Since he was three years old, Ron Johnson knew he wanted to play in the National Football League. Watching an NFL game with his parents, he told them, “I wanna be a football player when I grow up.” He dedicated the next 20 years of his life to making his childhood dream come true.
In grade school in York, PA, Ron played tight end and defensive end for the Eastern York County Blackhawks of the Central Penn Midget Football League. Then, at York Catholic Junior High School, he starred as running back, wide receiver, defensive end and linebacker.
Ron was a three-sport star and all-around athlete at York Catholic High School, excelling in varsity football, basketball and track. He played guard/forward for the York Catholic basketball team and participated in the 100, 200, 400, long jump, triple jump and javelin for the track team. While Ron was a standout in all three sports, it was on the gridiron where he shined the brightest.
Ron was “Mr. Everything” for the York Catholic Fighting Irish football team: running back, wide receiver, defensive end, safety and even, occasionally, kicker. He ran a 4.4 40-yard-dash and racked up over 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons as a full-time starter. Ron scored four touchdowns his sophomore campaign, seven as a junior and ran for nearly 1,500 yards as a senior, averaging five yards a carry, and reached the end zone 26 times.
For his exploits, Ron was selected as a First Team All-County running back and was also chosen for the War of the Roses All-Star Game, which pits the top prep players from the York-Adams League against their counterparts from Lancaster-Lebanon, and the Pennsylvania vs. Maryland Shrine Game, which features high school football stars from both states. Ron was an honorable mention for the Big 33 Football Classic, which features the top players from Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Entering his sophomore year at York Catholic, Ron began receiving letters and scholarship offers from several Division I and II schools across the country, including D-I powerhouses Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Boston College, West Virginia and Memphis to name a few. Ron chose to stay local and attend Division II Shippensburg University in Cumberland Valley, PA.
From the first time he stepped onto the field in a Shippensburg uniform, Ron took the entire Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference by storm. He started at defensive end as a freshman and was a force to be reckoned with. In his first game, at Shepherd University in West Virginia, he recorded five tackles for loss, two sacks and was inches away from an interception.
Ron continued his impressive play throughout his first season and was so dominate that he began seeing double teams on nearly every snap. He was still a force, even when facing two on one, and led the team in sacks and tackles for loss as a freshman. Division II took notice and named him to the Freshman All-America Team.
Throughout his four years at Shippensburg, Ron was an impact player. He was named All-PSAC Western Division Second Team in 1999 and 2001, and All-PSAC Western Division First Team in 2002. He finished his Shippensburg career with 158 tackles, incl
uding 35 for loss. His 18 sacks still rank fifth in the school’s history. In a game against Millersville during his junior year, Ron recorded four sacks. He played especially well in big games versus Indiana, University of Pennsylvania and Slippery Rock University, both PSAC powerhouses and Shippensburg’s arch rivals.
After hearing about the defensive end running roughshod through the PSAC, NFL representatives came to see Ron in action, including scouts from the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans.
Ron talked with various NFL teams throughout his senior year. The Eagles were the most interested and gave him a private workout during the winter of 2003. As the NFL Draft approached, Ron’s dream of making it to the NFL was nearly a reality.
On Draft Day, Ron gathered around the television with his family and excitedly waited to hear his name called, as he received supportive phone calls from friends and other family members. After the last name was called and the NFL Draft complete, the phone rang again, and this time it was former Philadelphia Eagles scout, Jim Monus, who is now with the New Orleans Saints. Monus asked Ron, “Do you still want to be an Eagle? We would like to welcome you to the team and to report to mini camp in two days.”
Ron said yes, packed up his things and headed for Philadelphia. When he arrived at the Eagles complex, the gates were closed. When Ron told the guard his name, the doors were opened and he went inside. It was at that point he realized he was in the NFL.
The first player Ron encountered was Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, a Syracuse grad, who remembered Ron from when he visited Syracuse back when he was a senior at York Catholic.
NFL training camp was an adjustment. Ron says the speed and tempo of the game were much faster than high school or college, and instead of simply using his God-given ability, he had to master the proper techniques and learn at a higher, faster pace. Potential NFL players must make it through three cuts to earn a place on the 53-man roster. Ron made it through the first and second cuts, and played well in his final preseason game. Things were looking up, but they then came crashing down when he was informed he was being let go. A representative from the Eagles called him and told him to return his playbook and sign his release papers.
While at the Eagles complex, the released players were asked if they wanted to speak with any of the coaches. Most said no, but Ron says there was something inside of him that told him he should. He knew he was working his tail off, and needed to know why he was cut.
Ron spoke with the late Jim Johnson, former defensive coordinator for the Eagles, and Johnson told him, “I’m not sure what they told you downstairs but I want you to come back for the practice squad. I want you back here on Monday.” He then talked with the defensive line coach, who also said he wanted Ron to return.
Ron was signed to the practice squad, but that lasted only a month. On Oct. 9, 2003, a few weeks before his 24th birthday, he was signed to the active roster, making him a full-fledged member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 2003, there were 22 rookie free agents in training camp with the Eagles. After the final cuts were made, only four rookie free agents had made the active roster: Roderick Hood, Quintin Mikell, Sam Rayburn and Ron.
Ron appeared in three games for the Eagles that season, who finished 12-4, won the NFC East Championship, and made it to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Carolina Panthers. His first game was against the Dallas Cowboys at Cowboys Stadium.
In his second game versus the New York Giants at Giants Stadium, both Ron and Ike Reese made a key blocks that sprung Brian Westbrook free for a game-winning punt return touchdown. This play is known as “The Second Miracle at the Meadowlands” in 2003.
Ron continued to work hard during the off-season and entered the 2004 season more experienced and with increased playing time and responsibility. “You get one year under your belt and you know the plays, you know the system now, so you’re getting exited,” he says.
In the team’s final preseason game against the New York Jets, Ron played the entire game and sacked Jets quarterback Quincy Carter. As the game was coming to a close, Ron lined up on the goal line for a defensive stand. While trying to make a play, he felt a sharp pain and pop in his lower back. Although in severe pain, he continued playing. Ron was in tremendous pain throughout that night and by the next morning, he couldn’t even walk. He was later released by the Eagles.
Ron was diagnosed with a L5/S1 ruptured disc and suffered severe nerve damage, but because of his love of football, he attempted to rehab his injury and continue playing. He was the No. 1 draft pick of the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe, but his injury was determined to be so severe that doctors would not clear him to play. They warned him if he were to suffer another similar back injury, he could be paralyzed. With his professional football career over, Ron turned to his second love, helping and mentoring disadvantaged youth.
Although he was offered an opportunity to coach at his alma mater, he declined. He worked for a time at Athlete’s Advantage Training Center, a sports training facility in Conshohocken, PA, providing advanced training to high school and college athletes.
He later worked at the Juvenile Detention Center in Delaware County, helping kids get their lives back on the right track. Ron saw kids wasting their talents at the center and tried to get them involved in athletics to keep them out of trouble. So he founded Ron’s Rising Stars, an organization that will host football camps, offer health and nutrition counseling, as well as other counseling and motivational speaking services.
Ron’s Rising Stars Football Camps (RRS) offers campers undivided attention and one-on-one work. It’s purpose is to teach kids the basic concepts and fundamentals of football, but also provide them with motivation and advanced training including guest speakers who talk about the importance of doing well in school and being a respectable and well rounded individual.
“My goal is to try to shape young people into being the best person they can be in life,” Ron says. “It’s not just about football, it is about learning important life lessons through football.”
If you’d like to contact Ron directly, you can send an e-mail to: email@example.com.