the process," Johnson said. "Coming from a fishing boat, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL. Even when playing in the AAF, I always dreamed of playing here in the league. Being able to be on this team is a blessing. It is always a dream come true to be able to be here. To be able start and come out here and help the team win, that is the best feeling."

Johnson certainly helped the Browns win, as did the offensive linemen opening wide running lanes for him. Johnson isn't near the fastest runner when it comes to top speed, but his shiftiness and one-cut burst fit well in Cleveland's zone scheme. It worked better than most anyone could envision on Thursday night, earning the best single-game rushing grade for a running back this season, per Pro Football Focus.

"It felt great knowing that everyone believed in me," Johnson said. "Coming out here and getting a win for the team means a lot. Being able to come out here and fight hard just go get this victory means a lot."

FirstEnergy Stadium is perched along Lake Erie, but it's far from the fishing boats Johnson knew just a few years ago. He'll never forget what went down there -- and how he felt helping his team to victory.

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