Rams : Damone Johnson Is Finally Catching On

Times Staff Writer

The Rams have salvaged little from their great head-on football crash of 1987, the possible exception being one rambling tight end from Cal Poly University something-or-other.

Coaches say that Damone Johnson has been in their long-range plans for years now, but you'd have a hard time convincing the player, who rather likens his stay to a company guy fighting his way up from the stockroom.

But if the Rams have had 100 things go wrong this year, and they have, Johnson is the one thing that has gone right.

He has emerged from the Ram ruins as perhaps the tight end of the future, someone who was thrown a golden opportunity and caught it while keeping both feet in bounds.

He recorded his first regular-season catch as a professional just three weeks ago, in a Monday night game against Cleveland.

Today, he's the team's second-leading receiver, behind Henry Ellard, with 14 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown.

"Some of it was just giving him the chance to play and throwing the ball at him," Coach John Robinson said. "He's made some fine catches. I think he's going to be a fine player."

It's a far cry from 1985, when Johnson had a tough time even finding locker space.

He was drafted in the sixth round from Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) and was so happy about it that he could have danced all the way down the California coast.

But when the Rams took a head count of tight ends in training camp, seven guys raised their hands.

"To be honest, I never thought I was going to be here," Johnson said.

"There was Chris Faulkner, John Kamana, David Hill, James McDonald, Tony Hunter, Mike Barber, and Francoise Wise. Even (fullback) Mike Guman was running some at tight end. I was history. I thought I was going to get my ticket out of here then."

Luckily, Johnson had one of those career-saving knee injuries, the kind that keep you on the injured-reserve list all season and off the waiver wire.

All the while, Johnson lurked and grew in the shadows of the weight room, awaiting his chance.

He started out at Santa Monica High School as a string-bean wide receiver but soon life became a series of squat dips and cheeseburger runs and Johnson finally has emerged from it all at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, with hands still as soft as a baby.

Johnson also began his quest, which bordered on obsession, to fulfill the dream of his cousin and idol, Anslie Washington, who drowned when Johnson was in ninth grade.

Washington had been a star defensive back at Santa Monica High and the person and player Johnson wanted most to be like in life.

Washington was at Arizona State University, backing up future pro Mike Haynes at cornerback, when he went on a boating excursion to the Colorado River.

"He dived into the water to get his hat," Johnson said. "The top of the water looked calm, but underneath the current was just ripping. They didn't even find him for a couple of days. It was so bad they wouldn't even let us see him."

Johnson knew how much his cousin had hoped to play in the National Football League, so Johnson decided to realize the dream his cousin could not.

Johnson pressed on, despite the doubts of others.

In fact, when Johnson told friends at Cal Poly SLO that he was going to be drafted, most assumed he meant by the armed forces.

"People were saying, 'Right, right. If you're so good, how come you didn't go to UCLA or USC?' " Johnson said. "It was that kind of attitude. But I just stuck with it."

Johnson hadn't gone to either of those schools because recruiters there were not aware that he was a tight end.

He wasn't switched to that position until his sophomore year in college, when he made the mistake of showing off in front of the coaches.

"One day in the weight room I showed the coach I could bench (press) over 300 pounds," Johnson said. "I regretted I did it because I always wanted to play wide receiver. But he said: 'You're playing tight end.' It worked out for the best, because I couldn't be a wide receiver now at 240 pounds."

Still, once with the Rams, it didn't seem to matter how much Johnson ate or how much he lifted.

In 1986, he again found himself in a tight (end) spot, with Robinson forced to choose between Johnson and former USC basketball player James McDonald.

Now, McDonald was Robinson's pet project, a player the coach was convinced could become the next Kellen Winslow.

Johnson didn't like the odds or the fact that the coach had once tutored the competition at a nearby university of some repute.

"I thought I was out of here again," Johnson said. "I would have gone back to school and tried to get back in the work force and just been a regular person."

But Johnson won out again, earning another 11 weeks on the team's injured-reserve list before being recalled for some late-season blocking assignments.

His future didn't really turn rosy until last training camp, when the Rams finally gave up on Tony Hunter.

Finally, Johnson was a man the Rams would turn and throw to.

"I never really doubted my ability to play,' he said. "I just doubted my opportunity. I'm just taking advantage of every opportunity I can."

And it certainly didn't hurt Johnson that the Rams collapsed this season, making them more inclined to turn toward their youngsters.

"You get an opportunity to show what you can do," he said. "Before, (the coaches) were scared of someone making mistakes in a vital point of the season. There's really nothing to worry about now. You just go out and play."

And just as complicated as that, Damone Johnson is playing in the NFL, fulfilling the dream of his late cousin and hero.

"When I lost him, it took five years to get over it," he said. "Well, it's still hard at this point. I always think of him. He was my idol, like an older brother. . . . It is strange. My relationship with his mother is the same as with my mom. They both raised me. (His aunt) sees him in me and vice versa."

Ram Notes

With 7 catches for 101 yards so far this season, wide receiver Ron Brown is on a pace that won't even match former Ram Tom Fears' NFL single-game reception record of 18, set against the Green Bay Packers in 1950. . . . Ram guard Dennis Harrah, trying to return this week after missing two games with a back injury, will split time with Duval Love this Sunday. . . . In the Rams' nickel pass rush this week, rookie Fred Stokes will start at right end, the spot originally intended for Donald Evans. . . . Defensive end Shawn Miller (ankle) hasn't played since the Cleveland game Oct. 26. and is out again for St. Louis.

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