New York Jets defensive end Jermaine Johnson (52) leaving the...

New York Jets defensive end Jermaine Johnson (52) leaving the field after the Chicago Bears at the New York Jets on November 27, 2022. Credit: Lee S. Weissman/Lee S. Weissman

Mike Grant has won 11 state titles in his 30 years as head coach of the Eden Prairie High School football team, just outside Minneapolis, and has sent seven of his players to the NFL. With nearly a half-century of coaching on his resume — not to mention a lifetime in the sport that goes back to his days as a Vikings ballboy when his father, Hall of Famer Bud Grant, was their head coach — he has a pretty keen eye for talent and a really great idea of how to develop it.

Jermaine Johnson is the most accomplished of his players. He helped win four straight state championships and became a first-round pick by the Jets in April. One might think he is the player Grant is most proud of helping to produce.

But Grant admits he never saw any of it coming and has had little to do with Johnson’s career.

“He was a really good player but he never tapped into his ultimate potential,” Grant said of Johnson, calling him an “underachiever” both as a player and as a student.

The frustration of a football coach came through in the phone conversation with Newsday this week, with a mix of professional disappointment and Midwest honesty that can be as harsh as the winter winds.

Johnson was told about those somewhat scathing remarks as he prepares to return to Minnesota and play football there for the first time since his high school days. The Jets will face the Vikings on Sunday and Johnson will be part of the team’s highly regarded defense. He has so many friends and family interested in seeing him play that he couldn’t get tickets for everyone, so they’ll gather for watch parties at their homes instead of being at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Grant’s commentary on him, though? Johnson agreed with it.

“I was a child,” he said. “Stuff comes with that. I was able to mature and know what I wanted in life and realize that you have to do what you have to do. That’s the definition of a man, doing what you have to do whether you want to do it or not. Just get the job done. That’s pretty much what I learned. I’m thankful for the journey that got me here.”

He could have gone straight to a big-time college program out of Eden Prairie like several of his teammates — including former Jets linebacker Blake Cashman and two recent Giants draft picks, former linebacker Ryan Connelly and current linebacker Carter Coughlin — but he didn’t have the grades to do so. He instead went to Independence Community College in Kansas, aka “Last Chance U” from the so-named Netflix documentary, and that is where he took those first steps toward maturity.

“I think junior college made him the player he is,” Grant said. “He figured it out. He went to work . . . It’s a great story.”

“I loved football a lot,” Johnson said. “But then it’s like, OK, if this is what you want to do, you have to go all-in and all for it, and academics just weren’t as important to me then. So I had to really sit down and think about what I wanted to do with my life and what my priorities were.”

He ended up graduating Independence with a 3.3 GPA and an associate’s degree in one year, then played at Georgia for three years and Florida State for one — earning his bachelor’s degree from the latter — before arriving with the Jets.

“I love the path I took,” Johnson said. “It taught me more lessons, showed me more about myself, showed me how much I love this sport. And it lets me teach lessons to the youth, more than I would be able to had I not gone down this path. This is the path God put me on, so I never questioned it.”

Johnson has recorded 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the Jets while appearing in eight games. Robert Saleh called his lack of playing time behind some dominant veterans “a blessing in disguise” for Johnson, allowing him to develop at his own pace “without the pressure of expectation.”

“Jermaine has had production in limited time,” he said.

Saleh sees a brighter future for Johnson than Grant ever seemed to envision.

Johnson said this week’s trip home “100%” brings his evolution full circle. He left Eden Prairie a boy and returns as a man, not just because he has grown from the 6-5, 215-pound track and basketball frame he sported back then (he’s listed at 260 for the Jets these days), but because of the life decisions he has made.

“It’s going to be fun to go out there and put a show on for my supporters and family and friends,” Johnson said.

And Grant? He wasn’t certain if he’d be able to attend the game in person.

“Depends if the ice freezes,” he said.

Fishing, it turns out, almost always tops football in Minnesota. But he’ll at least have a television on in his cabin (just as he did when he went hunting with his 95-year-old father back in Week 1 of this NFL season).

“Every week we try to tune in and check on our former players,” Grant said. “How are the Jets doing? How are the Giants doing? It’s great that we have kids who go on to play in the NFL.”

Even more so when it’s someone as unexpected as Johnson.

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