Juwan Johnson and the power of the mind
The New Orleans Saints tight end sits down with Go Long to discuss his life turnaround in college, beefing up in the pros and the struggle of losing two unborn babies in 2022.
NEW ORLEANS — The more Juwan Johnson details his rise from Glassboro, New Jersey to New Orleans, the more it becomes eerily clear he’s a combination of so many tight ends who came before him.
The battle royales with older brothers as a kid. (Hello, Gronk.) The meetings with a sports psychologist in college. (Hey, Kittle.) The earth-shattering trauma of losing two unborn babies as an adult. The wide receiver background giving him a shot to be one of the sport’s most athletic tight ends. Many of the life events that molded Johnson molded the greats you’ll read about in “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.”
This 2022 season may be reaching a breaking point for the 3-6 New Orleans Saints but Johnson’s emergence has been a bright spot.
Undrafted in 2020, he has developed into a promising tight end. This season, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has 23 receptions for 258 yards with three touchdowns. And while you’ll never see Go Long give into TikTok, I’ve been told Juwan and his wife are also TikTok famous. (Their joint account has 2.5 million followers.)
New Orleans will try to turn around its season on Sunday against Pittsburgh.
He’s a fascinating dude.
Here’s our conversation.
This position is forever evolving. Why are you this perfect fit for the position? Is it a calling?
Johnson: Honestly, I want to say it was something that was going to happen regardless. In high school, you play everything. You play tight end. You play receiver. You play running back. You play quarterback. You play everything. So, I was introduced to tight end when I was in high school. In college, you always mess around when you’re doing pass sets and stuff like that. They were like, “He’s pretty good out there!” I’m like, “I can play the position if I need to.” I was talking to the tight ends in college. So when I was coming out of the draft, it was interesting that some of the teams were looking for me to play tight end. A bigger guy. I wasn’t getting any skinnier. I couldn’t stop. So, I was eating. It was during Covid so we really couldn’t visit teams and know what they were thinking. So I was just eating, like, “I could be playing tight end at any moment.” I was so interested in playing tight end. A huge opportunity. I got here. Played a year at receiver. And then the next year, they have me playing tight end.
Rob Gronkowski spoke about pounding footlongs at Subway with all dressings possible and cookies on the side to put on weight at the position. I imagine you had your methods.
Johnson: When you’re in Louisiana, you can eat anything and put on weight. But honestly? It took dedication. Last year, my first year at tight end, I was 235. And it was hard to battle that and keep up with that weight. So this last offseason, I really dedicated myself to putting on weight. After the season, I ate whatever I want. I mean, I still eat whatever I want. I ate whatever I want and felt like a Guido on the “Jersey Shore.” Like literally, I just lifted and I ate food all day. And I didn’t run.
Right down to the cabs?
Johnson: Cabs are here! Literally, I just ate and lifted and chilled. I pretty much ate whatever I wanted, and then I didn’t weigh myself for like a month. And that month happened, and I was 251 before you knew it. I put on 16 pounds. So that February, I’m like, “Oh, man. This is great!” But the season doesn’t start for a whole couple months from now. So I tried to maintain that by running and putting on that in a good way. That’s how it translated over.
Putting on fat, too?
Johnson: Oh yeah. I’m eating everything. Literally everything. A lot of Asian food. Not so much fast food. I mean, I’ll eat fast food somewhat. But always eating restaurant food or always ordering in. That’s how me and my wife are. Eating anything I can get my hands on.
That’s the cool thing about becoming a tight end, the fun part.
Johnson: Definitely! I wouldn’t say it’s the best method but it worked for me. I was able to keep my same quickness, same speed throughout the whole time. And still was able to keep that weight.
What did you like about the position?
Johnson: What intrigued me was being able to go up against linebackers, safeties and corners knowing that I’m bigger than these safeties and corners but also quicker and faster than these linebackers. The one thing that didn’t intrigue me at first was blocking guys who are 290, 275. So that’s something that disinterested me. But going into this year, I was always a guy who wanted to make contact. But after the contact, I honestly didn’t know what to do. That initial hit was great! But after that…
So it wasn’t a matter of willingness. The technique of it was tough?
Johnson: That’s what it was. I didn’t have any technique going into last year. Me applying myself last season really showed because I was able to do things that I never thought I’d be able to do before. It was great. It was awesome. A huge shoutout to my coach. He’s the best in the business. He helped me out dramatically. Dan Roushar.
George Kittle, at Iowa, didn’t like blocking at first. It’s hard to latch onto a defensive end — they’re such physical freaks. How do you do it?
