THE FASTEST, niftiest receiver at the Eagles' rookie camp was Demaris Johnson.
Johnson, an explosive 5-7, 170, looks like he might be able to run away from anything, and maybe he once thought he could. But there is no running away from security cameras, or from a felony embezzlement charge, the NCAA's all-time all-purpose yards leader (7,796) and kickoff yards leader (3,417) discovered last August, just before his senior season at Tulsa was set to commence.
Johnson ended up going undrafted last month. He didn't play football in 2011 after his girlfriend, Chamon Jones, allowed him to purchase more than $2,600 worth of merchandise from the Tulsa Macy's where she worked for about $13. Johnson and Jones entered plea agreements that will expunge their records after a year of probation and community service.
"I took it that everything happens for a reason," Johnson said Monday after the rookie camp concluded with an indoor session at NovaCare under drizzly skies. "I got a year off from football, just thinking about my mistakes, thinking about how much I love the game, how much I took it for granted at one point. Now I'm just thankful for the opportunity I've got."
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman spoke before the draft about reevaluating the way the organization viewed "character" concerns, maybe making more of an allowance for the kinds of mistakes college kids make, as long as the mistake-makers learned from what happened, and caused no permanent harm. Rookie camp featured seventh-round running back Bryce Brown, who left the Tennessee and Kansas State teams, along with three undrafted free agents who have made headlines off the field. In addition to Johnson, there was safety/corner Cliff Harris, dismissed from the Oregon team after several traffic incidents and a marijuana possession charge, and Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas, who entered the draft after learning he would miss next season because of a suspension arising from unspecified team rule violations.
Eagles coach Andy Reid has talked about how the legal problems of two of his sons changed his thinking, how, in prison visits, Reid encountered people who were not evil, but had made bad choices. In fact, Garrett Reid, 29, the Reid son who got in the most trouble, was a visible presence on the field in this camp, assisting the assistant coaches, more than 5 years after he made headlines for injuring a woman in a car crash while under the influence of heroin.
Andy Reid, asked Monday about the rookie camp players with complicated pasts, said: "We have a couple guys we're giving a second chance to, really. They goofed up. We felt through our evaluation process that they're not bad kids, we're going to give 'em a chance. They know they goofed up, which is important. They've admitted they goofed up, which is even more important. We'll see if there's a change that takes place … Do they know there are not a lot of second chances in this world? Yeah. They're getting one, and we'll see what they do with it."
Reid said he sent special-teams coordinator Bobby April to Tulsa to talk with Johnson, who was allowed to work out at the Golden Hurricane's pro day in March, attracting scouts from 17 teams. Despite the arrest and his lack of size (the Eagles are listing Johnson at 5-8, an inch taller than he measured at his pro day), this is a guy who authored 150 plays of 20-plus yards in three seasons.
"We tried to do our homework before we brought the guys in. We did background checks on them. We just wanted to make sure we had all the information, and we felt comfortable with it," Reid said.
Johnson said he has already completed his required 80 hours of community service, since reaching the plea agreement in October. He said he spent the fall semester in school, even though he couldn't play.
"I watched a lot of football games on TV … I've got a son, he's 1 year old, I got to spend time with him, that was great, off the field … I missed [football] a lot," Johnson said. "It was awkward, not being out there, grinding with the guys … being a college football player, you think you don't have a lot of free time, until you have a lot of free time, and you realize it's too much free time."
Johnson said he worked out, kept his mind on football, and watched a lot of "Law & Order," something he might have profited from earlier.
Asked if he feels his character was judged unfairly after the arrest, Johnson said: "It's life. I think people are entitled to their own opinion. I just didn't look at it — I took [having made] a mistake like a man, and just got over it, tried not to make that mistake again, just move on with my life … just show people that I'm a better person than that.
"I'm very thankful for the Eagles giving me the opportunity. That's why I go out every day and try to show them everything I got ... I couldn't be in a better place."
Johnson said he is still with Jones, his girlfriend since their sophomore year, at Destrehan (La.) High, and the mother of his son.
"We got over that hump," of the arrest embarrassment, he said. "I plan on marrying her in the future. She's a good girl, and I love her."
Andy Reid confirmed that defensive tackle Maurice Fountain, the oldest rookie camper, suffered a right patellar tendon tear late in the Sunday afternoon session.
Reid said Fountain was making a good showing before suffering the injury, which almost certainly ended his 2012 season. It might be a career-ender as well, but Reid tried to bolster Fountain's spirits by calling him "a young 29" because he hasn't been worn down by playing in the NFL. Fountain has played in the Arena Football League, United Football League and Canadian Football League since going undrafted out of Clemson in 2005.
"He's one of my favorite guys," Reid said of Fountain, a veteran of the Seahawks and Eagles practice squads. "He just does everything that he's asked to ... He can play at the next level and he was on course to do that. You don't like seeing that happen, but he's a young kid and he'll bust his tail to get back."
There were no big surprises when Andy Reid ran down the injury list of veterans — the healthy ones are scheduled to take part in the next OTA, starting May 22 — but it was hard not to wonder whether the fact that Jamar Chaney (neck surgery) won't be on the field until training camp played into the apparent decision to give second-round rookie Mychal Kendricks a shot at the starting strongside linebacker spot. Kendricks was the defensive standout from this camp … Frederic Plesius, the tryout linebacker from Laval, Que., had a reporter from LeJournal de Quebec chronicling his weekend, but as of Monday evening the Eagles had not announced any plans to add Plesius to the roster. n