Background and college
Born June 11, 1968 in Santa Clara, California, Johnson attended Santa Cruz High School. At San Jose State, Johnson developed a reputation of unreliablility, and ended up getting dropped after a clash with his coach, Claude Gilbert.
Before the Jets
Johnson was taken by the Phoenix Cardinals with the fourth pick in the seventh round (169th overall) of the 1990 NFL Draft. In training camp, Johnson became the Cardinals' starting running back when Anthony Thompson, the first-round draft choice, reported late. In his first season he rushed for 926 yards, and was named to the Pro Bowl.
As a Jet
After playing for 3 seasons for the Cardinals, Johnson was traded during the 1993 NFL Draft to the Jets, in exchange for the Cardinals moving from the Number 4 pick in the draft to the Jets' Number 3 draft position. The Cardinals badly wanted Garrison Hearst, who also played running back, so the Cardinals were willing to part with Johnson just to move up one draft spot. The Jets would take Marvin Jones with the fourth pick.
After arriving at the Jets, Johnson beat out Blair Thomas to become the featured running back, and was named Jets team MVP in 1993 in a vote by his teammates. Johnson finished the season ranked second in the AFC in total yards from scrimmage. He was one of only two backs to lead his team in rushing and receptions (821 yards, 67 receptions). As a result, the Jets gave Johnson a two-year contract extension worth $5 million and an option for the 1996 season. In 1994, despite a number of injuries, Johnson led the team in rushing again, this time with 931 yards.
After the Jets
Johnson was cut after the 1994 season in a salary cap move, after new head coach Rich Kotite felt he didn't fit into his offense. After missing the 1995 season, Johnson was signed by the San Francisco 49ers to a two-year, $3 million contract that included a $500,000 signing bonus, but picked up a back injury in his first practice, and was cut before the start of the season.