Johnson: There were definitely a few plays this camp that showed, "OK. I can really do this.” Knowing that I could do it consistently. If I could do it vs. guys on our team, I mean, we have one of the best defensive ends in the league. So if I could block these guys, I know for sure I could block any guys in the league. Once I was doing that, I was like, “I got this. I got this.” That first preseason game, when I was able to block somebody different and I was still able to do it? I said, “I got this.” That was the turning point for me. The confidence built up. The aggression built up. The technique got better. I’m still progressing. This is not something I have down pat.
You don’t want to go on the field and the defense to think, “There is zero chance they’re running Juwan’s direction.” They can run your direction now?
Johnson: Definitely. And I knew last year, “Man, they’d be foolish to run my direction!” I was strictly backside. But this year is so different. They’re running toward me and bringing different fronts out to me knowing that this guy isn’t just a route runner. He’s a pass blocker as well.
What makes you you? I know you grew up in New Jersey, and you’ve been through a lot with your wife this year. Cannot imagine going through that. What have you been through that really gives you an edge?
Johnson: I play for Christ, but I also play for my wife. I play for my future kids. I play for my family. I do have a family I want to have, and I play for them. Knowing that when I go on, people aren’t going to remember me but I do want something for my family to have to put their feet on so they can elevate. It has to start somewhere and I want it to start with me. So, it’s really doing that and knowing that I’m not just playing for myself. When I go out there, I’m having fun. I’m playing. That’s really what it is. I have two older brothers who are 15 and nine years older than me so I was always getting beat up. Put through tables. So when I was younger, WWE was really big. So we’d go through tables. They’d slam you on the bed. In a way, looking back, it made me so much tougher. Knowing that going against older people all the time, going against these guys? I’ve done this way before.
That’s a huge age difference to be thrown through tables.
Johnson: Our brothers were crazy. We had these little tables we used to eat off of when we were younger. Just snacks and stuff. They’d slam me through those tables. These are tables you can put back together. Like card tables. Slam me through, and then put them back together. Then, do it again. I was a kid but it was so fun to me. That was how I got so rough.
How old were you?
Johnson: I was as young as I can remember. Maybe 5. I was just young and having fun with my brothers.
Who were the wrestlers then?
Johnson: The Rock. Stone Cold. Triple H. Goldberg. A whole bunch of guys who I can remember. The Undertaker. As we’re watching the wrestling, this is what they’re doing to me.
You can’t fight back when it’s a 14- and 20-year-old on a tiny kid.
Johnson: But that’s how they were. I think they were so excited to have a younger brother. One who was much younger than them. We have a great bond and still talk to this day. That’s one of the things we still talk about, the fun we had when I was younger. Slamming me on the bed. Slamming me through tables. Them tag-teaming me. It was a whole deal.
This sounds like a lot Gronk again, and how they all beat the hell out of each other as brothers. Chris Gronkowski thought he might’ve killed Rob once.
Johnson: That’s crazy! Those are the only things you can do with your family. Doing that with friends, you don’t do it that much. Pretty much the same age. But when you do it with family, with brothers, it’s totally different.
You get to Penn State, and then Oregon. What’s going through your head at wide receiver? You’re not necessarily looking up to the Gronks and Grahams of the world.
Johnson: At Penn State, we had a lot of guys. And obviously I emulated guys like Keenan Allen. Mike Williams was great. Calvin Johnson. They even called me “Megatron Jr.” when I was at Penn State. Just all the wide receivers who were great at that time. Those were the guys I really looked up to and — going to Oregon — that was the decision I made because I didn’t even know if I wanted to play football. It was a lot. It was very demanding. I had to find my “why” more than anything. I really didn’t know my “why” at the time. It’s just finding my “why.” This is something I do. This is not who I am. So, understanding that, my whole perspective changed. So I asked myself: “Do I want to be here at Penn State? I just prayed about it and made the best decision for me. It’s worked out. But taking the transition to Oregon and Oregon opened my eyes in terms of scheme, life, when I went to Oregon, I knew nobody.
You weren’t sure if you wanted to play football anymore?
Johnson: Yeah. The season before that, it was a rough season. A ton of injuries. Ankle after ankle injury. A bunch of dropped balls. Going through all of that was like “Man.” Football was everything to me. Football is everything now but I’m more sober-minded rather than, “If this doesn’t work out, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Now, you know this is just something that you do. I understand that now. Back then? It was all or nothing. So just being more chill with that has been the best thing for me.
How do you get out of that mind frame? Eating, sleeping, breathing it. There’s no profession like football.
Johnson: I think just talking to people who aren’t necessarily in the building. Coaches would tell you, “This is all you have.” You have your coaches like that, and I still have coaches like that. But I think it’s more so finding people who are sober-minded and able to relate and knowing who’s played the game, who’s done it, who already has the blueprint. That’s more so it than talking to people whose life is just football.
