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The man who prevailed, Diontae Johnson, arrives in Carolina

Diontae Johnson

CHARLOTTE— Diontae Johnson went a long time without winning. For two straight years in high school, his team won only one game, and Johnson wondered if his decision to stay would ever pay off.

Lennard High School, in Ruskin, Fla., isn't big. The town sits on the inland side of Tampa Bay, tucked away from Tampa, St. Petersburg, and the white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a sparsely populated area when the Johnson family first moved there, with the local Lennard High only starting a football program as recently as 2006. When the area grew tenfold seemingly overnight, Johnson's family decided to move to a more affordable area.

But Diontae asked if he could stay.

He was in 10th grade at the time, old enough to cut the apron strings yet young enough for this to be a major life change. Moving in with his best friend and the friend's family was a risk, but one Johnson knew he had to take.

"I felt like I had a good opportunity to go to college from that school," Johnson recalled.

Diontae Johnson

The risk came not just from staying behind, as his family moved across the bay to Tampa, but in dreaming he had a path from Lennard, the same school that won precisely zero games that season, to a scholarship, as opposed to the talent-laden schools in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

He had something to prove, though, even if he didn't know it at the time. As a senior, Johnson helped lead his team to their best record to that point, 8-3, while playing quarterback, defensive back and receiver, in addition to returning punts and kickoffs.

"(He) is certainly in the top five if not the top two," said Johnson's high school coach, Keith Chattin, at the time. "We have sent plenty of kids to college and Division 1 schools, but he is the most versatile kid we have ever had."

Johnson was named a county and state all-star…yet had no stars. The receiver was unranked on every major recruiting site and received no offers from Power 5 schools.

It's almost laughable to consider now. The kid with no stars, little post-season adulation, even fewer offers, telling the story as he lounges in the luxury seats on the edge of an NFL field Thursday, with his name flashing around the Carolina Panthers facility after he'd just been acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Diontae Johnson, Dave Canales

"I'm the only one from my school to ever make it to the NFL," he said, a surge of pride lilting his voice at the declaration.

"It's a newer school," he continued. "But to be the only player to do that, like that's history. Nobody (else), you know what I'm saying?"

Johnson will go back there this fall for a ceremony when Lennard High School retires his jersey, which makes him chuckle over emotion just thinking about it.

"Being able to have two jerseys like that hanging up in there, at the school that you went to, it's real big for me." The other jersey is his college jersey from Toledo.

The ceremony will be a manifestation of all he did, not only for Lennard but also for all he's done since. And that road, much like high school, has been challenging.

When Johnson arrived in Pittsburgh, a third-round selection by the Steelers in the 2019 NFL draft, Ben Roethlisberger was 16 years into an 18-year career. He had a particular way of doing things, regardless of whether it differed from how Johnson might have played when leading his high school squad or dominating at Toledo.

"Ben always liked to do things his way and I had to kind work around that," Johnson recalled. "So, learn how to play his game, what he liked and what he didn't."

Such a dynamic can be overwhelming for young receivers at times; while catching up to the speed of the game that suddenly moves faster than ever before, having to also re-learn how you do, well, everything. That rookie season, Johnson finished with 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns, which is respectable by most rookie standards but would end up being his lowest output in the NFL.

As he adapted to Roethlisberger and the league, his numbers grew. The 2021 season sent him to the Pro Bowl with 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns on 107 receptions, all career highs. Roethlisberger retired the following season, the Steelers moved on to Kenny Pickett, and Johnson took everything he learned under the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback and passed it on to the rookie.

"I feel like (Ben) kind of helped me out adjusting with Kenny," Johnson explained. "I kind of showed him how I run routes, what to expect here or where I want the ball at or certain stuff like that. He picked up stuff so quick, he didn't really need much help from that standpoint, but on the field, I kind of wanted to just let him know how I play and what he should be expecting."

Diontae Johnson, Adam Thielen

That first season with Pickett was a lot of trial and error. Johnson set an NFL record for most reception yards in a season (882) without scoring a touchdown. But chemistry takes time, repetition, and trust. The two connected for 717 yards and five touchdowns through 13 games last season.

It's a process Johnson is looking to recreate now with Bryce Young.

"I feel like I can help Bryce out a lot. I mean, and I know it's going to take time, but I just got to have patience," Johnson promised. "I know things aren't going to be smooth just out the gate. (But) I kind of know like what to expect."

Young has yet to be able to meet Johnson in person, but the two connected as soon as the trade was made public and coordinated some training together this offseason.

"Start getting this chemistry together," Johnson said.

That looks different from quarterback to quarterback, Johnson explained, but certain things stay the same. Therefore, his goal list with Young is simple, to start. Figure out how long it takes Young to throw the ball, whether his release is high or low, and let Young learn how long it takes Johnson to get out of breaks on routes.

"As a receiver, I would say, obviously, you want the ball. But just (getting) that timing down and then actually knowing when the quarterback is going to release the ball and him knowing where you going to be at, that's a big thing," Johnson said. "I feel like that's when you know, like on certain routes, like you can tell like they, they in rhythm."

As to when that rhythm hits, only time will tell. But Diontae Johnson has been in similar positions before, with a team desperate for wins, leaning on his natural talent to carry them out. And at least once before, he's delivered, turning in a performance that will now live on forever in the rafters.

View action shots of Diontae Johnson throughout his career.

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