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“Breaking my thumb early in the season was frustrating, especially since it meant I had to miss the fall USA assembly,” Johnson told RUGBYMag.com. “It's great to be back in playing form, playing games rather than just leg-pressing and bicycle conditioning in the rehab groups.”
Although, Johnson said the London Irish strength and conditioning staff was outstanding.
“I came back with lower-body strength numbers I hadn't seen since the peak of my football days,” he said.
Johnson got back on the field just before Christmas, and secured more and more playing time. Playing for London Welsh last month he recorded his first professional try. In his second game back he played against USA teammate John van der Giessen at Bath.
“It feels amazing, even if it's taken way too long to score a try!” he said. “I'm pleased with how my game has been developing. I feel fortunate to be able to cherry-pick pointers from two great clubs. And I've had some exciting games in the last few weeks.”
After several weeks for getting in roughly 20 minutes each week for London Irish, Johnson made his first start against Northampton. Since Faan Rautenbach's return from his stamping ban, he has split time between Welsh and Irish, looking for time.
“I feel like I continue to improve each game I play, and it's been nice to test myself now across a range of the British professional scene,” Johnson explained. “I am doing what I can on my side to control the control-ables. To that end I am working to get bigger, stronger, faster, (and leaner) with as much game time as possible scrummaging at tighthead, which is key. Working with and against guys like Clarke Dermody at London Irish has really helped bring me along technically as well.”
Johnson also credits the USA coaching staff, especially forwards coach Dave Hodges, for encouraging him and helping him along.
The prop also has someone he knows to share the experience with. Shawn Pittman is a regular starter for London Welsh, and the two have played together on a few occasions.
“Playing next to Shawn has been a lot of fun,” the former Olympic Club prop explained. “It's nice to have an American compatriot to deflect the anti-American banter because I'm all alone at Irish. When Welsh played against Ulster and Scott Lavalla, Shawn and I joked that with three Americans on the pitch at once, the field might implode. More to your point, it's a good beachhead for American rugby. And I definitely think one thing that we miss as a setup is having guys playing with each other regularly. So it's good to see it as well with Usasz and Sifa in Nottingham.”
Having achieved his Master’s at Oxford, Johnson could be pursuing a lucrative career back home, but it wouldn’t be a rugby career. He has had to make difficult decisions along the way – NFL or no NFL, school or rugby. He missed the Churchill Cup because he had to defend his thesis and finish his schoolwork.
“Missing the Churchill Cup last year was a matter of unfortunate timing - Oxford has really quirky finals and dissertation rules and the Cup coincided with the finals,” he said. “It was a conflict we saw coming in September: the choice was either to backload academic commitments to be involved in the fall for the qualifiers (against Uruguay) even though it disrupted Varsity preparations, or frontload the academic commitments and stay in Oxford for the Varsity-Match term, making myself available in June for the Churchill Cup. We decided that it was more important to help secure a spot in the World Cup.”
RUGBYMag.com asked Johnson if he sometimes looks around him and wonders, “how did I get here? Or does he wonder how he’s still just so new?”
“On the eve of my Irish debut I emailed Ray Lehner to laugh that it was just four seasons ago that I played my first game, ever, for him,” Johnson explained. “Then again, I have my five-year Harvard reunion upcoming in May, and when I think where I was and what I was doing five years ago it is a complete world away from where I am now, certainly from what I could ever have imagined would intervene. I spent a year chasing the NFL. Two weeks after I thought I was done with sports for good I stumbled onto rugby and now have earned a Master's degree from Oxford, earned my Blue playing in Twickenham, and have settled in London and make a living playing the sport professionally. It's absolutely wild. The Harvard football and NFL tryouts seem long-distant since the rugby has swelled to its own professional proportions. Sharing the professional experience with a Harvard football friend I've reconnected with in London has redoubled the effect. I invited him to an Irish home game, and I think he came expecting it to be a club game in a park somewhere in London - forgivable since not too long ago we were playing together on the offensive line. It caught him by surprise to be seated in a box in a full-professional match at Madjeski stadium.”