Toby Johnson is a USFL star. The defensive tackle for the New Jersey Generals has earned All-USFL honors in back-to-back seasons, and is currently playing some of the best football of his life.
One might look at his USFL success and assume that things have always been this way for Toby throughout his career.
That is far from the truth.
It has been a remarkable, yet at times, painful journey for Toby Johnson since taking his first steps into professional football – or simply football in general, for that matter. The road he’s taken has not been easy by any means.
To fully understand the magnitude of what Toby has been through, one must take a trip back to the beginning.
Where It All Began
Believe it or not, Toby Johnson did not start playing football until his junior year of high school. He was a multi-sport athlete, who focused mainly on basketball, alongside track and field.
In fact, at this time, Toby did not see football in his future at all. He saw himself as the “next Lebron”, but through a unique sequence of events, decided to give the game so many Americans love a shot:
“I was dating this girl in high school. At the time, I thought I was going to the NBA. The girl’s dad, he used to pick me up all the time. He was a football coach. He told me that if he was coming to get me every weekend, and dropping me off, then I gotta do him a favor. The favor was to just go out there and see if I liked it (football). If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to play. But if I did, then I should stick with it. So I went out there one day, and was seeing some time on special teams. At the time I was an athletic dude, so I was running all over the place, making tackles. I thought to myself ‘you know what? I kind of like this’. In football I could hit guys hard, and I eventually decided to play that season.”
Toby grew to love the game, and the game loved him. Johnson was an outstanding athlete, and proved that on both sides of the football. In his senior season at Banneker high school, Toby earned recognition for his accomplishments as a tight end – and All-Region recognition as a defensive end.
At this point, things were looking bright. Toby shined at both positions, and while he loved tight end – he realized that his purpose was to dominate on the defensive side of the ball:
“Playing tight end, that was natural. I had been catching basketballs, doing a lot of agility work – you run a lot in basketball. I had to work on running routes a bit, but all of that came pretty naturally to me. In fact I scored quite a few touchdowns back then. People don’t believe that story when I tell them it now…I gotta pull up the film. Anyway, since I was so big in high school, it made sense for me to play physical. I ended up locking into the defensive aspect more, because I didn’t get hit. Seeing another big guy like myself trying to tackle me, that just wasn’t for me. So I just stuck with focusing on improving as a defender.”
Toby was gaining quite a bit of traction as a football player. During this time, he began to take multiple visits around the country to places such as Auburn, Georgia Tech, to name a couple. He had interest from a multitude of schools, some of which wanted him to play offensive line and/or tight end (Savannah State). Despite so much early success, Toby’s story would take quite a few turns in college.
The JUCO Path
Due to his grades, Toby Johnson had to settle and play JUCO ball to begin his college career. He played at Hutchinson in Kansas, where he racked up 87 tackles, 17 TFL, and five sacks over a couple of seasons. While it wasn’t a perfect situation, Johnson made the most of it:
“I ended up having to play JUCO because of my grades. The place I went to was a placement school. Lot of D1 guys who got kicked out because of their grades, or for other reasons. We had guys from all over the place. I hadn’t yet received a D1 offer myself, so that freshman year was eye opening for me. I just wanted there to be one person to believe in me. Brandon Staley (HC for the Los Angeles Chargers) was my defensive coordinator at the time. He pulled me aside and said ‘man, you can be special. Not just at this level, but at the next. Just listen to what I tell you to do’. I began to discover a belief in myself at this time. We had a scrimmage before the season, and I had five sacks simply using the same move. I knew I could perform at a high level, I just had to stick with it.”
After dominating his freshman season, Toby was in an excellent position. He was named to multiple First Team lists, being one of the only freshmen to do so. There was quite a bit of buzz surrounding Johnson, and for good reason. Schools from all over the country were taking visits to Kansas, to watch him play – and, to try and convince him to play for them.
A plan was tentatively put in place. With Johnson receiving so much attention, his goal was to play D1 for a year, and then get drafted straight to the NFL. His friends were doing it (i.e. Cordarrelle Patterson), so why couldn’t he?
With everything coming together smoothly, Toby was primed to see success on a major scale in a short amount of time. Toby Johnson was the #1 ranked JUCO player in the country at this time. Unfortunately, another obstacle would soon find a way to block his plans altogether.
