FROM GRIDIRON TO SKILLET: Leonard Johnson’s dreams coming together

Dec 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Kenneth Farrow (27) is tackled by Carolina Panthers defensive back Leonard Johnson (23) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (56) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

AMES — Seven-year-old Leonard Johnson stood near the lamppost in keen anticipation. His friends in Largo, Florida, converged swiftly, bearing perishable gifts. From one direction, came a carton of eggs. From the other, some ground beef. From yet another, savory strips of bacon.

“I was just the dude on the corner waiting to cook all the food,” Johnson laughed.

He’s sizzled ever since — in the kitchen and on the football field. At precisely the same time Johnson learned to cook, he made a bold proclamation.

I will play in the NFL,” he told himself, firmly, confidently.

Now Johnson — an undrafted free agent — is set to embark on his sixth season in the league.

The 5-10, 200-pounder is as adept at shadowing taller wide outs as he is with a spatula, skillet and spice rack. Johnson recorded 30 tackles and a sack in 10 games for Carolina last season after sitting out the first six games because of offseason Achilles tendon surgery.

“I always dream big, man,” said Johnson, who started every game of his four-year Cyclone career. “I always dream big. Some of the things I’ve dreamed haven’t passed yet, but I’m still dreaming.”

Still cooking, too. Johnson bonded with the Panthers’ Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Newton quickly during his one-year stint at Carolina. The unifying element? Well-crafted cuisine, of course.

“(We) have developed a great friendship in such a short period of time,” said Johnson, who often was in charge of Thanksgiving feasts during his time in Ames. “Anytime you have food involved, it’s a common ground that breaks everything.”

Food. Football. Pigs and pigskin. Johnson’s twin passions both point toward professional success. Plans for a cooking show are already afoot. The working title (as of now): “Behind the Helmet.”

“There’s many, but that’s the one I’m sticking with now because it allows you to get to know the guy behind the helmet and out of the helmet,” Johnson said of the prospective show.

He hopes the program can make it onto the Food Network. He said talks are underway. The premise involves cooking with current and former NFL players as they talk about their careers, hard-earned wisdom and life in general.

“We’ve already made a lot of progress,” Johnson said.

That’s expected when you dream big. Johnson said his go-to dish at Iowa State was made-from-scratch spaghetti. To call it simply a crowd pleaser would do the dish injustice.

“Everyone loves my spaghetti, man,” Johnson said. “I do spaghetti a different way. I can’t tell you all the ingredients, but I let the meat and sauce cook for about two days. I implement some shrimp and a bunch of seafood; you know, got that Florida touch to it. It’s a special dish.”

So special that Johnson held a “DB dinner” at his apartment in Ames. Everyone left the repast impressed — and stuffed. Especially then-secondary coach Bob Elliott.

“Coach Elliott, man, I’ll never forget, he comes over looking all good and I’m like, coach you’re going to a 5-star apartment not a 5-star restaurant,” Johnson joked. “It was hard for coach to make it home that night. Good thing his wife was there because he was too full.”

Johnson’s been filling stomachs and fulfilling dreams for 20 years. He takes one month each offseason to travel the world and learn about ethnic cuisine. Most recently, he visited Thailand. He’s also expanded his palate in Indonesia, China and across the Mediterranean.

“I love the Asian cuisines and the spices and the herbs that they use,” Johnson said. “I like to implement that into my food.”

Hot dishes. Appetizers. Entrees.

Johnson’s set the culinary bar high and his personal goal posts deep. Between cooking, blanketing receivers and mentoring youth at home through a camp that’s grown every year, he’s truly assembled a rich life.

“It’s just a blessing, man,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy, but it’s blessing too, because you look back at life, man, and you take so many different turns and so many different things come up and you look back and it’s just like Man i cant believe all the things that happened. Even though these things took place in my life, it’s all about how you take them and how you run with it. Everything has made itself out the way that it has and you just make the best of it.”


Rob Gray


Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.