If you’ve ever played sports, I can almost guarantee that at one point in your childhood you pictured yourself playing for your favorite professional team. Personally, I always believed that one day I would be the starting catcher for the Boston Red Sox. I used to drape an old paint tarp in my parent’s open garage door, dial the radio to Joe Castiglione, and throw baseballs into the loosely waving gray cloth that protected my dad’s tool bench from getting plunked. Baseball by baseball, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, I wore that old tarp out. However, after all those years, the Red Sox never called – the phone never rang. My dream of playing for the Red Sox never came true.
For Matt Johnson, this typical childhood story had a different outcome… When the time came, his phone rang.
The Road to the NFL
Matt is a soft spoken, humble, family man, that during our interview never once boasted about his records or bragged about his achievements. With every compliment I sent his way, he deflected it to either his teammates or his family. As the conversation went on, I started to notice that everything Matt was saying was stated as “we” or “our.” The word “I” is absent from his vocabulary. It was refreshing having a conversation with someone who has every right to brag, yet never mentioned any of it.
His humble beginnings started in Tumwater Washington. While speaking with Matt, it’s abundantly clear that above all else his love for his family is fervid.
Matt’s father is a stern, yet supportive figure that permeates respect when he enters the room. He’s the type of man that does everything he can to provide for his family and make sure all their needs and wants were fulfilled. His mother is a loving role model that no matter what instills confidence and love in her three children.
Matt and his identical twin brother Zach were – and are – inseparable. They talk daily and confide every detail about their life with each other. Their younger sister, Gabrielle, is 5 years younger than Matt and Zach and is an impressive volleyball player.
In high school, Matt was a standout athlete in football, baseball, track & field and basketball. His twin brother, Zach, and his sister, Gabrielle, were both right there with him – both talented standouts.
As a twin, the bond that Matt and Zach share is infrangible.
“Zach is my best friend. We were very lucky growing up with that kind of relationship. When looking back, the nice thing is, sometimes when you have a twin, one is a little better than the other in whatever they do. For us, we were the same. We’d take turns at getting better. One year I would get a little bit better, then the following year he would. My Junior year in football I was a little better than he was, and in our Senior year, he was a little better. No matter who was better at what point, we always supported each other. We were always each other’s best friend regardless if I had a terrible game and he had five touchdowns.”
Football vs. Baseball
Football wasn’t Matt’s first love. Early on, Matt had an affinity for baseball. Matt was on a prestigious baseball club from 6th grade to his sophomore year of high school.
“To be honest at that time the both of us thought we were going to be playing baseball forever. We loved baseball, but we knew we weren’t the best at it and we weren’t going to play anytime after high school, but we loved it.”
After countless baseball tournaments, and endless days perfecting his swing, football started to slowly enter Matt’s life.
When Matt was young, his father would show both Matt and Zach tapes of Emmitt Smith juking opponents and breaking tackles. In between baseball practices and games, they would sit in their living room and watch every second of #22’s time on the field.
Since Matt grew up in a pro-Cowboy household, it wouldn’t have been kosher to root for any other team. So by default, Matt rooted for the Cowboys.
“After watching Emmit with my dad, I developed an affinity for the sport,” Matt said. “Every play was so exciting. Everything could change with one play. From the strategy side, that’s why I liked it, but from the physical side, I loved being able to hit someone without getting in trouble. That’s honestly probably why I fell in love with the sport.”
Beavers, Cougars, Eagles…
After 4 years of high school, both Matt and Zach were recruited by some of the best football programs in the country. With top Division I coaches promising them, “We’ll do whatever it takes to get you guys here,” Matt and Zach had great opportunities to play at a powerhouse institution. During the deciding process, they both looked at the same schools – twins stay together. The decision came down to Oregon State, Washington State, and Eastern Washington. All three were great programs and could help them grow as players, but it was the small-town feel that made them gravitate toward Eastern Washington.
Stepping onto campus was more or less a culture shock for the two of them. Both being somewhat reserved made for a tougher than normal transition.
“It was different coming from Tumwater High School where the coaches preached no yelling, no cursing, and no fighting at practice – none of that stuff. Then when we got to college we were cussed at every step we took. It was a big jump coming from high school to college. But luckily Zach and I were there together. That made it easier.”
