Johnson had, in many ways, launched the Boise State fairy tale—48 wins over the last four years. (Yet another BCS bowl bid followed the 2009 season: a return trip to the Fiesta, on Jan. 4, against unbeaten TCU.) But he was still working through his own. During his senior year he asked to be put on special teams—as a blocker. He insisted on working extra with the younger backs. "Ian's legacy is that senior year," Choate says. "It's not the proposal or that great 2006 season. It's his senior year and what he said and what he left behind."
Johnson's numbers plunged. He touched the ball only 177 times, compared with 284 in '06. But he still thought the NFL would want him. He had the second-fastest time in the 40 for running backs at last February's NFL combine. He did 26 bench-press reps of 225 pounds—more than soon-to-be-first-round picks Beanie Wells of Ohio State and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno.
But after he was passed over by all 32 teams in the draft, Johnson could not keep his emotions tucked away. "I lost it for a few seconds," he says. "It's just ... I had worked really hard. I needed a few seconds there to get myself together. You don't let emotions cloud your decisions."
An undrafted free agent does not get to be choosy. Johnson's choice came down to Dallas or Minnesota. The answer seemed obvious. The Vikings already had Adrian Peterson, probably the best running back in football. The Vikings already had Chester Taylor, one of the most versatile running backs in football. The Vikings already had Naufahu Tahi, a savage blocker.
Naturally, Johnson chose to sign with Minnesota.
"I think you have to be realistic," he says. "I wasn't going to be fighting for a starting job anywhere. People ask, 'Why would you go where Adrian Peterson plays?' And I'm like, 'Who better to learn from than Adrian Peterson? Who is going to teach me more about being a pro than Chester?'"
And so he learns how to play football. She balances their tentative budget. He talks of a paid internship in the sports nutrition business after the season's over. They might move into teammate Jon Cooper's basement during the off-season so that Ian can work out with the team. It depends. Everything in their life right now depends.
It is 5° in Eden Prairie, Minn., where the Vikings train in a facility behind a large Viking ship. An even colder wind blows, and pellets of snow bombard Ian and Chrissy as they walk across the street back to their apartment after dinner. These are not the big, fluffy flakes of snow they remember from Boise. Cars skid on the slush.
It is a Tuesday, the one off day for players this particular week. Like most teams around the league, the Vikings get Monday off after a victory. But Minnesota lost at Arizona on Sunday, so the players and coaches spent much of Monday gnashing teeth while watching mistakes on film. Johnson did not make any of those mistakes while sitting on his rented couch, but he sat quietly in the meetings and watched the film and tried to look properly contrite. Chrissy worked a nine-hour shift at Victoria's Secret—it's busy at Christmastime.
And now, they hold hands and he laughs about how bundled up she looks with her furry hat and heavy coat and scarf, and she laughs about how he always feels warm no matter how cold it gets. He throws a snowball at her, and they talk about how much fun it will be to have a snowball fight with their children someday.