CHAMPAIGN — Seventeen days.
Seventeen days straight in a pickup truck driving across the Midwest to paint parking lots for Hardee's fast food restaurants, 104 to be exact.
"No showers and you're sleeping in a truck. It's pretty interesting," Ryan Johnson said, laughing. "It's pretty greasy and grimy towards the end of the two weeks, but I tell you what, it's an experience for sure. It's another thing that's awesome for mental toughness because you just gotta keep going, you just gotta keep pushing."
Johnson began "striping" parking lots alongside a family friend May 3, and together they traveled to Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana and, of course, Illinois.
In the midst of those long days, Johnson, who committed to the Illini as a grad transfer walk-on Tuesday, never lost sight of his ultimate goal: playing Division I football.
"I packed 55 protein shakes in the back of the truck, bottles of water, a bunch of snacks. Just trying to be healthy, trying to keep my body good," Johnson said. "There were a lot of push-ups in the back of the trailer. I tried to get like 100 in a day."
Johnson, a Wisconsin native, had recently entered the transfer portal after three seasons at Division-II Northern Michigan, where he appeared in 20 games. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound quarterback threw for 2,844 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a completion percentage of 54.9 during that span. Johnson could've stayed at Northern Michigan, but with two seasons of eligibility left, he decided to bet on himself and try to play at the Division I level.
People are also reading…
Johnson estimated that he sent roughly 175 emails to 55 Division I programs around the country, hoping that one would give him a shot.
"There's a lot of quiet days," Johnson said. "There's a lot of days where you have no idea if you're even going to get another chance somewhere."
Included in Johnson's lengthy list of programs was Illinois, which he said he had a roundabout connection to through one of his former high school coaches who knows first-year Illinois football coach Bret Bielema.
It also helped that Johnson had the chance to get a brief look at Illinois' campus while passing through the state for work.
Soon, he would get a chance to visit up close.
"I actually got in contact with Illinois while in the truck on like our 85th parking lot," Johnson said. "Coach (Nate) McNeal (the director of recruiting for Illinois football), he answered the phone and was like, 'OK, how tall are? Send me your transcripts,' boom, boom boom. I remember sitting in the car after our 85th parking lot. I do not remember the city, but I think we were still in Illinois. It was unbelievable."
Johnson came to Illinois' campus Tuesday for a visit and a roughly 40-minute throwing workout at Memorial Stadium for offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. At the end, his dream officially came true when Bielema offered him a roster spot as a preferred walk-on.
Johnson committed right then and there.
"I was open to going to other places, and I had a bunch of Division-IIs on my plate, but I was putting those aside and really grinding and sending emails and taking, 'No,' for an answer," Johnson said. "Taking, 'No,' for an answer is huge, you gotta learn how to do that because I've only gotten one, 'Yes,' out of the 175 emails I sent. ... (Illinois) wanted me to come down in front of them, and I knew right then that was my opportunity. I showed up, had a really good time down there and I'm glad they liked what they saw."
Johnson will join a quarterback room that is led by sixth-year senior and presumed starter Brandon Peters. Artur Sitkowski, who transferred from Rutgers to Illinois in April, sophomores Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor, redshirt freshman Deuce Spann and true freshman Samari Collier will also take snaps.
Additionally, Johnson will reunite with former teammate Isaac Darkangelo, who starred at Northern Michigan with 165 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and four sacks in two seasons before transferring to Illinois.
"I was (Darkangelo's) teammate for about two years, and he's a guy that I know really well," Johnson said. " ... He plays linebacker, and from what I heard he's running with (the first unit) a little bit, so I'm extremely happy for him. Now, we have two guys (from Northern Michigan)."
'Going out blind'
Prior to Northern Michigan, Johnson started one year at Ashwaubenon High School in Wisconsin, which is the same high school New York Jets quarterback James Morgan graduated from. Johnson's quarterback coach was Morgan's dad, Brian, and Johnson said he reached out to the Morgan family for advice when he decided to transfer.
Morgan began his college career at Bowling Green before entering the transfer portal in 2017, and he had an eerily similar strategy and outcome to Johnson. Morgan told ESPN that, "I literally sent a block email to like 60 coaches, three from 20 schools I had picked out," and FIU was the only school that responded.
"(Morgan's) dad basically gave me a run down of what he did because he had been in the exact same situation," Johnson said. "He went to Bowling Green, grad transfer, two years of eligibility, went to FIU, played really well there and now he's playing for the New York Jets. I think that's the coolest thing ever, and he deserves all of that because he is the hardest worker and somebody that I look up to. He gave me the advice of sending emails and taking, 'No,' for an answer over and over again and to prepare for that, but to continue to stay positive and confident in yourself."
Johnson said he's grateful for the opportunity to compete at the Division I level, especially considering all of the determination it took on and off the field to turn that dream into reality.
He isn't interested in going back to painting parking lots anytime soon, but he also isn't ashamed of the route it took for him to call himself an Illini.
"Nobody really sees the stuff behind-the-scenes," Johnson said. "When I decided to grad transfer from Northern Michigan, I had no guarantees, no leads, nobody telling me that this is what I could do. I was going out blind, and I just thought, 'D-I is my goal, and I'm not doing anything unless I'm playing Division I football.'"
🏈 16 NFL stars with Illini roots
Geronimo Allison // WR
James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid