CORTLAND, N.Y. — Big hair. Big teeth. Big plans. It’s safe to say there is nothing understated about Jets running back Chris Johnson.
Johnson got his first tattoo in seventh grade. He bought his first set of gold teeth as a high school senior. Off the field, he likes to pal around with rapper Lil Wayne and has his own record label, appropriately called Flashy Lifestyle.
Of course, it was Johnson’s dash, not flash, that the Jets were after when they handed him a two-year, $8-million contract in the offseason.
The three-time Pro Bowler and 2009 All-Pro is known as one of the fastest men ever to play the game, so fast that he once raced a cheetah on a National Geographic television special. (The cheetah won, but it was close.)
When it comes to human opponents, few have been able to catch Johnson. He is one of six rushers to gain at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons, and his 2009 performance is considered one of the greatest in NFL history — a record 2,509 yards from scrimmage.
Johnson is the only NFL player with six touchdown runs of more than 80 yards, one of which was a particularly devastating 94-yard run against the Jets on Dec. 17, 2012.
“The whiplash that I got from watching him run 94 yards against me, that’s one reason,” coach Rex Ryan said when asked why he has so much confidence in Johnson. “You watch him on tape. Did we see the 2,000-yard guy? Maybe not, but I know one thing, he’s still pretty darn effective. That was the kind of guy we saw. He still went for more than 1,000 yards last year.”
Barely. Last year, Johnson rushed for 1,077 yards, the second-lowest total of his career. He tore the meniscus in his right knee in Week 3 and played 13 games injured.
The Titans, betting that he is on the downside of his career, released him, but Johnson — who turns 29 in September and had arthroscopic surgery in January — believes he still has some pretty big years left. And that, more than anything else, motivates him as he gets ready for his first season as a Jet.
“Almost all of last year, I was hurt,” Johnson said. “Now I feel good, really good. I just want to get back on the field, help the team and continue making plays like I have my whole career and not worry about anybody else.”
Johnson has never been a guy who cares what others think, believing in himself when no one else did. He said that attitude is what has helped him overcome a number of serious injuries during his career.
A highly sought track and football star in high school in Orlando, Fla., Johnson broke his leg his senior year and missed seven games. That scared away every major program, and Johnson opted for East Carolina, the only school to offer him a scholarship.
He suffered a neck injury during his sophomore year of college that required surgery and was limited by turf toe in his junior year.
“I just overcame it all,” Johnson said. “You just have to have focus. You have to believe in yourself.”
Johnson totaled nearly 3,000 all-purpose yards his senior year at East Carolina and was projected to be a third-round draft pick when he headed to the 2008 NFL Combine. He felt pretty good as he got ready to run the 40, and he remembers telling a few coaches there that he was looking to run a 4.25.
After he finished, he remembers hearing Deion Sanders screaming that he had broken the record. Johnson’s 40 time of 4.24 remains the fastest since the implementation of electronic timing in 2000. It’s a badge of honor that Johnson continues to wear — literally. He has the time tattooed on his right calf.
Speaking of tattoos, Johnson has no idea how many he has, but he is running out of ink-free skin. “I was up to 25 when I got to college,” he said, “and then I lost count.”
His current favorite is an intricate portrait of his face on the upper part of his right arm. Johnson also knows how to appreciate artwork on others, and appeared on an episode of Spike TV’s Ink Master as a guest judge last season.
There are plenty of athletes with tattoos, but Johnson’s gold teeth are highly unusual. The often-told story that he once missed a team bus because he left his teeth in his hotel room is not true, Johnson said. His teeth are permanent, not the run-of-the-mill removable grill that some players sport, though he has had them redone several times during his career.
“I can’t tell you if he brushes or polishes them,” said quarterback Michael Vick, his roommate at training camp. “But I can tell you they’re shiny every morning.”
Vick and Johnson share the same agent and have been friendly for years. Since signing with the Jets, however, the two have become close, and both believe they have a lot more football to offer.
“It’s a crazy situation, both coming to the same team,” Johnson said. “It’s always helpful to be with someone in a similar situation, and we have the same mind-set where we want to work and work and get better.”