NEW YORK -- Lane Johnson slapped on the Eagles hat, hugged the commissioner and smiled for the cameras.
The brightest lights of the country’s biggest city shined upon the former Oklahoma offensive tackle taken fourth overall by the Eagles on Thursday night in the NFL draft (see story).
Back in his rural hometown of Groveton, Texas, about a 90-minute drive north of Houston and far from city lights, Johnson could envision how its 1,000 or so residents were celebrating their native son’s achievement.
“Maybe a lot of beer drinking to be honest,” he said with an honest smile.
Johnson wore Groveton on his sleeves and in his dialect Thursday at Radio City Music Hall, charming reporters with his southern twang and with the confidence that comes from having the support of an entire town behind him.
Not considered among the top 32 prospects at the end of his senior season at Oklahoma -- and probably not among the best 64 -- Johnson bridged the gulf between he and the elite offensive linemen, then became the third tackle taken in the top four picks.
No disrespect to Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel, picks No. 1 and No. 2 on Thursday night, but Johnson said his future is the brightest.
“I think when all of us reach our full potential, I think mine will be much higher than theirs,” he said.
About a half hour after being picked, in a side interview with a few Philadelphia reporters, Johnson reflected on his unpredictable journey from failed junior college quarterback to NFL first-round pick.
He talked about proving doubters wrong and embracing his next challenge of fulfilling the potential of being the fourth player taken in the draft.
He promised that his long, winding journey isn’t the storybook ending it appears to be, not with so much more still to prove.
“To go to the NFL doesn’t mean that you’ve made it in the NFL,” he said. “My story has just begun.”
It started in Groveton, a logging community tucked into eastern Texas that isn’t unlike most rural Lone Star State towns.
The collars are blue and the passion for pigskin is intense.
“It’s just like ‘Friday Night Lights,’” Johnson said. “Except on a smaller scale.”
Johnson took some of Groveton with him to The Big Apple, including his mother, Ray Ann Carpentier; his father, David Johnson; his stepdad, James Evans; and his wife, Chelsea.
Ray Ann is a social worker in the local criminal justice system, David works construction for the highway department and James coached high school football for 20 years.
But that’s his immediate family. The rest extends to everyone back home, the town that shaped him and provided the foundation for his character.
“It’s mostly hard-working, down-to-earth guys,” he said. “Everybody really cares about you. I think you hear songs about small-town people. Obviously, they know everything that goes on, but they really care for you and [offer] a lot of support. I’m fortunate to be a part of that.”
Johnson’s first foray into sports was basketball. But he also ran track, performing the quarter-mile, and threw the shot put. He played baseball, too. When he started playing football, Johnson modeled his game after the athlete he most admired, Brett Favre.
Favre, who grew up in a small Gulf Coast town in Mississippi, had the traits Johnson admired and the work ethic and grit reflected in the people of Groveton.
“Just a guy that was tough as hell,” Johnson said. “Never hardly missed a game. Gunslinger mentality, just a hard worker.”
Johnson had hoped to follow in Favre’s footsteps but received just one offer out of high school, from a small junior college in an even more rural town.
How did a 6-foot-6 quarterback with freakish athleticism go ignored by the college powerhouses that routinely mine the talent-rich Texas school system?
Well, Groveton played a role in that, too.
“I came from such a small school,” he said. “I came from a I-A school there in Texas. I had 33 kids in my graduating class.”
Johnson accepted his lone offer to play quarterback at Kilgore, but it didn’t pan out. He bulked up and moved to tight end. He started clocking 4.5 40-yard dashes in spring practice and finally caught the attention of the big-time programs.
“That caught some peoples’ eyes,” he said. “People saw that I could obviously run, catch, had good balls skills.”
Oklahoma offered him a scholarship to play tight end but moved him to defensive end midway through his second season. One year later, Johnson moved to offensive tackle and stayed there.
At the end of the year, he still wasn’t viewed as one of the top 32 prospects in the country. Then he went to the Senior Bowl in January and wowed scouts with his off-the-charts footwork and athleticism. Then he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in February and ran a 40 that compared favorably to Anquan Boldin’s and registered a vertical jump that matched A.J. Green’s.
The upside and promise were too tantalizing for new coach Chip Kelly to pass up, along with the chance to rebuild his aging offensive line with a freak of nature to anchor the right tackle position until he’s ready to assume the left side.
To Johnson, it’s not just another move to a different team and a different position. It’s another chance to show that his best days are ahead.
“I think even now just proving myself to the fans, to the players, to those people who say, ‘Why would you take someone so inexperienced?” he said “I’m ready to prove myself.”