Former Titans All-Pro Chris Johnson: ‘I Was Supposed to be a Steeler’

Chris Johnson

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers at LP Field on October 11, 2012 in Nashville.

In 2008, the Tennessee Titans selected East Carolina running back Chris Johnson in the first round of the NFL Draft (No. 24 overall). But Johnson recently said he believes the Pittsburgh Steelers would have selected him one pick earlier, if not for an issue that arose during his pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh.

On the most recent edition of the All Things Covered podcast, co-host Bryant McFadden (a former Steelers cornerback), recalled how he and his defensive teammates heard that the organization had been extremely interested in drafting Johnson with the No. 23 overall pick.

McFadden: ‘We Heard … That [the Steelers] Were Definitely High on You’

“We knew we were going to take a running back—and we eventually heard, after the fact—that the Steelers were definitely strongly considering [you],” said McFadden. “We heard from the scouting department—from the powers-that-be—that they were definitely high on you, but it just didn’t work out.”

“Yes, It’s crazy … I was supposed to be a Steeler,” responded Johnson, noting that his pre-draft visit to Pittsburgh was going swimmingly, until running backs coach Kirby Wilson entered the room and said:

“Our team doctors want to send you to the hospital to take an MRI. ‘I was like, man, I can’t do that. I’m claustrophobic. I just toughed it out at the Combine.’”

Johnson recalls that Wilson left the room and then Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin came in. Johnson reiterated his fear of confined spaces and said, the “only way this going to happen is if they put me to sleep.”

Johnson recalls that Tomlin left the room, only to come back 15 or 20 minutes later, at which point he said:

“’We really need you to take the MRI but if you can’t take it, we are going to have to send you home, we can’t really do business with you….’ So they sent me home….

“Now that I go back and think about it, I think they was probably going to take me, but they didn’t take me because I wouldn’t take the MRI on the visit.”

The Steelers Drafted Rashard Mendenhall Instead

As it happens, the Steelers selected Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall instead of Johnson. Mendenhall went on to have a six-year NFL career: five seasons with the Steelers followed by one with the Arizona Cardinals. All told, he played in 72 games (with 63 starts), rushing the ball 1,081 times for 4,236 yards and 37 rushing touchdowns, plus 95 receptions for 795 yards and two more TDs. He is most-remembered by Steelers fans for losing a fumble in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV, which Pittsburgh lost to Green Bay, 31-25.

Meanwhile, Johnson—aka CJ2K—accomplished a lot more. In fact, Johnson had more rushing yards (4,598) in his first three seasons than Mendenhall did in his entire career.

CJ2K’s peak year came in 2009, when he was named first-team All-Pro after gaining 2,006 yards on the ground and scoring 14 touchdowns, adding 50 receptions and another 503 yards via the air. In the end, the last of the five running backs selected in the first round in 2008, played in 130 career games and gained 9,651 rushing yards, scoring 55 rushing touchdowns along the way.

Johnson—a two-star recruit coming out of high school—vaulted himself into first-round consideration in 2008 by running a then-record 4.24 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. (That record held until 2017, when wide receiver John Ross ran a 4.22 at the Combine.) Johnson played for the Titans for six seasons, followed by one season with the New York Jets and three more for the Arizona Cardinals.

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