Chris Johnson isn't really homeless — and he never was.
On Twitter, the Titans' speedy running back repeatedly claimed throughout the 2009 season that he had no place to hang his hat. It's not true — of course it isn't — but the strange assertion came from the oft-used sports mantra, "Go hard or go home." CJ figured if had no home to go to, he had no choice but to go hard.
And hard he went. CJ became CJ2K in 2009, becoming just the sixth back in league history to rush for more than 2,000 yards.
Since the team parted ways with Eddie George and the late Steve McNair, Titans fans have been looking for the next superstar to don blue. The highly touted Vince Young has been, on occasion, breathtakingly great. But he can just as easily be frustratingly inconsistent.
The mantle of most titanic Titan has thus fallen to Johnson – drafted in the first round by the team two years ago, raising eyebrows from league watchers who thought the speedy back no better than a second-round choice.
Now Johnson raises eyebrows with his elusive sprints to the end zone. He set the record for the fastest ever 40-yard time at the NFL Combine before his rookie year, and the 24-year-old is confident he can beat anyone on earth in a short distance.
"When you're the fastest guy ever, that's what kind of things you get," he says. "Everyone wants to race you. Everybody wants to take out the big dog."
Johnson is, in fact, so fast that every time he finds the edge, gasps fill LP Field in anticipation of another long-distance touchdown run. Even his teammates have come to expect the amazing. In one game this year, Titans lineman David Stewart threw up his hands signaling yet another touchdown for Johnson. At the time of Stewart's celebration, Johnson was just seven or eight yards downfield.
That's the sort of confidence his once-in-a-who-knows-how-long ability inspires.
And in addition to his unique on-field talent, Johnson has the rare quality of being enormously and openly self-confident without alienating fans. Probably because he delivers on his boasts.
He embraces the hip-hop oeuvre: dreadlocks, trademark gold grill, brash statements. Halfway through the season, he drew incredulous looks from the gridiron press corps by unequivocally saying he'd pass the 2,000-yard threshold in his second season.
And then he promptly did it.
Despite making a prima facie case for prima donna status, Johnson is beloved, even in the buckle of the Bible Belt, where clean-cut, cliché-spouting athletes (see: Manning, Peyton) are de rigueur. To use one of those clichés – if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"I'm not gonna change anything," Johnson says. "I'm gonna be myself."
So what's next? Johnson wants to race Jamaican Olympic champion and 100-meter world-record holder Usain Bolt.
"I think I would beat him like in the 50 [meter dash],'' he says.
In addition to his race-all-comers attitude, Johnson also wants to be the next commercial face of the NFL.
"I want people to know me," he says. "I want to be out there. I want to be everywhere, [so when] you look around, you see me."
Johnson's also said he wants the Titans to restructure his contract – he's set to make $550,000 in 2010, a relatively paltry sum for a record-breaker. Most Titans fans would agree the team needs to do everything in its power to keep him.
After all, CJ needs a home. —J.R. LIND
Photographed by Jude Ferrara.
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