Cardinals’ Johnson graduates from asbestos removal to NFL opportunity

Cardinals rookie running back David Johnson set school records with 4,687 rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns duing his career at Northern Iowa.

Bruce Yeung

TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals running back David Johnson is the rare American for whom cleaning toilets is an upgrade over his previous job.

Northern Iowa football players didn’t receive scholarship money during the summer, so Johnson, the Cardinals recent third-round pick, had the choice of either taking a class or getting a job. He needed the money so he worked.

"My first year I was there I did asbestos removal," Johnson told a wide-eyed Arizona media corps on Thursday at the team’s headquarters. "We didn’t do the very potent stuff. We only did about 1 to 3 percent asbestos, which is in old schools. It’s like a glue that they use for tiles. We had to wear a suit with a mask. It’s about 100 degrees and we had to scrape tiles off and remove all the glue."

When Johnson got the chance to clean toilets and drains for $9 an hour under UNI facilities mechanic Phil Chien following his sophomore year, he accepted eagerly.

Gunter reaps reward for hard work

"It’s definitely not a fun job," Johnson said. "It was hot, I was sweating and it was hard for me to keep my weight on. When I got to workouts it was a cool day.

"It made me really appreciate everything that I’ve done, everything that I had to sacrifice and go through, especially in the summer where a lot of people are (on) vacation and I had to do a job and I had to work out." 

Johnson wasn’t the only one who benefitted from the arrangement. Chien got a humble kid who worked hard and was receptive to his advice.

"He was kind of quiet so it was kind of hard to get to know him," Chien said. "Each year, I’d get a little more info, but he was always a good worker. He did anything you asked him to.

"It was funny because I knew he would have a chance to play pro ball and a lot of these guys, when they make their money, they’ll just pay someone else to do their work for them, but he told me ‘I want to learn this stuff because when I move out of my apartments I’m always having to fix stuff. I want to be able to fix it myself.’ That really impressed me."

Johnson, who wants to coach after his playing days, said Chien always advised him to get his degree so that he’d have something to fall back on if football didn’t work out.

"The average life span of a running back is what, six years?" Chien said. "I always said, well, what are you going to do after that? What happens if you get injured after one year?

"I think David already knew what he had to do. I always thought he was a pretty level-headed kid. He never struck me as being arrogant or having that ‘I’m a star, I don’t need to do this’ attitude. I’m sure he’s no angel, but he was closer than some."

Johnson (6-feet-1, 224 pounds) set school records with 4,687 career rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns at Northern Iowa. He arrived in Tempe last week for the Cardinals three-day rookie minicamp at the team’s training facility.

Following his draft, coach Bruce Arians compared him to Chicago star running back Matt Forte, adding that Johnson is "maybe a little faster." 

Johnson appreciates the praise but he won’t be swayed by hyperbole. He’s ready to roll up his sleeves. 

"It’s definitely going to be really nice," he said. "I can focus more on football. I’m definitely glad I get to actually do what I love and get paid for it."

At the same time, Johnson understands those summers with Chien helped prepare him for this moment.

"It taught me that not everything’s given," he said. "Not everything’s handed to you. If you want something you’ve got to go get it."

The Cardinals on Monday announced they signed rookie free agent safeties Harold Jones-Quartey and Brandon Person and quarterback Phillip Sims. All three players participated in the team’s rookie mini-camp this past weekend on a tryout.

To make room on the roster, the Cardinals released wide receiver Travis Harvey, tackle Kelvin Palmer and safety Ross Weaver.

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