Q&A: Chris Johnson Talks 2009, Pivoting to Business, and Community-Driven Coffee

Chris Johnson is a former running back who played 10 seasons with the Titans, Jets, and Cardinals. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and 2009 Offensive Player of the Year — a year in which he had arguably the greatest season for a running back.

He rushed for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns while setting the record for total yards from scrimmage (2,509).

The No. 24 overall pick in the 2008 draft out of East Carolina, Johnson ran for 9,651 yards and 55 touchdowns over 130 games.

After retiring in 2018, Johnson turned his attention to business and continued efforts to help his community by opening Just Love Coffee Cafe in Clermont, Florida, near his hometown of Orlando. He also recently became a brand ambassador for Bet MGM.

Sports Section caught up with Johnson to discuss football, giving back, and the Titans’ season.

You had a great career, but 2009 was special. How did everything come together that season?

Basically, just through hard work, putting in the effort, and maintaining focus. 

Everybody had their hands in it — from the offensive line to the coaching staff believing in me and putting the offense on my back. I’m just so proud of that accomplishment. 

Who were your football idols when you were young?

I loved Barry Sanders. He’s the greatest back in the history of football, to me. He was just a different type of back. 

There weren’t many guys who did things Barry did, so when I came into the league, I wanted to be a guy that did things that other people didn’t. When you just look at my career in highlights, I was able to do that. 

Did you ever get a chance to tell Sanders you grew up idolizing him? 

I met Barry one time, and it was real quick, so I never got a chance to sit down and have a real one-on-one with him. That’s something I would love to do.

What’s your role with MGM? 

Basically, I’m a brand ambassador. I do whatever they need me to do, whether it’s posting things on Instagram or showing up to events. 

You also opened up Just Love Coffee Cafe, with some of the profits going back into the community. Why is that important to you?

My whole career in the NFL, I always gave back to my community of Orlando and inner-city kids through turkey drives, Christmas giveaways, bike giveaways, and a lot of other things.

With the Chris Johnson 28 Foundation, we help kids who may not have a Christmas or may not have a meal at Thanksgiving. And we do back-to-school drives for kids who may not have clothes or uniforms or book bags, or paper, pencils, and supplies for school. 

When I transitioned from the NFL to being a businessman and opening up Just Love, I wanted to continue to be able to help those same kids. I have my own special, customized blend of coffee we sell from the coffee shop, and a percentage of each bag sold is donated so we can still help those kids.

I was one of those kids who woke up on Christmas and didn’t have a Christmas. I grew up with my mom and dad in the same household, but we still struggled. There were times we got boxers and socks as gifts. So I grew up in that same type of environment, going without sometimes. 

I know the feeling of going to school and probably only having one or two pairs of shoes for the whole year, so when I made it, I wanted to help out as much as I could. 

Are you a big coffee drinker?

I used to drink coffee with my grandmother when I was younger, but I’m more of a hot tea person now.

When you were playing, were you thinking about what you’d do after?

I knew football had to end someday, and I always wanted to get into something, I just never knew what it was. So when I retired, it was like, “I’m retired now, what am I going to do?”

I was just sitting around the house and not really doing anything, so that’s when I started looking into getting into different things. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but you have to keep trying. When I saw this concept for the cafe, I thought, “Everyone loves coffee so why not try it out?”

Did getting into business help ease the transition from your playing days?

From retiring to opening up the cafe, it probably took two or three years, so it was tough transitioning. If I could go back and do it all over again, I think it would be much easier. 

But it’s good that I had to go through it this way, because I have kids now, boys who want to play sports and want to go to the NFL. If they end up making it, I know the right things to teach them about the business side of things.

I was just so focused on football and being the best player that I could be, my focus was not on life after football. If I had had someone in my corner who could impart knowledge on me, so that once I did complete my career, the ball could have already been rolling — that would have been big for me.

I know you still follow the Titans closely. How have they been able to overcome the loss of Derrick Henry to injury?

We know whoever we have in there at running back isn’t going to be able to fill Derrick Henry’s shoes. We just need to have somebody in there who just does what they can do and not try to be Derrick. And our receivers had to step up even more than what they had been doing. We have two great receivers in Julio Jones and A.J. Brown.

Our offense was going to change, going from running the ball to passing it more. And our defense has had to come out and play like it has been playing.

Everybody was “Derrick Henry, Derrick Henry,” and, yes, Derrick Henry was doing all of that for us, but we can’t forget about our defense. We can be a contender if our defense continues to play the way they’re playing and our receivers step up some more. 

I can probably guess your pick to win the Super Bowl…

The Titans! 

Chris Kuc is a sportswriter who covered a myriad of sports during his career with the Chicago Tribune, The Athletic, and the Chicago Blackhawks before joining Sports Section. You can reach out to Chris at Chris.Kuc@thesportssection.com or on Twitter: @ChrisKuc.