As an undersized receiver from a small school, did you embrace an underdog role coming into the NFL?
Damaris Johnson: I wouldn’t say an underdog role. At a young age, I always thought I had a shot to make it to the NFL. When I got to the league, I was just thankful for the opportunity. I knew I had some ability and when we started practicing things started to slow down, and I was doing a lot better than I expected to do. I wasn’t underestimating myself but once I got there I realized I could make some plays and be a difference-maker.
Philly was the perfect place for me to go. I got to pick out of a few teams as an undrafted free agent and people were confused as to why I chose Philly because they already had DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Riley Cooper.
I just felt like it was the right place for me and they really liked my work ethic. It was the best choice out of the teams that wanted me. I embraced Philly and Philly embraced me. So it wasn’t necessarily an underdog role but I was just happy to be there and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
What was it like putting on the midnight green for the first time and realizing you had made it to the NFL?
Damaris Johnson: It was crazy. Going through training camp, I knew that I was doing really well and that I was probably the sixth or seventh receiver on the depth chart. We played the Steelers our first preseason game. We knew on the first play of the game it was going to be a full wide receiver set. I was really nervous since the Steelers were well known for the defense.
Brandon Boykin had a nice return and got us good field position. I was on the sidelines watching and they called spread formation for the offense as planned. My coach tapped me and was like ‘you’re in’, and I was like ‘what?!’ because I was expecting Maclin to be out there but he tweaked his hamstring late during pregame warmups.
So the first play, we ran this four-wide receiver set. I had a quick out route and got open. Mike Vick threw the ball to me which I caught, and I was just thinking ‘this is crazy’. I always tell my friends that the football looked ten times bigger because there was no way I was going to drop it. I got four yards. I was just shocked because, on the first play of the season in my rookie year, I got the first ball of the season from Mike Vick against the Pittsburgh Steelers to start my career.
That got my blood pumping, and it helped the rest of the game. I caught a 70-yard touchdown later on. That made me realize I was ready to play at the NFL level.
What was it like to learn under receivers like Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin?
It was great. You hear stories about their work ethic, speed, and ability but seeing these guys in person was ridiculous. I knew had some speed but DeSean Jackson had effortless speed. It didn’t even look like he was running. Maclin had speed as well, ran really good routes, and was such a fierce player. He loved to block and do the little things.
The guy who I learned the most from was Jason Avant though. He was older than Jackson and Maclin, but he’s the best route runner I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s unguardable. He’s determined. He taught me about being professional on and off the field and took me under his wing when I was new to the team.
It was awesome being in that group, and we also had Riley Cooper there as well. It was a blessing to learn from those guys. I was able to take the skills I learned from them and incorporate them into my game.