Tonight, tonight the strip’s just right
I wanna blow ’em all out of their seats
Calling out around the world, we’re going racin’ in the street
— Bruce Springsteen, “Racing in the Street”
It was just over two years ago that much of the sports world was clued in to just how fast Chris Johnson is. That’s when he ran the 40-yard dash in an NFL scouting combine record time of 4.24 seconds.
Last fall, it was even more apparent when the Tennessee Titans’ running back became the first player in NFL history with three career touchdown runs of 85 yards or more — and he did it in a span of 10 weeks.
Years before that, though, when the world as he knew it was limited to the area in and around his Orlando, Fla., neighborhood, his speed was first recognized — and honed — almost daily during the summers of his youth. That’s when he and others put their toes up to the line — literally — and settled the issue in a barefoot version of Pinks, although the only thing on the line was pride.
“Basically, when you’re young in the neighborhood and people wanted to race, you always went light pole to light pole, no shoes or nothing — no shoes or socks,” Johnson said. “You basically just ran against whoever wanted to race you.
“Everybody wanted to race everybody. … Nobody was scared to race anybody. It was going on almost every day, especially during the summer.”
These days that speed is a prized commodity, one that commands marketing deals that guarantee each time he runs away from a defender, his feet will be adorned with a logo. It creates a sense of breathless anticipation for those in the stands, who believe a big play is possible every time he touches the ball. It also makes him arguably the most coveted asset in virtually every fantasy football league on the planet.
Despite all of that, his speed continues to surprise those whose job it is to limit his ability to run because it defies what those players understand as the basic geography of the game.
“It continues to show up that most of the people in this league underestimate how fast he is,” Titans running backs coach Craig Johnson said. “You’ve got a pursuit angle — that’s what defenses are taught — and you have gaps, but those gaps have a tendency to be a step or a half a step [off] when he’s running the ball. … He’s very dynamic.”
Johnson cannot recall exactly how many times he won or lost during his days of racing in the streets, although the satisfaction of the victories has not faded much. “You come home with your feet black, your feet black at the bottom. But you won, though,” he said.
It was only in high school that he finally realized he was faster than most. That’s when he became a sprinter on the track team in an effort to develop his speed for football.
He eventually finished runner-up in the state high school meet (to 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix) and ran the anchor leg on a 4x100 relay team, which won a pair of national championships.
“I was never a track guy, but I ran track to help me out with football,” he said. “I was just the fastest out there, so I started to like it. So I kept running.”
His record-setting set of dashes began last year on Sept. 20, when he broke a 91-yard run against Houston. On Nov. 1, he broke one for 89 yards against Jacksonville, and on Nov. 29, he scored from 85 yards against Arizona. He also turned two short pass receptions in 2009 into scoring plays of more than 60 yards.
“The downfield speed is the thing that creates problems for the defense because it causes them to adjust their angles and flatten out,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “When they flatten out, then they subject themselves to being vulnerable to the cutback. If you protect yourself from the cutback, he will run by you.”
With the 2010 season at hand, Johnson’s goal is to run the football like no one ever has. He aims to be the first player ever to rush for 2,000 yards in more than one season and has set his sights on 2,500 rushing yards over the next 16 games.
Gone are the days of running light post to post. Now he’s looking to go from milestone to milestone.