As your teaching assistant drones on about political philosophy, your mind wanders to a massive football stadium in Florida on a clear, cool evening. It’s fourth and goal with 10 seconds left in the Super Bowl. The deafening roar of the crowd blocks out any other sound … and then you snap out of it, back to the reality of Rousseau.
While many Yalies can relate to this fantasy, Eric Johnson ’01 is living the dream. Of the hundreds of varsity athletes who pass through Yale’s locker rooms, only a handful make it to the professional sphere: as of December, only 17 Ivy League graduates were on NFL rosters. A star player during his four years as a wide receiver for the Bulldogs, Johnson, currently the starting tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, is defying the odds against Ivy League success in the arena of professional sports. One of the top tight ends in the league, and one of the most successful of the Ivy League NFLers, he signed an incentive-laden three-year $4.5 million contract with the team in March 2004.
Johnson is perhaps best known among Bulldog fans for “The Catch”: the now-famous winning play from the 1999 Harvard-Yale game in which he came up with the ball in the end zone during the last few seconds. Over his career at Yale, Johnson made a staggering 182 receptions for 2,144 yards.
But the road to professional stardom was not easy for Johnson. Despite his clear natural athleticism, many scouts worried that he was too slow to make it to the pros as a wide receiver. As a result, he changed positions to tight end and gained a significant amount of weight in order to get drafted, spending the summer before the draft training with a nutritionist in Dallas.
Despite the burden of changing positions and having to train extremely hard, Johnson said that the transition into the NFL was not as difficult as one might imagine.
“Once I got to [training] camp, I realized I could play with these guys,” he said. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
Johnson said many of the coaches at Yale were highly influential in making his transition to the pros as easy as possible and is still thankful for Yale head football coach Jack Siedlecki giving him the chance to play receiver.
“I did not expect this at all,” Johnson said. “When I was looking at colleges, I was not thinking about playing football professionally.”
Johnson, originally from Needham, Mass., said he knew he wanted to be at a college which had a strong academic program in addition to a reputable football team. He looks back at his Yale education as a critical aspect of his success.
“The whole atmosphere of Yale was just great,” he said. “The people are just amazing, really down-to-earth. And the education transfers to the football field — it’s the same discipline you need to get work done.”
Johnson said that his multifaceted education increased his drive for success in the NFL. Johnson, who was an academic All-American, was even called the “big nerd” by his teammates, Siedlecki said. Since Johnson spent his college years pursuing many interests, unlike other draftees who went to larger football-oriented schools, he was not burned out by the time he reached the pros.
Gary Haller, master of Jonathan Edwards College, remembers Johnson as being ever-present in his residential college, often eating meals in the dining hall with his nonathletic peers and maintaining ties to the community.
Johnson said his teammates and friends were very important to his college experience. Now living in San Francisco with his fiancee, Johnson manages to keep in touch with a lot of his Eli friends even though the majority of them live on the East Coast.
Than Merrill ’01 — who currently works in real estate in New Haven — lived with his teammate Johnson for the last two years of college. Also drafted in the NFL, Merrill played for the Chicago Bears for one year before his professional football career came to an end.
Merrill and Johnson remain close friends; Merrill plans on attending Johnson’s bachelor party in two weeks.
Merrill said he always knew Johnson had great potential.
“He was always a great athlete just from a pure athletic standpoint,” Merrill said. “He was good in a lot of areas. It’s just something that can’t be taught.”
Siedlecki said that Johnson’s raw talent was unparalleled.
“He has the greatest hands of anyone I’ve ever coached or ever seen,” Siedlecki said. “And that’s what I’d tell all the scouts who came to see him. He’s just one of the real unbelievable success stories here.”
Johnson said he is proud of the progress he has made on the 49ers: he made 82 receptions last year — the third most among tight ends — and was named the first alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl team. After battling injuries last year, Johnson said he is hoping to stay healthy and to continue to perform at his best, with the eventual goal of making it to the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.
Current Yale football standout Ralph Plumb ’05, who is hoping to be drafted in this year’s NFL draft, has recently been in contact with Johnson. Plumb, who is also making the switch from wide receiver to tight end, said he has always looked up to Johnson as a role model, studying the way Johnson ran routes as a big possession receiver.
Plumb, who came to Yale the year after Johnson graduated and went on to break Johnson’s record for career receiving yards, said Johnson “left a void” on the team that was daunting initially.
Now, facing the NFL draft, Plumb said he hopes to have the same success as his predecessor.
“It’s an honor just to be compared to him,” Plumb said. “I’m just starting out. For every Eric, there are a hundred guys who don’t even make it through training camp.”