On a cool afternoon, last March—the NFL offseason—longtime pro quarterback Josh Johnson was training at his alma mater, Oakland Technical High School. His former Tech teammate and cousin, Virdell Larkins III, now the school’s head football coach, was chatting with assistants. Inside the gym, student members of the team were lifting weights in hopes of closing the gap with West Oakland’s McClymonds High, the perennial Oakland Athletic League football favorite. Girls basketball players circled the track in advance of their title game in Sacramento.
As the sun set at Tech and the stadium lights turned on, Johnson, 36, zipped passes into the hands of Vallejo native Rashad Ross, a free-agent receiver. Johnson has said he wants to play professional football until he’s 40. Days later, he signed with his record 14th NFL team, the Denver Broncos.
Each time Johnson enters an NFL game, fans marvel at a quarterbacking journey that now spans 19 teams (including three stints with the San Francisco 49ers and one with the Oakland Raiders) across four professional leagues.
“Guy has mad heart,” one person replied to a Twitter post chronicling Johnson’s football trek. “Grinder,” commented another.
“The NFL isn’t glamorous for everyone; it’s a grind and a journey,” tweeted Emmanuel Acho, a sports analyst and former player. “Josh Johnson, you’re going to have a heck of a story to tell one day!”
Johnson’s persevering journey from Oakland to the NFL—one of the pinnacles of American professional sports—makes sense after you meet Johnson’s mother, Rosemary Whisenton. A single mother of four known as “Ms. Tech” around the Broadway campus, she’s part of the glue that holds together the school’s sports programs.
Johnson was an overlooked and undersized West Oakland kid, but at Tech he blossomed into an NFL prospect alongside other neighborhood football stars who years later are still bonded by a twisted-fingers celebration they would perform together after big plays.
It’s a story that I’ve personally seen unfold, as a friend and former classmate of Johnson’s at Tech.
“Oakland taught me about survival,” Johnson said in a phone interview from Denver, shortly after being cut from the team’s active roster and placed on its practice squad. “As much as getting cut hurts,” he said, “getting to take advantage of these moments can change your life forever.”
Bonds and banners
As last month’s heat wave scorched the field at Oakland Tech, football players rushed to the water coolers for a drink. Days earlier, with Johnson on the Tech sideline during his Denver Broncos off-week, the Bulldogs blew out San Francisco’s Mission High, 32-0, in their season opener.
Nineteen years ago, Johnson and Larkins helped Tech win the school’s lone Silver Bowl title (the OAL football championship game was branded the Silver Bowl in the 1980s). That season, the Bulldogs were packed with talent, which included future NFL star running back Marshawn Lynch, who scored five touchdowns to beat rival Skyline High before a raucous crowd at the Oakland Coliseum.
Larkins, a defensive back who allowed Skyline to score the game’s first touchdown, later delivered a game-changing blow that left Titans receiver Mike Norris writhing in pain on the Coliseum turf. As Skyline coach John Beam yelled at officials, Larkins emphatically stretched in front of booing Skyline fans.
“The play was dead. I thought, let me stay limber,” Larkins recalled of the 2003 title game. “Coach Beam still gives me stuff over that. Being a kid around Tech, you’ve seen plays go the other way all the time. In that game, everything happened for us. But growing up, it didn’t work like that.”
After years of losing to Skyline, Tech coach Delton Edwards was mobbed by his players after the win, as he raised his fists to the crowd. The team returned to campus for celebratory jumping jacks on the football field.
When Edwards died in the summer of 2021, at age 58, the Tech community gathered around the campus courtyard for his vigil. Josh’s older sister, Brije, arranged candles on the front steps. Coach Beam, now the head football coach at Laney College, paid his respects.
“Those memories are part of our foundation,” Johnson said of the Silver Bowl. “Coach D was like a father to me. His legacy lives through us. Winning was icing on the cake after being raised by him. That feeling that night was crossing the finish line–a storybook ending. Shawn closed the deal. It was a chapter that can’t be taken from us. A lot of people that played on that team, we share those bonds from that day. We helped each other become men.”
Today, Johnson and Larkins have a plan to bring Tech football back to the top. The friends speak by phone each evening as the quarterback helps Larkins install a pro-style offense. Two seniors on the team, tailback Anthony Alonzo and defensive end Omar Staples, have scholarship offers.
“Coach D used to tell us, if you ever win the championship you’ll forever be in history,” said Larkins, who plans to hang the 2003 Silver Bowl banner from the Tech scoreboard before the start of next year’s 20th anniversary season. “I want [my players] to experience everything that we experienced that night. Coach D and my dad [Virdell Jr.] had been coaching together since I was 6 or 7 years old. Josh’s mother worked at Tech. We were invested in Tech. I tell Josh all the time, if we didn’t win (the Silver Bowl) we would be weak; we would be trash.”
“But we won.”
