CLEVELAND — Minutes after completing the most memorable game of his football career, D'Ernest Johnson was asked about his dinner plans for the following night.
"I'm definitely not having the mahi-mahi," Johnson said with a smile after rushing for 146 yards and a touchdown in the Browns' 17-14 win over the Denver Broncos on Thursday night. "I'll probably have some salmon, but not no mahi-mahi."
Three years ago, Johnson's answer would have been more of a foregone conclusion.
After going undrafted out of South Florida in 2018, the Immokalee, Florida, native participated in the New Orleans Saints' rookie minicamp but didn't ultimately receive a contract offer. With football seemingly out of his future, Johnson took a job fishing for mahi-mahi with a friend who is a private fisherman in Key West.
"It was a tough journey for me," Johnson said last year. "Going from in 2018 with the Saints through their mini-camp and not knowing what was going to happen from there so I had to get a job fishing, and I did that for like two months trying to make money."
Johnson later worked at a gym before getting an opportunity to play for the Orlando Apollos in Alliance of American Football (AAF). While the AAF was short-lived, Johnson played well enough to earn a free-agent contract from the Browns ahead of the 2019 season.
Although he was officially Cleveland's fourth-string running back, Johnson appeared in all 16 of the Browns' games as a 23-year-old rookie, primarily contributing on special teams. In 2020, he beat out Dontrell Hilliard to make Cleveland's roster as the team's third-string running back behind the two-headed monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
While Johnson was again primarily used on special teams, the Browns called on him to help close out a Week 4 win over the Dallas Cowboys after both Chubb and Hunt exited the game with injuries. But even after rushing for 95 yards on 13 carries, he found himself thinking about the fishing boat.
“It crosses my mind every time," Johnson said after the game. "Every time I step on the field I am like, ‘Man, look how far I have come.'"
That sentiment rang especially true on Thursday as Hunt received the first start of his NFL career. It didn't take long for South Florida's all-time leader in all-purpose yards to get comfortable as he rushed for 34 yards on three carries on Cleveland's opening drive, which he capped with a four-yard touchdown run to give the Browns an early 7-0 lead.
"I wanted to celebrate, but I didn't know what to do, man," Johnson said of his first career NFL touchdown. "I was thinking about a lot of [celebrations] before I got here but when the moment happened, I didn't know what to do. I just yelled and screamed and celebrated with the team."
Johnson proceeded to rush for the second-most yards in a game of any Browns running back this season, closing out the one-score contest with an eight-yard gain on third-and-seven with 1:09 remaining. After the game, he went viral for his reaction to the news that LeBron James had shouted him out on Twitter, an earnest reminder of just how far he has come in the past three years.
"I never lost trust in the process," he 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.”