A pro football dream came to fruition on Sept. 12, 2021, in the first week of the NFL season for Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Patrick Johnson.
After reading the handoff from quarterback Matt Ryan, Johnson swooped into the Atlanta Falcons' backfield to upend running back Mike Davis in the first quarter of a 32-6 road win for the Eagles. The moment was surreal for Johnson, a Chattanooga native who graduated from Notre Dame High School in 2017 after starring on the football field for the Fighting Irish.
"That was my very first NFL tackle in my rookie debut, and it came on my second defensive snap," said Johnson, a three-time all-conference selection during his college days at Tulane in New Orleans. "To play against the team I grew up cheering for was an unreal experience. To be out there going against a guy like Matt Ryan, who I grew up idolizing, was really cool. All my dreams came true that day, and it is one I will cherish forever."
It was the first of multiple highlights from a rookie season in which the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Johnson helped the Eagles earn a wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs, with the team bouncing back from a 3-6 start to finish the regular season 9-8 overall.
In the 10th week of the season at Denver, Johnson nearly picked off a sideline pass by the Broncos' Teddy Bridgewater and might have been able to return it for a touchdown had he secured the interception. Two weeks earlier, his potential for disrupting the passing game in another way was on display when Johnson bull-rushed Detroit Lions tackle Penei Sewell into quarterback Jared Goff to force an errant throw in the red zone.
In Philadelphia's 31-15 wild-card playoff loss to the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, Johnson made one of his five special teams tackles for the season. Of his 17 total tackles as a rookie, eight came against the Dallas Cowboys, with both of Johnson's starts last season against the Eagles' NFC East Division rivals from Texas.
"Believing in yourself is always the most important thing to achieve your goals in life," said Johnson, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2021 draft. "I was only a two-star prospect in high school. The stars, Rivals and recruiting rankings I always thought were overrated. Some of the best NFL players in the league right now weren't even ranked. So for me, I was like, if they can do it, why can't I?"
Johnson's late father, Kevin, played college football for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and was one of his biggest influences along with his grandfather Jerry Fitzgerald, who was a Vietnam veteran and avid weightlifter. Without a strong base of support, including Notre Dame coach Charles Fant, the story could have been different for the second-year pro.
"I had the genetics to make it to the pros and all the right resources," Johnson said. "I always had great coaches, while my parents and grandfather gave me everything I could to help me get to this level. There was never an excuse for me not to make it besides myself. I am a very self-motivated dude. When Tulane gave me an opportunity to start my sophomore year, I took it and ran with it."
On the defensive edge, Johnson was one of the top playmakers in college football his last three seasons with the Green Wave as he set a program record with 24.5 sacks. He also had 110 quarterback pressures, 11 pass deflections, six forced fumbles and 136 total tackles in his illustrious Tulane career.
In his first season with the Eagles, he was sent on a blitz of the quarterback four times, with one resulting in a pressure.
"In college I rushed a lot, but in my first year as an NFL player I dropped (back) a lot. They didn't ask me to rush too much because they relied on some of the veterans for that," Johnson said. "However, I am in a room this preseason where we are talking a lot more about rushing. I know my snaps as more of a true defensive end are going to go up if I go out there and prove myself. I just have to keep working and be able to execute and dominate when the opportunity arrives."
Johnson hopes to follow in the footsteps of former Notre Dame teammate Kareem Orr, who last season was a part of the Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl LVI championship.
Expectations have increased for the Eagles after they made some key offseason additions to an already sturdy team.
Philadelphia acquired former Tennessee Titans wide receiver AJ Brown with a trade during the first round of the draft to supplement 2020 Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith. Meanwhile, quarterback Jalen Hurts — like Smith, he's a former Alabama standout — is being counted on for continued improvement after his first full season of starting for Philadelphia
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles bolstered their linebacker corps by adding Haason Reddick and Kyzir White in free agency and drafting Georgia Bulldogs standout Nakobe Dean in the third round.
"There's a lot of excitement around the team," Johnson said. "We know we have a lot more pieces now. We have great players all around the field and even more depth. We all have one thing on our minds going into the season: to win a Super Bowl.
"Jalen Hurts is a great role model in the way he carries himself on and off the field. To get behind a guy like that playing quarterback, we are confident we have every chance in the world to win that ring coming up this year."