Lane Johnson can now laugh about the sight of his headshot from Kilgore College, located a two-hour drive north of his hometown of Groveton in East Texas. But there was nothing funny about Johnson's state of mind 11 years ago.
Johnson was an all-state quarterback at Groveton High School, but his graduating class consisted of just 35 students. The entire town's population is just over 1,000 people. His dream was to "go as big as he could." But only two schools offered Johnson an opportunity to be a walk-on, so he opted to go the junior college route to the one place that provided a scholarship – Kilgore.
At 6-6, 202 pounds, Johnson was a quarterback for the Rangers in the 2008 season. People told him that he wouldn't pan out as a quarterback and he admitted that affected his play on the field. He was timid. Not the dominant, aggressive right tackle Eagles fans see on Sundays.
"I had a lot of hard times because things didn't go the way I wanted to, so I struggled a lot mentally," Johnson said. "Everybody says you're from a small town, it's hard to make it because you have that mindset. Once you lose that mindset, then you can accomplish it. That was really it. Once I overcame those obstacles and saw everything for what it was, I was probably my own worst limiting factor in the equation. Now I see all of that and really it's a beautiful thing."
Johnson didn't pan out as a quarterback. His body grew and developed and by the end of his freshman season he was close to 250 pounds. In the spring, he was converted to a tight end, running the 40-yard dash in a blazing-fast 4.5 seconds at 255 pounds. By the summer of 2009, the University of Oklahoma offered a full ride.
Eventually, Johnson found a home along the offensive line in Norman. The Eagles selected Johnson with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Three years later, Johnson signed a new six-year contract cementing himself as one of the team's franchise players. He returned the Eagles' faith in him by earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors as the right tackle on the league's best offensive line on the way to the Super Bowl.
Johnson knows his success in the NFL wouldn't have been possible without the lessons learned at Kilgore. An underdog, who fittingly helped start the dog mask phenomenon during the run to the championship in 2017, wanted to find a way to return the favor and on Wednesday he donated $500,000 for the development of "The Lane" Athletic Performance Center, a 3,800 square-foot training facility that will be ready by spring 2020.
"I just wanted to give back to the people who helped me get to where I'm at," Johnson said after post-practice meetings Thursday at the NovaCare Complex. "I just want to pay it forward and show people how much I care about the things they did for me. It's been on my mind ever since I got in the league. Now, I'm in a position to do that."
As Johnson sat outside the NovaCare Complex auditorium with a silver necklace with a cross hanging over his midnight green Eagles shirt, he recalled how his head coach at Kilgore, J.J. Eckert, instilled the belief that he would one day soon be playing in front of 90,000 fans. The linebackers coach Jordan Lesley, now at West Virginia, also came from a small town and was roommates with former Eagles nemesis DeMarcus Ware at Troy. Lesley learned what made successful people tick and fed it back to the kids. Johnson thanked the offensive line coach Willie Gooden, now the head coach, for teaching him about the value of hard work.
Johnson told Kilgore of his plans to donate the money earlier in the offseason. He's been involved in the design, requesting that photos and quotes of famous athletes are included that reveal a different side of the superstars. One of the players featured is NBA legend Michael Jordan.
"Everybody thinks he had it all figured out, but I wanted to show his struggles," Johnson said. "The donation is not about me, it's about these future kids. That'll be fun to watch as Kilgore gets better with recruiting and all that helps in vying for a championship. Success breeds success. Change their mind. Once you change your mind, you change your world."
It's been a busy offseason for Johnson, who went to Orlando after being named to the Pro Bowl for a second straight season. He and his wife, Chelsea, welcomed their third child. He's donated a half million to the construction of Kilgore's new training center.
Now, the focus is on being an even better player on the field for the Eagles in 2019.
"I've just learned to take care of my body better, just try to inspire my teammates, just be a better leader, a man of my word, and try to be a person off the field who will contribute on the field," Johnson said.