When Diontae Johnson first arrived in Pittsburgh the day after he was selected by the Steelers in the third-round of the draft, he went through all the mandatory things the team’s top three draft picks are asked to do, from interviews to a photo shoot, and meeting everyone from coaches to equipment staff.
Once he had been run through the gamut, he stopped and asked a question.
When do we come back to Pittsburgh?
When he was informed he wouldn’t have to be back until May 9 for the team’s rookie minicamp, a smile crept across his face.
Rest assured. If he was told he would be staying until the end of the 2019 season, chances are good the team’s third-round pick would still have been smiling. That is just the type of person he is.
But there was a reason he was smiling, and it gives you great insight into who Diontae Johnson is.
Johnson, who left school early to be eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft, had big plans last weekend, the weekend he thought he might have to be in Pittsburgh. He graduated from the University of Toledo and he fulfilled a goal he set for himself, walking on stage and receiving his diploma.
“It was really important to me that I graduated,” said Johnson, who majored in Sports Management. “That is why I wanted to go back to school. I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to get it done. My dad was really excited. He came to graduation, got to see me walk across the stage with a big smile on his face. I wanted to walk. This is something I always wanted to do, to graduate and walk. That is something my dad always wanted to see.
“That felt like high school again. A lot of people don’t get the chance to graduate. My family was there. My dad was excited for me.”
Making his dad, Leo Johnson, proud is something that Johnson holds close to his heart. The two have a tight relationship, a bond that became stronger when Johnson’s mom passed away when he was just five years old. All he wanted was to make him proud, and he did that in two major ways in just a week’s time – from being drafted to graduating.
“After my mom died, he stepped up and did what he had to do while we were young,” said Johnson. “He came home from work every day and still had time for us. I really appreciate him.
“I got up every day for him. He motivated me every day, just by how he got up to go to work. This is about him. He always knew I had it in me. He just stayed on me whenever I wanted to give up. He didn't like that. So, he stayed on me, never liked to see me down, and he always tried to lift me up. Just by him doing that, he made me the man I am today. I appreciate him for that.”
Johnson said there were times when it was tough to stay motivated. There was confusion, not fully understanding why he lost his mother, why life was treating him the way it was.
“I didn't really know what was going on,” said Johnson. “During the time, and when I was getting older, I started to realize that I missed my mom. He just told me that I just have to move on and just keep my head up, and not to think about things like that, to stay positive.”
When Johnson got the call from the Steelers, among those in the room with him was his dad. The two exchanged looks, they exchanged smiles. But when they went to embrace, they also exchanged tears.
“That was the first time I saw my dad cry,” said Johnson. “I cried. I didn’t cry at first, but when I hugged my dad, that’s when it hit me. When I came to hug him, we talked to each other, and it was just a good feeling to see my dad happy.
“There was also a lot of excitement. Just being able to experience this whole situation with my family, it's been pretty good. Not too many people get to go through this. I just cherish every moment of it. I'm just glad I got to do it with my family.”
Now Johnson is spending time with his second family, his Steelers family that is. And he is quickly seeing they are all there to help him. Fellow receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer are among those who have been helping him, and the most important thing he knows is tackling the mental side of the game.
“It’s going pretty good,” said Johnson. “I am just trying to stay on top of my playbook and stuff, get into the flow of things. Right now I want to show the coaches I can retain the information and show them I can work hard and be consistent and help out. A lot is thrown at you. They want to see how you retain information and execute.”
He also wants to show Ben Roethlisberger, a player he grew up watching, that he can retain the information. Roethlisberger has been working with the young receiver, but he still has some learning to do.
“I am still adjusting,” said Johnson. “The speed and the conditioning is totally different from college. Everything is faster. You have to be ready and know what to expect. I am starting to get more comfortable. There is more room for improvement every day.”