A Horrific Injury
In his second season at Hutchinson, disaster struck. Toby was playing a rival school in the KJCC conference, when all of a sudden his career would change forever, tearing his ACL:
“We were playing one of our rivals, when one of their guys chop-blocked me and just did me dirty. After that happened, I was devastated. I didn’t even want to play my sophomore year. Coming off the field after the injury, I was crying…I didn’t know what was going to happen. In the locker room, the coach from Georgia called me and let me know that they still planned on bringing me in, helping with rehab. So that was one of the things that made me commit to Georgia.”
Thankfully, Georgia had his back. Toby described how coaches in Georgia were anxious in waiting for his arrival, as they desperately wanted him to play there. They wanted to plug him right into the system.
However, it would be a long path back to the gridiron. His sponsor family, Glen & Christy Grunwald, who lived in Kansas proved to be an answer to prayer at the time. Toby recounts what the path to healing was like, and what he went through to get back to where he wanted to be:
“I have to give glory to God. I really got into my faith during this time, and I was on top of the world. Between my faith and my drive, I knew it was possible. I had a great doctor and trainer, so that helped. The first month was tough, my leg was like jello. I couldn’t do anything on my own, I needed help with everything. After 2-3 months, when I started walking again and building that scar tissue, the confidence was growing. I got to Georgia about six months after the injury, and they wanted me ready right then. They didn’t want to red-shirt me, which meant I wouldn’t really have any time to rest. I barely played my first year at Georgia because of that injury right there.”
While Toby wanted to take a year off, he had a tough decision to make. The opportunity at Georgia seemed perfect, and he couldn’t afford to miss it. At the same time, his first season was a mere shell of what he wanted it to be, simply because he lacked confidence in the strength of his leg.
Johnson’s injury caused him to adjust his game. This was a blessing in disguise, as Toby continued to refine his style of play while at Georgia. In his second year with the team, he was fully healthy, which meant that the world got to see just how capable of a defender he was.
In 13 games with the Bulldogs (four starts), Johnson racked up 27 total tackles and two sacks. It was a productive year for Toby, which garnered plenty of NFL interest from around the country.
An NFL Rollercoaster
Everyone is well aware of the politics that surround the NFL. Promises made to players are broken all the time, it’s simply how the business operates.
Unfortunately, Toby experienced exactly that coming into the league. The Cleveland Browns told him to be prepared to be drafted, saying they would take him in the fifth round.
It never happened.
While Johnson could have sat in the misery of this situation, he got right to work. He had something to prove, and was anxiously awaiting an opportunity. Toby would eventually get one, joining the Tennessee Titans for training camp.
“When I went undrafted, I had the mindset of ‘I’m going to show you all’. Looking at some of the guys who got drafted that year, I was way better than them and I knew it. When I got the call from Tennessee, I had a point to prove. After making it there, I had a lot of good veterans around me. There were plenty of solid players around me who took me under their wing. I hit the ground running as soon as I got there. My first game there, I got a game ball. It was shocking. But in the second preseason game, I got hurt. Everybody thought they (Tennessee) were attempting to hide me. But I was legitimately hurt. I could’ve taken a settlement, but I didn’t want to. I knew I could play after a bit of rest. But then they decided to let me go, which was my first true ‘welcome to the NFL’ moment.”
This was a frustrating position for Toby to be in. He performed quite well in the limited reps he had, but an injury stifled what could have been a productive campaign. At this point, Johnson just wanted to be on an NFL roster. He knew he deserved it, and had motivation to prove to someone that he belonged.
Johnson wouldn’t have to wait long for another opportunity to present itself. In two preseason games (nine tackles), he was the highest ranked lineman with an 88.0 PFF grade. The Jacksonville Jaguars came calling, which held quite a bit of promise. They seemed invested in Toby’s abilities, and wanted to bring him in as soon as possible right before the NFL season began.
Jacksonville made it clear that they wanted him long-term. They didn’t even bring Johnson in for a workout, they immediately signed him, and he quickly got to work learning the playbook.
“I get to Jacksonville and things are going well. I’m balling the first two days of practice. On the third day, boom. I took a hit, and my shoulder popped out of place. I was good though, put a sling on it and prepared to play Carolina. Cam Newton was out there, him and I were chopping it up before the game, and at this point I was lit. I had made it to the NFL. This was actually happening. The next day, I’m apartment hunting since I’m fresh in town. I then got a call from Jacksonville, telling me they were going to let me go. I’m like ‘what? I haven’t even been here for a week!’ That was heartbreaking. That tore me up.”
Within just a couple of weeks, Toby had two NFL opportunities come and go in the blink of an eye. He was quickly learning that this was how the league operated. In Jacksonville, it turned out that he was simply a temporary replacement for one of their key defenders who was injured. Since he was poised to return the next week, the Jaguars quickly let Toby go.