You had important conversations with certain people? What stood out? Where did your mind go?
Johnson: I think it was the sports psychologist who changed a lot for me. There was our chaplain at Oregon who was also instrumental. The psychologist at Penn State told me, “You know how to catch the ball. That’s not it.” He said, “This is just a game. People are saying this about you. But there are 9 million other people in the world who don’t even know who you are. You don’t have to worry about what’s going on now because there are so many other people who care more about you who don’t even know you or about the sport that you play.” I was like, “That’s a pretty good perspective to have.”
That makes me think of another tight end here, Jackie Smith. Too many people only know him for one drop in a Super Bowl. At 82, the aftermath from that all still can bring him to tears. He’s a husband, a father, a businessman who was one of the greatest tight ends ever and you mention “Jackie Smith” and too many people remember that play. I can’t imagine being defined by…
Johnson: One play. One play. That’s tough. That’s tough.
Was the game stressing you out at Penn State?
Johnson: Oh yeah. It was bad, man. My mental health there just wasn’t right. So when I got to Oregon, that’s when I let loose because I knew I was more than a football player.
Were you depressed?
Johnson: I would say so. I just think it was because I put so much pressure on myself. Just the sport itself. Instead of just playing the game the way I grew up playing it. So that’s what it was and I had to learn that… it’s something you can learn. It’s very hard to break it. Once I got through that, I was able to live. Really live.
Kittle saw a psychologist at Iowa, too. He said how he would overthink everything to the extreme — every play felt like life or death. His psychologist had him draw a red dot on his athletic wrist tape. So after plays, he hit it like like a reset button.
Johnson: That’s nice. That’s really nice. Just the people around me was the biggest thing. Having people around me. Knowing that, “We love you for you. We don’t just love you because you’re a football player. We love you for the person you are.” That really gave me confidence. Words are powerful. That was the biggest thing. That was really it. The psychologist helped show me, “There are so many people not watching you. It’s OK. A couple hundred thousand have seen you but there are millions who haven’t. They haven’t seen you and don’t know you.” That was sobering. Like, “Dang. OK.”
Was it James Franklin on down?
Johnson: No. I don’t even think that was it. It was more so the sport. Franklin was always great to me. We always had a great relationship. So it was never about him. It was always about me and the sport. Obviously there were times he was helping me out personally. It was always me against the sport.
So, who is that? Who is Juwan Johnson? I heard how you’ll actually pick up the trash with the gloves on around this locker room.
Johnson: Just a person who loves to connect but also someone who’s maturing into who they are. But also thinking of others more than myself. At the end of the day, we’re football players for a limited time. I may be doing this for 10 years or less. I don’t think I could do this for 11 years. There’s something after taking your helmet off, and that’s something I always try to remember. And that’s something I had to learn quicker than later. I’m glad to have that Penn State experience because if I didn’t I probably would still be in that mindset. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. It’s knowing there’s more of a purpose than just football.
You were with your current wife then?
Johnson: Yeah. It was tough. It was definitely tough on her and we definitely had some struggles with that. And me just getting out of that was the breaking point. So I was able to express how I feel and love her the way I knew I always could.
You two have been through a lot — and are very open about it on social media. (Losing two children to miscarriages.) This happens to players around the league and nobody knows because they keep it personal. Why put all of that out there?
Johnson: It helps us cope. It also helps other people. That’s how we wanted to be. That’s how I am. Just thinking about how this is bigger than we are. If I kept it to myself, other people would think these things don’t happen. That’s how we thought. We thought other people didn’t go through a miscarriage like that. So many other people go through it. We were like, “Dang! This person went through it? And this person went through it?” Meeting people in the locker room who have gone through it— we wouldn’t have known. We wouldn’t have even known unless people reached out and said, “Yeah, we’ve been through it, too.” That brought us a ton of comfort that we really needed.
Johnson: Yeah. So the first was around April. The second was recent, in June. Being more positive now, we went to see a doctor and got on medications and stuff like that. So we’ll try again in a month or so.
When you got the news, how devastating was it?
Johnson: It was tough. It was tough. Because it was something I was so excited about and something I was so thrilled to be. It was definitely tough to hear that — especially twice.
Another traumatic thing to go through as a person, as a player. I’d imagine that makes you stronger mentally.
Johnson: You definitely get stronger. You get more honest with each other. You get more vulnerable with each other. You definitely find things about your partner that make you say, “Dang.” You see a different side. A different strength. A different love. It’s a deeper love. That makes you work even harder than these things right here because you’re fighting for something more.
On Go Long’s trip to New Orleans, I also visited the home of Demario Davis. The longtime linebacker relived the “audible” conversations with God that shaped him over the years in this profile last week, from a near-death experience to nearly quitting football.
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