A Tech legacy
During a football practice in September, Larkins’ cell phone vibrates with warnings of blackouts if residents don’t conserve electricity.
Inside the girls gym, where a banner will soon honor the girls basketball team’s second consecutive state title, industrial fans circulate air across the volleyball court.
Rosemary, having swept up a day’s worth of discarded candy wrappers and homework, sits on the bleachers. Her granddaughter Jhai, Johnson’s daughter, has joined the junior varsity volleyball team she coaches (Jhai has since been promoted to varsity). Assistant coach Christina Burden hits serves to Jhai and her teammates as Rosemary corrects footwork and rotations.
Jhai, a freshman, already has a scholarship offer to play basketball at San Jose State. She has visited Cal, too. It’s good news for basketball coach Leroy Hurt, also Jhai’s summer-league coach, who hopes to add another state championship to Tech’s trophy case. Rosemary has title aspirations, as well, as her volleyball team finished second in the Oakland Athletic League last season.
Fifty years ago, when Title IX legislation mandated equal funding of boys and girls athletics, Rosemary was a multi-sport athlete at Oakland High. Having grown up on 11th Avenue in East Oakland with seven brothers and seven sisters, she became emancipated as a teenager after her mother died and her father wouldn’t allow her athletic pursuits.
Rosemary began working at Tech as a campus supervisor in 1979 and soon opened a summer day camp at Dimond Park in East Oakland. When the camp moved to the Lake Merritt Rose Garden in the 1990s, it was renamed Mighty Oaks.
At age 14, leading into my freshman year at Tech, my first job was helping look after Rosemary’s summer campers at Children’s Fairyland and the Lake Merritt Bird Sanctuary. It was there I met Josh, who attended his mother’s summer camp and later joined me and his siblings as a camp counselor.
Each morning I’d walk 45 minutes down Lakeshore Avenue, past the Grand Lake Theater and around the lake to the garden center. I organized activities, cleaned storage closets and, each Friday, chaperoned kids to amusement parks, public pools, or Oakland A’s games. One afternoon, I threw perhaps the greatest incomplete pass of my life.
In charge of about 20 kids, I named myself quarterback of a tag football game. I knew Josh played quarterback for the Berkeley Cougars, a youth football team, and his father, Gordy Johnson, coached high school basketball. But after making North Oakland Little League all-stars, I wanted to show off my arm. My 11-year-old receiver ran a slant, as I instructed. When the defense parted, I delivered a perfect spiral. It hit my receiver between the eyes and sent him to the ground crying.
The next summer, when the camp moved to Oakland Tech’s tennis courts, Josh and I took campers to Mosswood Park for a softball game. I was the pitcher. Just before I tossed a pitch, a boy ran behind the batter. The batter swung. The boy was struck in the head.
In the summer of 2000, before my senior year at Tech, Rosemary became tired of me firing footballs and baseballs across the tennis courts. She walked me from her camp to the Tech football field, where Coach Edwards was leading fall practice, and more-or-less assigned me to the team as a quarterback. I only played one season of football, never took a snap at quarterback, but did recover two onside kicks.
Realizing professional football or baseball wasn’t in my future, I became editor of The Scribe, Oakland Tech’s student newspaper, during my final spring semester. The talent I witnessed at Tech from 1997-2001 (namely the boys basketball team that won back-to-back NorCal titles and was full of Division I recruits, including future NBA champion Leon Powe) later helped fuel my coverage of college sports as editor of the Sacramento State student newspaper, The State Hornet.
Mighty Oaks eventually moved to West Oakland Youth Center on Market Street. In 2011, its youth programming became the backbone of the Fam1st Family Foundation, started by Josh, at the time playing for the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, Marshawn Lynch, a soon-to-be NFL icon with the Seattle Seahawks, and Marcus Peters, a McClymonds graduate who became an elite NFL cornerback. The players’ twisted-fingers celebration became the foundation’s emblem. In the years since, the foundation has expanded its services for West Oakland teens and young adults beyond a summer camp to include classes in architecture, culinary arts, and coding and web design.
“Nick!” Rosemary exclaimed as she saw me entering the Tech athletic department office recently, hoping to add my first boss’s perspective to a story about her son’s football career. “From Mighty Oaks,” Ms. Tech explained to athletic directors Alexis Gray-Lawson, Karega Hart, and Dunia Wilder.
As Wilder sorted through boxes of purple and gold shirts, the group debated activities for an upcoming pep rally. “Is it a giant Jenga?” Hart, also the boys basketball coach, wants to confirm. Gray-Lawson, a former WNBA player who won state championships at Tech in 2004 and 2005, becomes distracted by artwork depicting a masked warrior holding what looks to be a scythe on a nearby whiteboard. “Whoever drew this, please draw more!!,” a classmate wrote. “That’s HELLA fresh!!”
