Leonard Johnson was almost ready to exchange his cleats for a cleaver.
The veteran cornerback had begun to think about life after football in recent weeks as training camps around the NFL opened up without him. Culinary school was where he wanted to go, to get an education in what has been a life-long infatuation with cooking, and eventually maybe even land a show on the Food Network. He and his agent were having discussions about those possible paths, in fact, when they had to be put on hold.
The Giants called.
If there is any player who knows about watched pots and boiling, it's Johnson, so it probably wasn't much of a surprise that as soon as he turned his attention away from football for a moment it seemed as if football bubbled back up. Cooking will have to wait a little longer.
Johnson came to New York for a free agent workout on Friday and was signed to the roster on Friday afternoon. On Saturday he was on the field with his fifth team in seven seasons – his fourth in the past four years -- trying to get caught up with a system he’s never played before on a squad where he knows virtually nobody. It’s been a bit of a blur, but one Johnson is embracing.
“I was just so happy I got a call,” he said. “It was like, man, the dream lives on. I was like, man, it’s crazy. This is kind of my story. I may be the guy who plays 10 years and plays on one-year deals. But you know what, the opportunity presents itself and I’ve always made the most of every opportunity so I’m just blessed to have another shot. They told me to just come in and be you and that would be a big help.”
He’ll likely gravitate toward playing the nickelback, a spot where he played last year for the Bills. The Giants have been trying to find someone who can step in and be that third cornerback when they go to their sub packages, and Johnson has had both experience and success in that role.
“It complements my playing style,” he said. “I’m close to the ‘backers, I’m hands on with the front seven, and then it allows me to play a little corner and a little safety, even a little linebacker, all in one.”
He also happens to be in New York City (or just across the river from it), which likely will help him prepare for that next career at some point. The one in the kitchen. Johnson said in every city he’s played since entering the NFL in 2012 he’s been able to find time to explore the culinary culture, and he spends a good deal of his offseasons traveling the world in similar pursuits.
“That’s my thing, man, that is my thing,” he said. “I cook. I Iike to go to little mom and pop shops and then I like to go to really really nice restaurants and I’ll just talk to the owner or the head chef and tell them who I am and my interest in cooking and see if I can get in and chaperone or just follow behind the chef.”
Occasionally he’ll even work a shift or two on the line in the kitchen at those restaurants.
“I’m in love with Thai cuisine and I’m in love with the Thai culture,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. What I do is I go to a different country or a different city and I learn how to cook their main dish and then I take the spices and herbs and incorporate them into my own favorite dishes. It’s a cool deal.”
He’s been cooking, he said, since he was six or seven years old, watching his mother and older sisters whip up dishes and then going to the houses of his friends in Clearwater, Fla., to try it himself (and usually get that friend in trouble when their parents found them at the stove).
“Some of the food was actually horrible,” he said, “but it was leading up to this.”
That “this” will have to wait. At least until he’s done with the Giants. And that’s fine with Johnson.
“I was preparing myself for the next move but also preparing myself for the call,” Johnson said. “I got the call and that was it. I’m ready to go.”