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Steelers Will Johnson is transforming from unwanted rookie to veteran leader

If anyone knows about making something out of nothing, it's the former WVU tight end. In only his second year, he's already become a vocal leader to this year's flock of new faces.


Leadership is something which can't be taught. It requires a denial of one's self for the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

For most players, preparing for NFL training camp is enough to worry about. Most aren't afforded the luxury of job security. Every day is a battle for survival. No one knows this better than Will Johnson, starting fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Johnson almost became a casualty of the NFL lockout prior the 2011 regular season. The league was slowly watching more teams transition to three-or-more receiver based offenses, and eliminate the traditional full-back. Even the Steelers were guilty as they attempted to use tight end David Johnson as a hybrid TE/FB/H-back under the coordination of Bruce Arians.

With fewer teams seriously scouting fullback prospects, Johnson was not invited to the NFL scouting combine; then he went undrafted. With the lockout in place, the few teams who were interested in him as a free agent forgot about him as everyone focused on the labor dispute. However, Johnson did not give up.

He put in the work and not only stayed in shape as he endured the 2011 season away from football, but when he received an invitation to his alma mater West Virginia Universtiy's pro day prior to the 2012 NFL season, Johnson arrived in better shape than his fellow participants.

West Virginia Illustrated covered the pro day, and had this to say about Johnson's performance:

He had just finished benching 225 pounds 30 times – the most anyone put up all day – and an agent on site clocked him at 4.49 seconds in his 40-yard-dash, though he never got an official time from the scouts on hand.

His routes were crisp and even had former teammates buzzing about how well he was performing. Anyone who knows Johnson would have first been struck by how jacked, for lack of better words, he appeared.

His hard work payed off, as in attendance this day was Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who were actually there to watch fellow Mountaineer TE/WR prospect Wes Lyons. Tomlin and Colbert approached Johnson before the day concluded, and soon after Johnson signed with Pittsburgh. By the beginning of the season Johnson had become the starting fullback for an NFL team, mostly due to his performance in the preseason and training camp, although the torn ACL of David Johnson didn't hurt his chances either.

However, just like any other opportunity, Johnson ran with it full speed ahead. He was named to the NFL's mid-season all-rookie team and scored his first pro TD against the Washington Redskins, all while learning the professional game on the fly as well as new coordinator Todd Haley's reportedly complicated offense. Johnson was not perfect by any means, but he played well enough to establish himself as a regular part of the offense from day one, and is now expected to remain the team's starting fullback long-term.

In 2013, Johnson will be entering only his second professional season, but he already knows how much work it took to make the team in the first place, and he understands how much work he has ahead of him if he wants to continue to improve; but even knowing how hard he must push to "build on his craft", as quoted by Caleb Wygal of Pros Report, he looks to also set an example for the young players just joining the team, fighting for the same opportunity he fought for not-so long ago. Some of those players are even former teammates of Johnson's.

"It's always great to have former teammates with you. I believe these guys have a great opportunity in front of them, and I'll do what I can to keep them motivated and hungry."

Johnson is the perfect example to young ears and eyes willing to pay attention. He worked three jobs while keeping himself in shape, without any guarantee a team would be interested in him a year later. He kept himself hungry and motivated in the real-world, a struggle established and promoted players take for granted. Johnson continues to stay hungry himself, acknowledging the rookies and newcomers aren't the only ones who need to improve.

"It felt great to be back on the field with my teammates during OTA's. I'm really excited to get things started. I had a good off-season and I'm ready to progress from last season."

"My focus during OTA's will be to continue to build on my craft individually and grow as player."

In an off-season where leadership and character have become a perceivable theme, Johnson is showing all the qualities of leadership for a new generation of Steelers - hopefully for years to come. In 2013, expect big things from Johnson in an even bigger role.