Playing pro football just kind of happened, said Eric Johnson ’01, the former Yale star and current starting tight end for the San Francisco 49ers.
An NFL career was never the former Eli wide receiver’s dream or objective, and at the end of his final and record-breaking Yale season, Johnson’s draft prospects were questionable.
A combination of hard work and chance culminated in Johnson’s transition from Ivy League star to NFL starter.
Coming out of high school, Johnson, known as E.J. to Yale fans, preferred basketball to football. He started putting his focus on football when recruiters began paying attention to his exploits on the gridiron.
And “the NFL thing,” as he called it, did not even fully come into the picture until the summer before his senior year, when he began to realize he might be drafted.
At the end of Johnson’s Yale career, Bulldog head coach Jack Siedlecki did not expect the wide receiver to be drafted and thought he might have a better chance as a free agent.
Johnson, an American Studies major who choose Yale because he wanted a strong education, was not sure what direction to take after graduation, so he went to a few investment banking and trading interviews.
But at the advice of his New Haven-based agent Joe Linta, Johnson decided the best approach to ensure a draft day selection would be to put on some weight and switch positions.
And the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound wideout did indeed begin to add bulk to his frame.
Johnson started an intensive training program with current Chicago Bear and former teammate Than Merrill ’01, and the pair traveled to Dallas for physical training and nutrition education. A rigorous workout schedule and six meals a day fleshed Johnson out to a more lineman-like 255 pounds.
In a matter of months, the Eli record-breaker was no longer the prototypical Ivy League receiver, but a prospective NFL tight end.
“I knew that was the best way for me to have a chance to play,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t going to be able to play wide receiver because of [my lack of] speed, and [I] knew that I could probably put some weight on.”
Yale quarterback Peter Lee ’02 remembers the pair’s regimented routine.
“Those guys were really religious for that three month period,” Lee said. “They would get up every day at 6 and work out and would work out again in the afternoon preparing for when the teams would come and test them.”
Johnson set a number of goals for himself and credited this for his concentrated effort.
“I guess in the off-season I like having a goal and something that I like doing that I can work at,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to spend my time going through the motions.”
Johnson’s training was characteristic of his work ethic throughout his Yale football career.
“Eric was the first guy at practice, last guy to leave type athlete,” Siedlecki said. “He loved being out there, and he loved working on the little nuances of the game.”
The coach recalled a story of how the women soccer players who lived below Johnson in his apartment building complained to Siedlecki that the constant punt drops they heard through their ceiling were driving them crazy.
Johnson’s practice paid off with a three-year contract that totals $926,000 — a figure which should compensate for his not pursuing an investment banking job.
He was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round at the insistence of general manager Bill Walsh. After seeing Johnson on film, Walsh saw traits in Johnson similar to those of former 49er and Pro Bowl tight end Brent Jones, another converted receiver.
San Francisco tight end coach Tom Batta attested to Walsh’s propensity for scouting untraditional talent.
“Attribute it to Bill Walsh,” Batta said. “Bill has an eye for talent and has been able to do a good job with it.”
Siedlecki said that Walsh likes cerebral people.
“Many pros live off their superior athleticism. Eric, while being a great athlete himself, brings a great understanding of the game and its little nuances,” Siedlecki said. “He will continue to improve because of that. I think Bill Walsh sensed that and was willing to take a gamble.”
Lee also said that Johnson’s meticulous preparation give him an edge.
“He is just a great guy you want as a teammate,” Lee said. “He was obviously one of the most talented guys on the team, but he was just as much one of the hardest workers.”
When preseason training started, Johnson lost what he calls “bad weight” by conditioning and hit his current weight of 250 pounds.
But during the mini-camp, he was the fourth tight end and had to concentrate on learning the new offense and plays.
“I just kind of took it day by day and got help from the coaches,” said Johnson. “I was just trying to learn what I could learn.”
Johnson’s Ivy League career and his little NFL experience do not make for easy comparisons.
“It is hard to compare because I wasn’t at Yale weighing 250 and playing tight end,” said Johnson.
Still, he thinks the level of change is something every rookie player experiences no matter where he played college football, and Johnson’s main challenge seems to be making the transition from receiver to tight end.
“Now you have to block 300-pound guys,” said Batta. “But he has accepted it and worked hard at making the change.”
The size increase, said Batta, has been the key to Johnson’s success to date.
“You don’t see [players switching positions] too often,” said Batta. “It is a gamble you take, and sometimes it works out.”
He is known on the team as a pass-catching tight end, but Johnson does not feel he has fully established himself yet.
“I still have a lot to prove on that end,” said Johnson. “Hopefully, I will get some more chances to catch some balls and make some plays.”
But judging from his past performance and former coach’s opinion, Johnson has the goods to prove himself.
“He had the greatest hands I have ever seen,” said Siedlecki. “His control of his athleticism was great to watch every day.”
Now Johnson talks with confidence about his the future, and his poise contrasts with the inevitable anxiety rookies have before stepping on the field for their first professional games.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Once you get in there you react and are playing football,” said Johnson. “I felt a lot more comfortable on the field than five hours before the game.”
And since the exhibition opener in San Diego, he has gained more confidence with each game.
“I feel like it is night and day from the first preseason game,” Johnson said. “I feel like I keep improving every week and have made some big steps.”
Batta talked of this progression and said Johnson is in an ideal position because he has been able to step in as a reliable member of the 49ers’ offensive line.
Batta feels optimistic about Johnson’s future.
“He has to continue to have a good attitude, work on his blocking, and stay healthy,” Batta said. “I look for him to have an outstanding career in the NFL.”
Siedlecki thinks his potential for professional accomplishment is unlimited, pointing to Johnson’s relative youth in comparison to his fellow rookies.
“He is the youngest player on the 49ers roster, just turned 22 two weeks ago,” Siedlecki said. “He only played four years here. Most pros played in programs where you redshirt a year and then play four.”
And if he continues to work with the dedication he has shown, Batta thinks Johnson — who has 12 catches for 79 yards through the 49ers’ first five games — will continue to progress steadily.
“When you look at the great athletes that make it in the NFL, they have great work ethic,” Batta said. “He has to continue that.”