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Johnson's long road to the NFL and the New England Patriots

Heiko Oldörp in Boston
September 30, 2020

Jakob Johnson's American football career has been a rollercoaster. Right now, he's back on the way up and the Stuttgart-born player just made history with the New England Patriots.

Jakob Johnson made quite the journey to be on an NFL roster
Image: Anthony Nesmith/CSM/ZUMA/picture-alliance

Jakob Johnson spent his childhood in Stuttgart playing a lot of sport. Along with football and basketball, there was also time for wrestling. Johnson is also a qualified lifeguard and can play guitar.

"All the things you do when you grow up in Germany," Johnson told DW. American football came later, as did the ambition to be really good at it.

Today, the 25-year-old is an NFL (National Football League) player, playing as a fullback for the New England Patriots. On September 20, he became just the second German player to score an NFL touchdown. It sounds too corny to be true, but 14 million TV viewers watched Johnson catch a pass from quarterback Cam Newton against the Seattle Seahawks.

An unforgettable moment

At the same time 5,000 kilometers to the east, Markus Kuhn, the former New York Giant, celebrated Johnson's touchdown. Kuhn was previously the only German to have scored a touchdown in the NFL. Now he's not the only man on the list.

"I was overjoyed for Jakob. To have an offensive player score a touchdown for the Patriots, who are still one of the top teams in the NFL, is also proof that American football in Germany is progressing," Kuhn told DW.

Kuhn's big moment came on December 7, 2014 against the Tennessee Titans and the special part was that Kuhn, a defensive tackle, was the one scoring the touchdown. When Tennessee quarterback Zach Mettenberger fumbled the ball under pressure from the Giants defense, it was Kuhn who picked it up and ran it back 26 yards.

"I still remember the moment well. I think it's something I'll never forget. Jakob will feel something similar," Kuhn said.

After scoring, Johnson told German reporters on a conference call that the ball with which he scored was going to be saved in the cupboard.

Oktoberfest instead of NFL

Johnson spent four years playing at the college level in the US for the Tennessee in the Southeastern-conference, but he went undrafted.

And so Johnson returned to Stuttgart in 2018, believing that his chance at the NFL had gone. He played in the German Football League (GFL) for Stuttgart Scorpions, back where he started aged 12. The GFL might only be one letter different than the NFL but the salaries are world's apart. Johnson needed to find some work, which he did as a waiter at Baden's Oktoberfest. Johnson looked into becoming a pandemic and studying medicine. Then he got a call from the NFL office in London.

Johnson's touchdown against the Seahawks was a moment of history
Johnson's touchdown against the Seahawks was a moment of historyImage: Fred Kfoury Iii/Icon SMI/ZUMA/dpa/picture-alliance

They had cut film of Johnson's GFL games and were keen to offer him a trial. They wanted to see whether he was fit for the international player pathway program (IPPP), a concept developed by the NFL in 2017 to give foreign players the chance to prove themselves.

Johnson went to London and impressed. In January 2019, he was one of seven who were invited to Florida to work with NFL coaches and players for three months. Four were good enough to find a team, including Johnson who signed for the Patriots in April.

Number 91 of 90

When Johnson arrived at training camp in July 2019, his locker was right by the door marked "EXIT".

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick later said of Johnson, "In our 90 man roster he was number 91."

Seemingly he had no chance, but he was also a low risk move for the Patriots. Players who come through the IPPP have a special status that allows them to train with the team for a year long, giving them the chance to gather experience at the highest level with the best players. In return, they are paid around $120,000 (€102,940).

Bill Belichick is considered one of the greatest coaches ever in the NFL
Bill Belichick is considered one of the greatest coaches ever in the NFLImage: Getty Images/K. C. Cox

International players who have come through the IPPP are also not allowed to play in league games though. Johnson impressed Belichick so much though, that he put him in the practice squad (a group of 10 players who are there in case players in the final 53-man roster pick up an injury). Never before had a player who had come through the IPPP made it this far, but Johnson wasn't done yet.

First injury, then first choice

When experienced fullback James Develin was out injured, Johnson moved into the gameday roster and made his debut for the Patriots in their 2019 season week three game against the New York Jets.

"I don't think anyone early in the year would have thought Jakob would have made the roster, or even the practice squad," Belichick said days before. Three games later though, a shoulder injury ended Johnson's season.

Now he's back, as the number one fullback and making history for players who came through the international pathway program.

London, Florida, Practice Squad, gameday roster, catching a touchdown - Jakob Johnson has overcome hurdle after hurdle in recent years. Markus Kuhn called his rise "the hard road to the NFL."

Bill Belichick says Johnson continues to develop, which is music to the Stuttgart-born athlete's ears. But Johnson knows his past is no guarantee for his future.