Rosemary turned to me, her former Mighty Oaks counselor who now wants an interview, and possibly even a photo. Getting one isn’t a given. In her 40-plus years at Tech, Rosemary estimates she has appeared in, maybe, 10 yearbooks. “If you’re going to get my photo,” she says, “you’ll have to catch me.”
After the final school bell, Rosemary stayed to organize the cheer team in the library. Several members needed physical exams in order to practice, and competition was just weeks away.
In addition to cheer and volleyball, Rosemary coaches the Tech softball team. She also oversees the school’s Culture Team—a group of staff that works to maintain a positive climate on campus, ensure student safety, and track attendance during the school day. When I attended Tech, Rosemary would park her SUV at the campus gate to collect football tickets before games, then work the snack bar with her friend and fellow teacher, Ms. Jones.
“She taught discipline,” Josh said of his mother. “Not being a follower. She taught me strength. She worked numerous jobs and raised four kids and never skipped a beat. She got me my first job. She did the best she could being a woman raising a man.”
Despite Johnson’s strong preseason performance with the Broncos this year (349 passing yards and two touchdowns without an interception), Denver selected Brett Rypien as their backup quarterback to start the 2022 season.
Another setback in a career defined by bouncing back.
At Tech, Johnson stood 5-foot-10 entering his senior year. A growth spurt and the Silver Bowl victory helped draw the attention of Jim Harbaugh, then head coach at the University of San Diego. Johnson, now 6-foot-4, broke offensive records while learning the intricacies of quarterback play under Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who later coached Johnson with the 49ers.
As a senior at San Diego, Johnson threw 43 touchdown passes with only one interception and rushed for more than 700 yards. Despite playing at the mid-major level, against small schools such as Stetson, Marist, and Drake, Johnson caught the eye of NFL coach Jon Gruden, who drafted the quarterback to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008.
“I was excited to be around football junkies,” Johnson said of playing for Harbaugh and Gruden, regarded as two of the sport’s best offensive minds. “I gravitate toward that, to guys who stimulate your mind every day to something new that you didn’t know about the game. How to dissect a defense, how to pick somebody apart, how you can put a guy in a position to make a play here, or dictate a defense by the formation you’re in. It simplifies the game so much when you do it that way. That’s the biggest thing I’ll take away from those guys.”
But “all the grit and grind,” added Johnson, “that comes from Oakland. That’s Coach D. That’s Tech.”
One year into Johnson’s career with the Buccaneers, before he ever took a regular-season snap, Gruden was fired. Under new Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, Johnson got his first chance to start in 2009. Four losses led to a benching, and the Buccaneers finished the season 3-13.
Now with 2,270 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes over his 15-year NFL career, Johnson remains in the league because of strong preseason play and his ability to quickly absorb an offensive playbook. While he is often cut from season-opening rosters, Johnson usually signs later in the season when another quarterback is injured or released. When learning a new playbook, the Oakland native draws from teams he played for with similar offensive schemes.
“It’s like studying for finals,” the quarterback said. “Long days and long nights.”
With so many team changes, the opportunities for getting to know teammates are often fleeting. During a December game in 2012, five days after signing with the Browns, Johnson introduced himself to teammate Joe Thomas while in the huddle. In the past, he has played the John Madden video game to quickly learn teammates’ names.
Nevertheless, Johnson has found ways to contribute when given an opportunity. In 2018, less than two weeks after signing with Washington, he led the team to victory–the first of his career–during a playoff race.
“Each situation is different,” said Johnson, who earlier in 2018 became the first draft selection in the short-lived Alliance of American Football, an upstart league. Johnson never played for the San Diego Fleet, however, because an NFL team with postseason aspirations needed a quick study: When Washington starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was injured, Johnson was brought in to start and guided the team to a 16-13 win at Jacksonville to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive.
“I thought my (NFL) career was over,” the quarterback said. “By the grace of God they called. To go out there and get a ‘W’ was cool.”
After more than a decade in the league, Johnson plans to play as long as his body will allow it. “A lot of people give up too soon,” he said. “Every time I go through something and it doesn’t work in my favor, it benefits me as a man. I wasn’t the star athlete growing up. I had to believe in where I was headed.”
When recently asked by a Denver sportswriter to list all 14 of his NFL stops, Johnson obliged.
“Let’s give it a shot,” the quarterback said.
“Tampa Bay,” Johnson starts. “The Niners, Bengals, back to the Niners, back to the Bengals. Then the Jets, then the Colts. The Bills, the Ravens, then the Giants. The Texans, then the Raiders, then the Commanders. Umm, Detroit, the Niners again, to the Jets again. The Ravens… then Denver.
“Oh, Cleveland!” he remembers. “One game, after the UFL. I forgot about Cleveland. My bad.”
Remembering where he came from—Oakland Tech, his classmates, his mother, and the community that raised him—is a given.