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Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Johnson has come a long way to realize dream of starting in NFL

It's funny how hard it is to sleep knowing that after the day dawns, your dreams will come true.

Josh Johnson will look out the window of his room at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill this morning knowing he is just hours from making his first NFL start.

For the 23-year-old quarterback, whose pro experience consists of 11 snaps during mop-up duty last week against the Giants, he will face an all-out blitz of nerves.

"Now it's a different ballgame. He ain't Mariano Rivera; he's CC Sabathia," said Doug Williams, the Bucs' director of pro personnel. "They're handing him the ball for the first pitch. That's a different mind-set.

"I think what Josh is probably going to be thinking is what I was thinking before my first start, which is where you have come from."

If you are Johnson, preparing to play the Redskins at FedEx Field today, you are thinking about your mother, Rosemary Whisenton.

Growing up in Oakland, Johnson was one of four children raised by a single mother who worked three jobs: as a security guard for Oakland Tech High School, where she coached girls volleyball, then nights at FedEx and weekends at Toys R Us.

"I've seen her literally fall asleep at stoplights because she was that tired," Johnson said. "But she'd get up and do it again every day."

Whisenton left home at age 16, one of 15 children in her family (eight girls, seven boys). She had high expectations for herself and her children, particularly Johnson, who was driven at an early age. "We were watching a football game on television, and he said, 'That's going to be me on TV one day,' " Whisenton said. "He was 4!"

If you are Johnson, you remember when your mother made you stop playing Pop Warner football because you brought home a C on your report card. As an incentive, she started paying $20 for every A — until the incentive program went bankrupt.

You remember how you complained about your knee hurting after suffering a season-ending leg injury before the start of your junior year at Tech and still won most inspirational player.

"He hurt a growth plate in his leg, and the doctors told him he's not going to grow any more," Whisenton said. So when the varsity coach at Tech approached her about Josh playing varsity as a senior, she said no.

"I told him, 'He ain't playing varsity football; he's too little,' " Whisenton said. " 'You're not going to kill my baby.' "

Whisenton relented, and Johnson passed for 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns (with just two interceptions) as a senior. His mother rarely got to see him play because she was working security or collecting money at the gate.

"I didn't realize how good Josh was until he got to college," she said.

At his sports banquet, Johnson publicly thanked his mom for her sacrifice.

"It brought her to tears," he said. "It brought me to tears, too, because that's kind of the way she is, too. We both keep things inside."

If you are Johnson, you remember it was about this time that you started to become acquainted with your father, Gordie Johnson. He wasn't around much after you were born because he got married and had another family.

Johnson's father coached at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda, Calif., for 22 years. When Johnson was in high school, his father rarely got to see him play football. But the elder Johnson would sometimes sneak into the gym to watch him play basketball from a corner where he couldn't be seen.

"I wasn't the type of father that could sit up in the stands and yell and holler," the elder Johnson said. "It was his time in the spotlight. I didn't want him to know I was there."

Whisenton always encouraged the father-son relationship.

"My thing is, regardless of what happened, he's still your father," she said. "Respect your parents, no matter what."

Today, sports is the common language between Johnson and his father, who is the basketball coach at UC Santa Cruz.

"The easiest way to get to know me is through sports. That's what has helped bring us even closer together," Johnson said. "My mom has her own sports she coaches and stuff, but she's not into the NFL. If I had had that opportunity when I was growing up, I would've talked his ear off."

Johnson wanted to go to Cal, like his cousin, Bills running back Marshawn Lynch. But Pac-10 teams don't recruit 5-foot-11, 165-pound quarterbacks. So he wound up at the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA program then coached by Jim Harbaugh.

Williams was one of the first NFL reps to scout Johnson, who threw an eye-popping 43 touchdowns and only one interception as a senior.

"A lot of people said he went to a small school, but Phil Simms went to a small school," Williams said. "I went to a small school. You've got to be fair to the kid. I think the more you look at it, you try to get away from where he's playing and put his ability first.

"I said, 'Damn, man, I've got a son (D.J.) that's bigger than you in high school.' I said, 'How much you weigh, man?' At that time, he might have been 195. I told him he needed to start eating more.

"But the more you watched him athletically, it became a man playing against boys. He dominated his level. He completely dominated."

If you're Johnson, you remember the NFL combine, when you ran a 4.49 40-yard dash but tweaked your back and didn't tell anyone. Then disaster struck and every football you threw looked "like a duck and a beer bottle," as Williams described it. That's why Johnson fell to the fifth round.

Had Bucs coach Jon Gruden not been fired, Williams said, Johnson would've been given a chance to compete for the starting job this year. "Everything changed," Williams said. "We drafted a quarterback in the first round. You've got a kid who worked his behind off and all of a sudden you go from possibly competing for the starting job to being No. 4. I don't care how you cut it up, he was No. 4."

But Luke McCown was traded, Byron Leftwich was benched, and Josh Freeman isn't ready. Johnson kept working his way up the depth chart.

"Looking back, growing up with my little cousin, I didn't think I'd see the day he'd be leading a team into a game like this," Lynch said. "Not in my wildest dreams."

But if you are Josh Johnson, today is your dream. Only it's real.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Johnson has come a long way to realize dream of starting in NFL 10/03/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 4, 2009 9:37am]
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