Johnson didn’t quit. Instead, he began to work even harder. Even though Jacksonville claimed they were planning on bringing him back, he wasn’t putting all his eggs into that basket. During his rookie year, Toby had over 20 workouts with different NFL teams. It was an exhausting affair, flying from state to state every 2-3 days. Workout after workout. Toby was praying that something would stick with one organization.
Toby Johnson then settled down in Chicago, taking a chance with the Bears in late December. It was near the end of the NFL season, but it was another opportunity for him to further his career.
Unfortunately, another curve ball would be thrown his way during the Christmas season:
“I did good with the Bears. I don’t understand why this situation happened. We had a Christmas party or something. And the Bears, they’re weird about body fat. They are very strict and by the book when it comes to that stuff. So, at this party, we were having a lot of fun, taking some time off and whatnot. So, we get back to work next week, which was after we lost the game. Coaches are always on edge after a loss. Somehow we get back, and my body fat percentage is up 2-3%. I thought, ‘there’s no way. No way that happened in a week’. So the GM calls me up, and says ‘Toby, I don’t think you’re serious about your job’. I’m like, ‘what do you mean?’…that was another moment that showed me just how unstable an NFL position can be when they let me go.”
Toby was embarrassed after this release. It had been a year full of adversity, and right when it seemed like he got over the hump in Chicago, he was let go yet again. At this moment, Johnson was seriously questioning whether or not he was actually good enough to be in the NFL.
The scenery continued to change at a rapid pace for Toby. He was invited for a third workout with the Arizona Cardinals, and was ready to sign a future’s deal that was offered to him.
However, that would all change when a different option burst onto the scene.
Right at the end of the season, the Minnesota Vikings gave Toby a call. While his agent pushed for Johnson to stick with Arizona, he couldn’t turn down this opportunity with a playoff bound team:
“They were loaded at the position that year. Linval Joseph, Brian Robinson, Shariff Floyd. But in my mind, I was betting on myself. I knew I was just as good. So, we were out there playing Seattle the year they won the super bowl. It was when we had that missed kick. At the time, it was a great situation. Minnesota had just won the NFC North, and one of the tackles had gotten injured, so I knew I could be active the next year. In the offseason, I was training hard, putting the work in to head into the season with Minnesota.”
Everything was on the right track. Toby was poised for success with a defense that was playing at an extremely high level. He had an excellent preseason performance, and fans were excited to see Johnson play in his second NFL season. Disappointingly, disaster struck once again.
“I had a great preseason, and initially I made the team ahead of the season. A day later, they called me and said that they were letting me go, but planned to put me on the practice squad. I was very upset. Something had to be wrong. This was two years in a row where the same thing happened. Minnesota has a very good fanbase, and the fans were heavily on my side. Everybody was wondering what was going on.”
While Johnson was not pleased with the situation – and rightfully so – he didn’t have much of a choice but to stay in Minnesota. Since they offered him a practice squad position with solid benefits, it made sense for him to wait it out and hope for a midseason activation.
“Even though I was upset, I decided to stick on the practice squad. That year, we started off hot. The team was 7-1, so it was hard for me to get on the field those first eight games. In week ten, I thought I would finally move up, since two tackles got injured. But, they decided to move Brian Robinson to the three, instead of calling me up. At this point I was highly upset. That year, I felt like I had beaten everyone out in preseason. So after talking to upper management, they finally decided to bring me up in week 13. So we’re right about to get on the plane, and they pull me aside again. They tell me that they didn’t want to cut me, but they had to, so they could activate Adrian Peterson. I was so mad, but AP is a hall of famer. I was simply embarrassed now. Every time I started to get it going, something would happen and I would get cut.”
Johnson ended up playing in the final two games of the season against Green Bay and Chicago. While Minnesota did bring him back before next season, things didn’t pan out the way he wanted. Johnson was constantly thrown around by management, being under-appreciated for his efforts. Eventually, Mike Zimmer broke the news to Toby that he was being let go, again. This was an executive decision, and not one that Mike wanted. That being said, Zimmer told Johnson that there were other teams who were interested in bringing him in. Carolina was one of those organizations, who instantly called Johnson once he became available.