Then at preseason, during Matt’s freshman year, Eastern Washington and the NCAA Clearinghouse had a major mix up. Some of the coaches misfiled paperwork that caused the entire freshman class to redshirt. Both Matt and Zach’s playing time was put on hold.
Eastern Washington – The Start
After missing his true freshman year, Matt was eager to lace up his cleats and get on the field.
Without skipping a beat, Matt’s redshirt freshman year (his sophomore academic year) was instantly one to remember. He was second on the team in pretty much every defensive category and proved that he belonged on the field. The following year, during his redshirt sophomore season, he led the league in every defensive category.
Then in his Junior year, everything started to change… in a slow way.
For most athletes that move up the ranks, the game gets faster as the level of play rises. For Matt, the opposite happened. As he stepped into his Junior year, the pace of the game slowed. The running seemed slower, the passes were in the air longer, and the blockers lost their strength. Matt was living in this “bizarro world” where the game speed seemed slower.
It started to feel like high school again for Matt, and that familiar feeling of playing at the next level started to become a reality. It was at that point that he knew he could play in the NFL.
During the first six games of his Junior season, Matt didn’t miss a tackle and he didn’t miss an assignment. His coach would always joke with him, “Are you going to mess up today?”
I asked Matt what lead to that large jump in talent. Why did he all of a sudden excel in this sport? Matt credited his success to his two coaches, Tori Hunter and Nate Brookreson.
“Tori taught me all the little things about being a safety. He taught me how to make the right reads during pre-snap and post-snap. His biggest thing was ‘no wasted movements.’ Once you get to an elite level, any wasted movement is detrimental – you’re going to get beat. We also had a great coach in Nate Brookreson. He was the best trainer I’ve ever had. Every summer we would go into camp ready to go. I felt strong, I felt ready, and I felt prepared to take on my competition.”
The combination of coaches and talented players like Matt led to something special during his Junior year. Matt and the rest of his team won the Division 1 AA National Championship.
“It was crazy. It feels like it is a dream when I talk about it. Looking back, my dad, Zach and I talk about certain games and certain plays that happened. I had an interception called back; one of our linemen jumped offside. I had a couple pass breakups. I played pretty solid. But it wasn’t just me, we had a bunch of people step up that game. My brother had a HUGE sack on the second to last play that sealed the deal for us.”
The NFL Comes Knocking
After winning the National Championship, Matt began flying all over the country visiting and working out with various NFL organizations. The fact that he never missed a tackle or an assignment made scouts take notice. Matt met with the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, and the New England Patriots. Each team flew him out for workouts and chalkboard sessions where they would test his mental understanding and intuitiveness of the game.
The Draft Day Phone Call
The day of the draft, Matt and his family rented a hotel room in Cheney. It was the only hotel in Cheney at the time.
His dad, mom, brother, brother’s girlfriend (now wife), sister, and his high school mentor all huddled around the TV as Roger Goodell took the stage at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City on April 26th at 8pm.
“I got the call. It was a Dallas number. I picked up and said, ‘Hello?’ The voice on the other end asked, ‘Is this Matt?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ He goes, ‘This is Jerry Jones.’ Just to get everyone’s attention in the room I said, ‘Hello Mr. Jones.’ It was the last pick of the 4th round and he said, ‘We have a pick coming up and we’re taking you. The coaches enjoyed your visit and they really liked working out with you. We think you have a bright future here.’”
“That was a moment I’ll never forget.”
After Jerry hung up, Matt was bombarded by reporters. His life was about to change.
Matt Johnson, Dallas Cowboys, #37
Four days after the draft, Matt reported to Rookie Minicamp. He explained that the surreal moment was when he stepped on the field and saw his childhood heroes playing catch right next to him. He looked across the field and saw Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Tony Romo – guys that, up to this moment, he had only seen on TV.
One thing that Matt mentioned is that he looked forward to finally putting on the widely recognized “star” that made the Cowboys recognizable. But as he got to his locker, the helmet sitting there was blank and logo-less. Jason Garrett’s mantra is that you have to earn your star before you can wear it on your helmet.
