It’s a hill that has earned the nickname “Cardiac Hill” for good reason. Walking up the long, steep incline, located in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus, leaves many gasping for breath. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart and normally only “climbed” when it’s a necessity to get somewhere, not done by choice.
But last offseason, as he was working to get in shape for the coming year, tight end
“I didn’t know it was called that, but now I understand why,” laughed Johnson, who is making the “Cardiac Hill” run again this year. “It’s a pretty long hill.”
Johnson would run it two to three times a week, at first making it to the top five times, but eventually mastering it and making it 10 times a day.
“It wasn’t easy at all. I don’t think one day was easy,” said Johnson. “It was always hot out there. I would be really tired. Growing up in Arkansas it was a lot hotter, but those hills weren’t there. It wasn’t the heat, it was the hill.
“Once I started doing it more, it was easier. When you put your mind to it, you can do those things.”
It was all a part of Johnson trying to be in the best shape possible, particularly after being told he was going to make the switch from tight end to fullback for the 2012 season. He started his new workout plan weeks after the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos in an AFC Wild Card game. He went hard all offseason, dropping almost 20 pounds to get down to his current weight of 260.
“It was about growing up and realizing what my body needs to be like in order to be the best player that I can be,” said Johnson. “That is when I started focusing on my nutrition and getting better and stronger every day. I started with a lot of cardio, then lifting and working on running and running hills every day. Knowing I was going to play fullback, it’s a different role and I would be doing different things and I wanted to be prepared for that.
“I wanted to get more explosive. I was working more on my core. I was doing jumping stuff, different drills. I was really working on my explosion.”
Just when Johnson was at a place where he felt comfortable, where his hard work was about to pay off, the unthinkable happened. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Steelers’ preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. All of trips up “Cardiac Hill,” the hours in the weight room, the dedication, gone in seconds with a torn ACL.
“It was real tough,” said Johnson. “For a time I couldn’t let it go. I thought about how much work I put in, from January losing all of the weight and on. There were times when it was really tough.
“I thought why me for a little bit, I was a little angry, but after a while I was over it and focused on getting better. I know injuries like this happen to people and I feel like I am going to have a long career playing football so I went ahead and got past it.”
Johnson wasn’t able to work out for about 16 weeks, but made sure he stuck with the same diet to maintain his weight. He didn’t want inactivity to result in undoing all of the good he had done.
“I kept the weight off,” said Johnson. “I knew how hard it was to get it off. I made sure during that time I stayed consistent on my diet. It became routine to stay that way. I am still here, still at this weight.”
It wasn’t just maintaining his weight that was difficult. Dealing with the new role of spectator instead of playing was definitely the toughest adjustment.
“All of a sudden you are just sitting around watching everyone else prepare for the games,” said Johnson. “That was the hardest part, not being out on the field and watching the games at home from the couch.
“It was hard sometimes. Going on my fifth year, I know how things go. All of the guys talked to me and knew I should be out there with them. It made it easier getting through it.”
Johnson, who signed a one-year contract a few weeks ago to remain with the Steelers, said his recovery is moving along smoothly and he has his sights set for being back at full strength for training camp, when he said he will move back to tight end, a position he feels more comfortable playing.
“I am moving along pretty well,” said Johnson. “I am about 85 percent. I am feeling real strong and think I will be stronger than I was before when I come back. I am running really good, cutting well. Everything is coming back in line. You always wonder how you are going to be when you come back. That drives me to work harder than last year. I am just trying to prepare myself to be in the best possible shape ever. When camp comes I will be back.”