Leonard Johnson goes from plumbing job to NFL chance with Giants

Leonard Johnson goes from plumbing job to NFL chance with Giants

The timing of Leonard Johnson’s knee injury stank worse than the odors at the plumbing job he took on in football’s absence.

About two weeks before the 2022 draft and about two weeks after cementing his status as a potential late-round pick at Duke’s Pro Day, Johnson’s leg buckled during lateral conditioning exercises at a University of Alabama-Birmingham practice.

UAB doctors treated Johnson with the care one would expect from an alumnus, but brought the bad news: a torn cruciate ligament and meniscus.

At a time when other hopefuls felt their work was done, fate seemed to be punishing Johnson for pushing harder.

“I’ve received all these preliminary drafts, and it’s crazy that the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you healthy?’ ‘ Johnson told the Post. “I had to tell them the truth. I think 13 teams said to me, ‘If you’re at 100 percent, let us know. We’ll take you up to practice.’ I haven’t heard from any of these teams since I was released.

The Giants didn’t forget easily.

Johnson, 24, will report for the team’s offseason program in East Rutherford on Monday and may be fighting for a spot on a weakened cornerback depth chart just 367 days after undergoing knee surgery.

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Leonard Johnson walks against the Pittsburgh Panthers during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium in 2019.Getty Images

A few months ago, he removed 100-pound septic tank lids and fixed leaky pipes near his home in north Alabama.

“I feel like I still have so much to prove because I haven’t played football in a year,” Johnson said. “I’m so excited about rehab with some NFL coaches because I know everything will be fine. After getting hurt, I could only ask for one opportunity. I was so close, why should I just give up now, honestly? I just want to come to New York and show what I can do, especially after such a bad leg injury.”

The Giants invited Johnson to their facility for private practice and sent him for medical imaging last month before signing him to a three-year, $2.69 million contract – similar to the one he received as an undrafted rookie last season had.

Eric Young, the agent who stayed by Johnson’s side, delivered the offer from a market’s back aisle.

“I was about to get on a hospital elevator,” Johnson said. “If I had been anywhere else, I probably would have just screamed. I was super excited.”

Johnson was the paragon of consistency at Duke.

In his last four seasons, Johnson started 39 and missed one of a possible 48 games.

The 6-foot, 194-pound slot corner recorded six interceptions, added physicality on run assist and flashed speed for press coverage.

But his first significant injury brought him to a crossroads.

Should he use a prestigious degree – one of the reasons he attended Duke in the first place – and tap into his sociology major and minors in education and marketing management?

Should he devote 100 percent of his time to physical therapy?

Leonard Johnson trained at a workout at the University of Alabama-Birmingham before his injury.Leonard Johnson trained at a workout at the University of Alabama-Birmingham before his injury.Leonard Johnson

Or should he settle down in the 1,342-population town of Hayden, Alabama, and split his time between injury rehab and his first job so he could ease his parents’ financial burden while also staying on the radar for teams in the NFL , CFL, XFL and USFL?

“I needed money for gas to get back and forth for therapy,” Johnson said. “I just felt so different when I finished college and my parents still had to take care of me. I just couldn’t allow that.

“I have younger guys who look up to me in my small town and I’m at home doing the same thing they do every day. At some point it was embarrassing. It was a proud thing. I just had to get over it – not lie. I’m glad I went through that because it made me a better man.”

Johnson’s mother, a retail manager at a Walmart distribution center, and his father, a construction worker who lays asphalt for highway bridges, wanted their son to achieve his dream.

He followed their labor lead, asked a friend’s father for a job at A&T Burrow Septic Tank and Sewer Service, and unknowingly made himself an underdog for any Giants fan to support.

“Last year we had a retractable note for him,” said a scout for an NFL team. “If he’s healthy, he can make the Giants roster as it looks right now.”

Is he healthy?

“Lenny is looking a little more explosive now than before,” said trainer Justin Woodall, a former safety guard in Alabama. “He didn’t stop on himself. He really didn’t show any frustration because that can be hell just before the draft. Day one he was done and ready to go, man, he was ready to go in the lab.”

The alarm went off in time for Johnson to arrive at his 7 a.m. physical therapy appointments

This gave him days off to do a small contribution to installing septic tank field piping for Anthony Burrow – who requires his employees to be on time, aware of their surroundings and responsive to changing orders.

Sounds a lot like Giants coach Brian Daboll’s motto “smart, tough and reliable”.

Leonard Johnson breaks up a pass intended for Virginia Tech wide receiver Tayvion Robinson.Leonard Johnson breaks up a pass intended for Virginia Tech wide receiver Tayvion Robinson.AP

“I’ve known Leonard pretty much his entire life, so there was no hesitation,” Burrow said. “I see his potential. When I see someone trying to do good on their own, it’s hard for me to say no.”

Johnson made a strong impression that Burrow – a Cowboys fan – will be neutral when he faces Dak Prescott in the fall.

Some weeks were slow.

Some included Saturday mornings as the workload was too heavy to complete in five days.

Johnson wasn’t exactly making NFL rookie money.

“If I get paid on Friday,” Johnson said, “after paying a few bills, it could easily be gone by next Friday.”

Meanwhile, Johnson’s agent provided NFL teams with the most up-to-date rehab videos and tried to keep his client in the right headspace.

“We built a lot of confidence and he believed me when I told him he would have the opportunity to coach for teams once he was healthy,” Young said. “I’m proud of him because so many people in his position would lean on the agent like a bank instead of saying, ‘Let me use my hands.’ Having a young man like him willing to learn a trade to fend for himself and still stay trained and committed has never wavered.”

Johnson did all he could researching NFL tryouts — and uncovered an old story about a postal worker getting his shot — to be prepared for March 20.

He guessed it might only last 20 minutes so he wasn’t thrown for a loop as it was intense but short.

Former Duke teammate Daniel Jones later sent a “long message” congratulating Johnson and welcoming him to the Giants.

“I definitely believe in ‘everything happens for a reason,'” Johnson said. “When it happened and the doctor told me it hit me hard but I didn’t want my parents to put me down or make them feel like what I was going through. I was just willing to stay positive and get to work.”

New work address: 1925 Giants Drive.