After arriving in Carolina, Toby Johnson felt at home. It seemed like an excellent opportunity, with a team that supposedly believed in him as much as Toby did himself:
“I get to Carolina and I’m super happy. The Panthers typically held 9-10 defensive linemen on the roster, which meant that they believed in the position and wanted to get after the quarterback. Coach Washington, who was the D-Line coach at the time, he was waiting for a chance to steal me from another team. It was a breath of fresh air. He wanted me there. I had a really, really good summer there. I was at the point where I would get second team reps, and sometimes first.”
Once again, Toby was in a position to succeed. He was trending upwards in Carolina, and was ready to perform at a high level. However, more drama would find its way right back into his life:
“So on the third day of training camp, I was doing some conditioning, and I pulled my quad. I was like, man, it’s always something. In the NFL, they view muscle pulls as a sign that the player hasn’t been working out, or keeping up with the proper conditioning. At the time, the team was still supporting me. Coach Rivera, he loved me. He told me ‘Don’t panic Toby, just rehab and do what you have to do’. I was preparing to come out for the final preseason game. I’m a competitor. I got cleared two days before the game. I went out there, and I dominated…I was shocked myself. My agent and I thought that I was definitely making the team. Then, for the third year in a row, I got a call. I’m like, ‘not again’. They basically told me to go home and rehab, since they weren’t keeping any defensive linemen on the practice squad.”
This was an extremely frustrating moment for Toby. He could’ve just taken the settlement money originally when he got injured, and moved on, but decided to bet on himself. It resulted in the same story: broken promises, and another release.
Stability was the one thing that Toby Johnson desperately longed for. He was so dedicated to this sport, yet couldn’t find one team that would give him a legitimate look long-term. After nearly signing with the Oakland Raiders, Johnson decided to take another gamble and went to Detroit, since they offered him a slightly better deal:
“At the time, I felt like whoever offered you the most money wanted you the most. But, that’s really not the case in a lot of situations. Regardless, I signed with Detroit at the end of the year, and went into my fourth season with them. I knew this was a make or break year. In offseason workouts, I was fighting for my life. Just doing everything I could to make an impression. So, this was the first year for Matt Patricia. He was trying to break us. He said that the whole team was sorry. Since I was a hard worker, they seemed to like me. Patricia ran us into the ground, though. We were banged up. I ended up getting hurt in preseason against the Browns. That shook up some things. People were like, ‘this guy can’t stay healthy.’”
This time, Toby decided to take the injury settlement. He couldn’t afford to sit out another year, and wanted to move on. It was a difficult place to be in, knowing that he could not avoid these untimely injuries during crucial stretches of his career.
As an undrafted player, it’s not easy to stay in the spotlight. In Johnson’s case, he gave it everything he had with each NFL organization, but unfortunate circumstances clouded what could have been a successful pro career.
One would think the story could end here. He gave the game his all, but with so many dead end roads, it was time to move on.
For Toby Johnson, though, moving on was not an option.
The Journey Continues
While Johnson was still receiving NFL attention and workouts, nothing was resulting in any sort of movement on that end. At the time, the Alliance Of American Football was being formed by Charlie Ebersol. With Toby being fresh out of the NFL, he was expecting to be picked up there, but was quite disappointed when he wasn’t:
“I was thinking to myself, ‘why can’t I get in the Alliance league?’. At this point, I was devastated. These guys weren’t even on my level, but I couldn’t get into the league.”
Toby ended up settling to play in an experimental league called “Your Call Football”. This was basically a precursor to Fan Controlled Football. There, he ran into personnel from the Massachusetts Pirates of the NAL, and eventually made a connection that brought him to the team.
In arena football, Johnson absolutely dominated. He was second in the league in 2019 with seven sacks, and also added two more in the postseason.
Even though he performed well, Toby was at a crossroads. He was still frustrated about missing out on playing in the AAF, and thought that his career might just be over.
However, as we all know by now, Vince McMahon resurrected the XFL in 2020. Toby then made it a goal to head to that league, dominate, and hopefully be back on his way to the NFL. It wasn’t easy by any means, but Toby got an opportunity with the New York Guardians:
“Another thing happened, I didn’t get drafted by the Guardians originally. I ended up being taken in the supplemental draft. I was crying…I was embarrassed that I couldn’t get picked up in the main draft. But, I went to New York, and we had a solid defensive line. When I got there, it was a shocker because they told me I was going to be the third D-Tackle. This really woke me up. I knew I belonged in the NFL – but I was stuck in a league below the NFL, and I was going to come off the bench.”
Toby’s drive allowed him to put up solid numbers in the XFL. In five games, he posted 11 tackles, and also notched an interception for New York. He was getting into a rhythm – which meant that something problematic was right around the corner.
