Johnson celebrates with wide receiver Rashard Higgins after rushing for a first-quarter touchdown against the Denver Broncos.
CNN  — 

In 2018, D’Ernest Johnson wasn’t signed by any NFL team after failing to be drafted.

So, he took up a job on a fishing boat in Key West, Florida, reeling in mahi mahi to make ends meet.

Now, three years later and having put in the work, Johnson is a match-winning NFL running back.

With the Cleveland Browns missing their two starting running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Johnson took advantage, rushing for a career-high 146 yards and a touchdown in the Browns’ 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Thursday night.

In his first career start, Johnson looked composed and explosive as he helped a depleted Browns team – also missing starting quarterback Baker Mayfield – to a victory which halted a two-game losing streak.

His performance on Thursday earned praise from one of the Browns’ most famous fans, NBA superstar LeBron James, as the 36-year-old tweeted: “D’ Ernest Johnson on 1 tonight!! Love to see it!”

And when Johnson was told about the tweet, he looked stunned, saying: “LeBron? Man, that’s my favorite basketball player; I’m not going to lie to you … That’s amazing! LeBron James, appreciate it man. That means a lot. Wow!”

Johnson leaps over Broncos safety Kareem Jackson during the first quarter.

It is the culmination of a long journey for the running back, who also worked as a personal trainer before signing for the Alliance of American Football league, where he finished second in the league in rushing and scrimmage yards while with the Orlando Apollo in 2019.

Although he was initially signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2019, he had predominately featured as a kick returner on special teams.

He appeared in all 16 games in 2020, whilst also filling in where needed as a running back, posting career highs in carries (33) and rushing yards (166).

But it is in week seven this season where Johnson really exploded onto the scene with the Browns needing a big performance with their stars on the sideline.

Johnson became the third Browns running back to have 100 or more scrimmage yards in a game this season, joining Chubb and Hunt. To put that in context, five NFL teams have yet to have one running back do so in a game this season.

“It’s unexplainable. I wanted to celebrate but I didn’t know what to do. It’s been a long journey,” said Johnson as he reflected on how his fortunes have changed since 2018.

The victory means the Browns remained alive in the AFC playoff picture, while it is the Broncos’ fourth straight defeat.

Quarterback Case Keenum celebrates the Browns victory against the Broncos.

‘My pride is hurt’

For Broncos linebacker Von Miller, it was perhaps an even more painful defeat given the talking he did beforehand.

In the lead up to Thursday’s game, Miller said: “I’m going to have a great game. I’m going to go out there, and going to have to play well and get a couple sacks.

“And if I do that then we will win … If I can play well and I can get sacks and I can find a way to disrupt the game, we’ll win. The pressure is on me to play well.

“I don’t know who the tackle is that I’m going against, but I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill him. And the other guy too, on the other side. I’m going to play extremely well and make plays for my team. I’m going to set us up and win this game for sure.”

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However in the disappointing performance, Miller was forced to leave after injuring his ankle.

And the Super Bowl 50 MVP said his “pride is hurt more than anything.”

“I talked a lot of s**t before this game and I wanted to make it personal. I wanted the animosity. I wanted this to be that game, and I wanted to win it,” Miller said.

“We did some good things in the half and I felt like I was gonna do some great stuff in the second half – but I got hurt.”