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Offseason | 2024

From tragedy to undrafted, Emany Johnson carries memory of lost loved ones into NFL journey


FRISCO, Texas — This past weekend, 20 rookies walked into The Star big-eyed and fresh-minded in anticipation of starting their careers with the Dallas Cowboys at rookie minicamp.

The class is made up of versatile, athletic, physical players on both sides of the ball with a blue-collar mentality that starts up top with the team's first-round pick and trickles down to the undrafted free agent class.

One member of that undrafted free agent class embodies each of those traits, as Nevada safety Emany Johnson starts his NFL career on the heels of a huge senior season with the Wolf Pack that exceeded all expectations, despite a series of tragedies off the field throughout it all.

Johnson grew up in Hercules, California where he developed a love for football through the lens of his grandfather – a former police officer and member of the military– and father – a former college football safety and receiver at New Mexico Highlands University. His own journey would see him become a dominant safety where he was able to blossom into an NFL prospect.

"It means a lot to me," Johnson said about signing with Dallas after the draft. "Coming from where I came from, not a lot of people get an opportunity to do stuff like this. I got signed right after the draft, and I'm just very grateful."

As his time to shine finally came in 2024, Johnson became a dominant player in the defensive backfield for Nevada with his ability to cover over the top but also play in the box where he was a reliable run defender. But during the best season of his football career, tragedy struck that put his career and his entire life into perspective.

"It was a tough year for me last year as far as losing my grandpa two years ago and then losing my dad," he said. "I lost my best friend on a Saturday and then my dad the next morning. I've had a tough year. Fighting through all that adversity, I'm just grateful to be here."

Family is important to Johnson, as he attributes his on-field success to the guidance of the people that have been around him since he was a child. That includes his best friend, who Johnson said he met as a child.

"I'm very big on family," he said. "My best friend, I've been knowing him since we were babies. My dad is my dad, and my grandpa, I've done everything with him as far as riding his motorcycle on the back holding onto his belt…They mean a lot to me, and everyday I wake up and think of them and it pushes me to go harder."

Despite losing three people important to his journey, he still remains focused on maximizing his on-field success for his mother.

"My mom is a single parent, and I do everything for her," he said. "That's what really gets me up. I have that determination to get up every day and give it 100-percent."

After going undrafted last month, Johnson had offers on the table from the Cowboys, Cardinals and Ravens, but his comfortability in Dallas was already high having trained in Fort Worth during the pre-draft process. Also, one key member of his journey may have already had it written for him from above.

"My grandpa's favorite team was the Cowboys," he said. "My mom wanted to move out here way before I even came out here to train. I wanted to be a part of a winning culture team. That's why I wanted to be here."

On the field, Johnson sees an opportunity to not only contribute on special teams as a rookie, but to shine with the new kickoff rules.

"Right now, I feel like all four phases on special teams is something I'm very good at," he said. "I'm big, I can move. I'm physical. My first year here is basically special teams."

His physicality will be the biggest factor in him finding a path to the 53-man roster, as his tape from Nevada shows him laying big hits in the run and pass games as well as on special teams. At 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, that physicality doesn't come lightly, and it's something he attributes to who came before him.

"I want to say it comes from my dad," Johnson said. "Everything I got comes from my dad."

With tragedy and hardship still an ongoing process, talking about the journey ahead is something that draws a smirk from Johnson. Despite having an admitted chip on his shoulder after going undrafted, there's confidence in his ability to compete for a roster spot in 2024.

"I do believe I have the same opportunity as everybody else to a certain extent, but I definitely do still have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I do think I should have been drafted, but I had one good year and I still have a lot to prove by having just that one good year. I'm going to prove it this year by getting on that 53."

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