Orlando Apollos receiver Charles Johnson rejuvenating his pro football career
By Jeff Shain
Orlando Sentinel Correspondent|
Feb 21, 2019 | 7:45 PM
Charles Johnson said no when the Alliance of American Football first came calling, not to mention a few more times after that.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the Orlando Apollos wideout leads the fledgling league in both catches and receiving yardage. Perhaps more important, he’s finding the enjoyment that had worn away through recent trials.
“I really want to have fun with this game again,” said Johnson, whose seven catches for 192 yards played a key role in last week’s 37-29 comeback victory at San Antonio. “I wasn’t going to let anyone try to make me feel any type of way but happy.”
The Apollos can’t help but be pleased with Johnson’s production.
Despite a late start in camp as he finally came around to the idea of playing, the Kentucky native and former Vikings receiver has accumulated 11 catches in two games for 252 yards.
That’s two receptions and 82 yards more than Arizona’s Rashad Ross in second. No other AAF receiver is within 100 yards of Johnson’s total.
“He’s done a fantastic job since he’s been here,” said quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who also leads the league’s passing stats by a large margin. “He got himself acclimated to the system, and he and I have great rapport.”
The duo will try to build on their numbers Saturday night when the Apollos take on the 0-2 Memphis Express at UCF’s Spectrum Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. and the NFL Network will broadcast the game nationally.
Johnson and Gilbert spent a brief time together on the Carolina Panthers roster before the 2017 season, which was cut short when Johnson required knee surgery.
The Panthers let him go, and he failed to stick with the New York Jets last summer.
“I’d kind of lost that fun,” he said. “Lost that love I once had growing up when I was playing in high school, playing in college. Playing at the professional level just wasn’t the same.”
Playing in coach Steve Spurrier’s system has given Johnson a spark in Orlando. Though he admits he’s still working through the terminology, the Apollos’ ability to take shots down the field gets him excited.
“As receivers,” he said, “we want to go downfield and catch balls. I think he’s doing a great job with everything.”
Bennett’s casting call
Former Orlando Predators quarterback Ben Bennett, who also became an NCAA record-setter under Spurrier’s tutelage, visited Thursday’s practice.
“I figured I’d nose around and see how much is still the same,” said Bennett, who led Duke’s offense from 1980-83 when Spurrier was offensive coordinator. “He does the same things and if you just do the things he tells you to do, you’ll have success and you’ll win ballgames.”
Bennett, who has called Orlando home since being traded to the Predators in 1991, attended the Apollos’ opener — and had a little flashback when Gilbert caught the “Orlando Special” throwback for a TD just before halftime.
As it turned out, Bennett was on the receiving end the first time Spurrier ever called that play — with a cast on his left hand.
“It was called ’28 Throwback’ and Mike Grayson pitched it up to me,” Bennett recalled of his 13-yard TD against Clemson. “He threw it behind me and so I had to jump in the air and catch it with my cast. But I caught it and scored a touchdown.”
Bennett, who helped the Predators reach three Arena Bowls in the mid-1990s, spent more than two decades in arena football as a player and coach.
“It’s just nice to have football back,” he said. “It’s just nice to see guys out here running around and having fun.”
Defensive end Ryan Davis Sr., taken off the Alamodome field in an ambulance Sunday after a worrisome collision with teammate Earl Okine, has yet to take part in drills as he recovers from a head/neck injury.
On the plus side, Davis’ injury turned out not as serious as initially feared. The Bethune-Cookman product did not require an overnight hospital stay and flew home with the team. For now, he remains off injured reserve, which would require him to miss four games.
Davis and Okine ran full speed into each other just before halftime as San Antonio’s Logan Woodside stepped up to escape their rush. Okine also stayed down for several minutes before limping off with a knee injury. He sat out Wednesday’s practice but returned Thursday.