Jovon Johnson’s football career has come full circle.
The veteran defensive back is back this season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the same team with which he started his CFL career in 2007. He joined the Riders in 2007 after a brief NFL stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2007, Johnson dressed for two games and was on the practice roster when the Riders beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-19 in the 2007 Grey Cup game.
Johnson signed the next season with Winnipeg, where he spent six seasons before signing with the Ottawa Redblacks. After two seasons with the Redblacks, Johnson joined the Montreal Alouettes for the 2016 season.
In 2017, Johnson was released by the Alouettes after the pre-season. Two days later, he signed with the Roughriders.
“It hurt me (being released by the Alouettes) because every time I sign with a team I always give them all that I’ve got,’’ says the 35-year-old Johnson. “In training camp, I felt that I played outstanding and to be treated the way I was by Montreal was a slap in the face. To come here, be appreciated and be valued for what I bring to the table meant more for me than being on any other team.’’
It wasn’t like that during Johnson’s first stint with the Riders.Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Jovon Johnson wears a multicoloured visor during practice on Aug. 11, 2017. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post
“The first go-round wasn’t as appealing as now,’’ Johnson says. “I was a guy that came in from the NFL and my No. 1 goal was to get back to the NFL. I was out there making plays on scout team and then being told not to do certain things on scout team. I’m one of those guys who doesn’t want to practise bad habits. Eventually, it got me off the scout team and into a starting role so I was doing something right.’’
Johnson then made a decision to sell the Grey Cup ring that was awarded to each player in 2007. He got $10,000 for it. Johnson was upset that players on the active roster for the Grey Cup game received $16,000 while those on the practice roster earned $500.
“At the time, it was an impulse decision because of how I was treated,’’ says Johnson, who has no idea where the ring is or who owns it. “Being on that team and only getting a $500 cheque for winning the Grey Cup and all of the other players got how many thousands? I felt like it was a slap in the face. I regret it now that I don’t have it and I’m trying to figure out a way to get it back.’’
Johnson has done it right throughout his 11-year CFL career. He is a five-time division all-star and a two-time CFL all-star. He was also named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player in 2011 while with the Blue Bombers.
“He’s a very instinctual player and he’s a lot of fun to coach,’’ says Chris Jones, the Riders’ head coach and general manager. “You don’t have to coach him a whole lot because he has seen so much. He’s in the right place at the right time so many times.’’
Johnson is among the Riders’ most active players in terms of community involvement. He’s committed to raising funds and awareness for Lyme disease, which is spread to humans through the bite of a black-legged tick.Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Jovon Johnson makes a carch during a warm-up before a CFL game against the Calgary Stampeders held at Mosaic Stadium on Sept. 24, 2017. Michael Bell / Regina Leader-Post
Johnson was with the Redblacks when he became involved with Lyme disease causes after a friend battled the effects of the disease. He conducted a barbecue in July and recently held a bowling night that was attended by approximately 60 fans and players with proceeds going to Lyme disease research.
“This is something that is near and dear to me,’’ Johnson says. “It’s also a way to get out there in the community and show the people who ultimately pay our game cheques that we appreciate them. It’s a way for us to use our platform to make a kid’s day or help them appreciate you even more.’’
Johnson is involved in the community in his hometown of Erie, Penn., where he has operated Jovon Johnson’s Skills Academy for six years. He started the academy as a means of being involved in the lives of children from low-income families without father figures.
Johnson keeps in contact with approximately 30 kids from the academy, mentoring them while providing guidance on personal issues through to dealing with bullying.
“I always check in with them on a regular basis to see how they’re doing in school, staying out of trouble and doing the right things,’’ Johnson says. “For me, I was that kid. I went through a lot of the things they went though like being afraid to come home and tell your parents about a bad situation at school because you never know how they will react to it. I tell them my story so they understand that I’m here to help them and not look at them in a different way.’’