On queue, the COVID-19 pandemic took the country by storm, and the XFL shut down just five weeks into the season. Another door was shut right in his face, right when it had opened wide.
More Twists & Turns
While Johnson was disappointed, he knew he had to continue training. He went down to Orlando, and put in the work to attempt to pursue some sort of opportunity, if another miraculously came along.
He did Buffalo, but Toby made a mistake. Johnson told the coaching staff that he weighed in at 315 lbs. – but that wasn’t exactly the truth. Because of the pandemic, he had to quarantine in the hotel, and he couldn’t get quite to that number before the workout.
Due to the burned relationship with the Bills, Johnson was sent home despite a solid performance, as they were adamant about the miscommunication regarding his weight.
In 2021, Toby Johnson went back to the Pirates and played arena ball. He had another solid season, and was set to have a workout with the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, that fell through due to some complications regarding a vaccination.
With another year of arena football under his belt, Toby Johnson thought that this might be the final stop.
Then, another door opened right at the perfect time.
The USFL: Keeping Dreams Alive
FOX Sports brought the USFL back for its inaugural season in 2022. The league was similarly structured to the AAF and XFL, with eight teams playing a ten game season. Some of Toby’s XFL coaches were participating in the USFL, and told him that they were going to draft him.
This time around, the promise was upheld, with Johnson being drafted to the New Jersey Generals early on.
“Our coaching staff, they really are good people. They took me in and believed in me, and I’m just trying to give them everything I have.”
While Toby would love another NFL opportunity, he’s at peace playing in the USFL. The league is providing him a chance to play at the professional level, and he hasn’t let them down.
It’s not talked about enough how well Toby Johnson (@Future020113SEC) played again this season. Led DL in tackles (aside from Speaks) & finished T-2nd among DT w/ 3.5 sacks. While playing ZERO TECH. No one ate up more doubles & won in the middle more. Should be 2x All-USFL. #USFL
Through two seasons, Toby Johnson has won All-USFL honors twice. He is one of only two USFL athletes to do so. While his 2022 season was excellent, Johnson got even better in 2023: posting 42 tackles, four TFL, and 3.5 sacks. The numbers speak for themselves, as Johnson believes he is playing the best football of his career in the USFL.
“This team has given me a lot of freedom. They believe in me. I always had the confidence in myself, and this coaching staff has given me the keys to the defense. This is the first time at the professional level where I’ve been handed the keys. Having people at the top who believe in you is important. I’m truly loving playing this game right now.”
The New Jersey Generals struggled in 2023, posting a 3-7 record. Johnson believes that they can rebound next season, if the right pieces make their way back to the team. Though his USFL future is currently uncertain, Toby has thoroughly enjoyed his time in this league thus far.
“The USFL is the reason why I’m pretty much at peace right now with everything going on. I know that I have stability and an income to lean on. This league has a lot of talent. There’s a lot of young guys, who can really play at a high level. The USFL does a good job of marketing these athletes as well. Keeping the talent level pretty equal across the board. We have the older guys like myself, but we also have the younger players who can help continue to grow the league.”
It’s quite clear to see that Toby Johnson has had a profoundly unique and riveting football journey. No matter how high or how low things might have been along the way, Johnson continued to press forward, and always stayed true to the goals set before him.
“Just work hard. In 2020, when all that pandemic stuff went down, everybody was upset. But for me, I felt like it was the best thing that could have happened because I had to re-discover who I was. I had to get my first real job, and figure out how to move on with life. Football taught me to keep your head down and work hard. Also, treat people the right way, because you never know what you might need. Perseverance is key. My favorite saying is ‘In Due Time’. Whatever’s supposed to happen is going to happen. Just keep working – if it wasn’t meant to happen, then that’s just how it is. Be at peace with everything during the process.”
Johnson’s unwavering confidence in his abilities is certainly admirable, as it’s something that has carried him throughout his entire career. Toby still believes that he belongs in the NFL, and after his remarkable success in the USFL, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see him make a return.
“There are not 32 guys at my position in the NFL better than me. I’ll tell you that right now. We can pull up the film.”
Regardless of what ultimately happens, one cannot deny the passion that Toby Johnson has for the game of football. It has been an absolute pleasure following his professional career, as we’ve especially enjoyed his performances in the USFL.
Toby has undoubtedly left his mark on this special sport, and we look forward to seeing what awaits in his future…in due time.
Have you enjoyed watching Toby Johnson play for the New Jersey Generals the last two seasons? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!