If you haven’t yet realized this, Matt has unmatched fortitude. He’s someone who takes it upon himself to push his body and his physical ability to the next level. He’s always been this way, and if you asked him that question, he would agree. Matt’s a grinder – like most NFL players. However, that “grinding” mentality took a toll on Matt’s ability to play at full health his first season.
At Matt’s first practice, he tweaked his hamstring which caused him to miss most of his rookie training camp. During that recovery period, he spent every second trying to get back on the field. After hours and hours of extensive rehab trying to heal his hamstring, Matt finally got back to the field where he put his helmet on (with the star) and started the second preseason game for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys were playing the Rams and Matt, back to full strength, demonstrated to the coaches why they drafted him by having a stellar first preseason game.
However, during the next week of practice, Matt tweaked his hamstring again, putting him out for much longer. Not knowing the cause initially, the Cowboy doctors eventually figured out that it was a back issue. Matt’s back was causing his left and right hamstrings to weaken. The team had high expectations that he would earn the starting Free Safety position his rookie year so they put him on the Active Roster for the first 6-7 weeks of his Rookie year. After his injury persisted, the Cowboys put him on Injured Reserve for the rest of the season. Matt’s only field time was that one preseason game against St. Louis.
The next year, Matt was ready to compete. During the entire off-season, Matt pushed his body and trained harder than ever before in order to make sure he was ready to win the Safety position.
“I figured, I’m a football player. Everyone is sore. Everyone is in pain. So I trained and trained. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to play.”
Then the worst came. Matt broke his foot.
“It was beyond frustrating because I did everything I could to come into camp healthy and ready to complete, but if I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t have trained as hard as I did.”
Matt’s referring to his training load. He admits that overtraining was the reason he got injured.
“My original thought is that if I’m getting hurt, it’s because I’m not strong enough, or I didn’t train enough. There has to be something that I can do that will help me improve. I guarantee that if I had the technology and knew about WHOOP when I was in the league, I would have had a chance to play more.”
It’s typical for professional athletes, especially NFL players who need to fulfill their “tough guy” reputation, to overtrain in order to compensate for the weaknesses in their game. In Matt’s case, his injuries were his weakness and working out harder to overcome these weaknesses was his presumed remedy.
After battling hamstring issues during the previous years, he suffered another hamstring injury in 2014 which kept him out of preseason. On August 27th of that year, Matt was placed on the Injured Reserve list again, before being released with an injury settlement on September 3, 2014.
It’s shocking to think that after everything Matt went through and after everything that he invested in the game, that a promising career like his came to a halt because of overtraining.
Are NFL Players Prone to Overtaining?
In most practices, the NFL uses GPS-based monitors on the shoulder pads of each player to measure how far and how fast each athlete runs. This measurement is also used in addition to how each coach perceives each athlete is “feeling” that day. Coaches base a lot of their decisions on gut, rather than data.
Off the field, Matt told us that each athlete, starting last year in training camp, measured their heart rate when they woke up with the general Health App on the iPhone.
“They would take their heart rate when they went to bed and when they got up. The NFL is starting to realize that you can’t guess at how well recovered their players are,” Matt said. Yes, this is true, and yes they’re moving in the right direction, but the NFL needs to do more to make sure their players are well recovered during the week. By utilizing WHOOP data, coaches and players can now create real-time training plans based on how well each athlete is Recovered during any given day.
“The biggest area sports scientists are attempting to understand is athlete recovery,” says Gary McCoy, SVP of Applied Sports Science for WHOOP. “This is where WHOOP data is essential to the elite athlete. With Sleep-Lab accuracy, WHOOP is just starting to uncover the correlations between sleep and performance, recovery and injury prevention, and even recovery and athlete adaptation. WHOOP technology is the gateway to athlete diagnostic data that has never been seen before. However, WHOOP technology and data is not the hero in this evolution. The coach who accurately prescribes practice, conditioning, recovery, and rest based on this data, will be the architect of this athlete evolution.”
Where Matt is Now
Matt is now back in Washington and lives with his wife and three Labrador Retrievers (one in each color). He is a trainer at a local gym and recently finished his science degree from Eastern Washington (he still had 4 classes left when he was drafted).
Matt is on WHOOP and uses the data to help monitor his recovery in order to make sure he works out on the day’s that he is best recovered.
— Matt Johnson (@Matt_Johnson37) September 19, 2016