Less than three months ago, Josh Johnson was finally a franchise quarterback.
Best known for his long, winding stint as an NFL backup, with stops in 13 different cities over 12 seasons, the San Diego product was a face of the revived XFL. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the spring league to shorten its 2020 season after just five games in March, Johnson was arguably its hottest QB. His 106.3 passer rating led the league, and he was on pace for 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions as the leader of the Los Angeles Wildcats.
Now, stripped of the opportunity he spent more than a decade working toward? He might be doing something better.
Johnson is one of the co-founders of the Ultimate Gaming League (UGL), an Oakland-based esports media company aiming to foster diversity in the tech/gaming space, specifically in urban areas. In a world where many, including the NFL, are talking about racial disparities, this venture is meant to use things as simple as video games to be a "great equalizer."
"Us being, like, three Black owners from inner-city Oakland, there's not a lot of people doing something like this," Johnson tells CBS Sports.
UGL is partnered with local organizations, including the Fam1st Family Foundation founded alongside Marcus Peters and Marshawn Lynch, for everything from charity events to instructional workshops. One such example is a Pros vs. Joes "Madden" tournament, set to kick off this month with participation from Peters, Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Sidney Jones, Cre'Von LeBlanc and a handful of other NFL players.
"Just the network of football made this happen," Johnson says. "These partners, some of 'em work with our local kids on teaching them coding. One provides resources that most inner-city kids can't afford. It could be, like, getting a computer or even getting a Wi-Fi hot spot, just creating opportunities. Tech is the new way, man, it's just that simple. You've gotta know people with the right resources."
Johnson, whose XFL stardom was so anticipated the Wildcats prevented the Detroit Lions from signing the QB in 2019, is so passionate about this work because he believes much of the nation's current conversation about racism and systemic oppression is just that: Talk.
"Honestly, bro, I'm a Black man, so it's different for me," he explains. "It's, like, conversation ain't enough. We should've been having a conversation, and everything from my experience is living this, trying to survive this, so it makes it unique for me. Even when you grow up as a kid and you look at your history, you're told to be a proud American, but to know that you've blatantly been looked down upon your whole life, to me the focus should just be on that.
"Even when you're a professional athlete, you're judged," he continues. "Well, if you're an athlete, you're judged as an athlete, but then you gotta be judged as a Black man, too, so it's just another thing to endure. Even being a Black quarterback, if you come from a place like where I came from, I live so different than most of my coaches, owners, GMs. It just adds more to it. People are acknowledging it, but until life is really different, then it's just gonna be a conversation."
That said, Johnson believes the conversation about Black experience has fueled some action. One small example: His most recent NFL team, Washington, openly reviewing its Redskins nickname, which some have deemed a slur to Native Americans. Johnson says he hasn't studied that culture's history enough to offer a firm opinion on the name, but like many others, he's sure America's latest reckoning with racism played a part in the potential rebranding.
As for whether Johnson, 34, ever intends on making his own return to the field, well, that's a no-brainer. While UGL will remain a priority, he's still got eyes on football, especially now that he's gotten a taste of being the guy at QB.
"Hell yeah, that's what I've been working for," he says, noting that he's "been following, hoping that somebody does buy the XFL ... There's nothing like it, being the guy. Being in that element, your attention to detail grows. As a starter, when you're the guy, the franchise, people really look for you to lead them at all times."
As Johnson has evidenced, that also applies off the field.