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Patience and perseverance
Patience is more than a virtue for Jeron Johnson and Chris Maragos, it’s a prerequisite.
They’re living the dream by playing in the NFL, but they also happen to be the backups to what many consider the best safety tandem in the league – free safety Earl Thomas, who was voted a Pro Bowl starter in his second season last year; and strong safety Kam Chancellor, a first alternate to the Pro Bowl last season who was added to the NFC squad as an injury replacement.
Then there’s also this twist: Rather than being two young players backing up veterans who will eventually move on, at 25, Maragos is the oldest of the foursome – and at 24, Johnson is as old as Chancellor and a year older than Thomas.
“They handle themselves with great humility,” said defensive backs coach Kris Richard, who backed up the Pro Bowl tandem of Shawn Springs and Marcus Trufant while playing cornerback for the Seahawks from 2002-04.
“That’s first and foremost. When you’re able to handle yourself with great humility, there isn’t a situation that’s ever too big. They understand what’s going on. They know that have a couple of really good players ahead of them and they just want to do whatever they can to help this football team.”
Each has his role – on defense, but especially on special teams.
Johnson is the third safety in the bandit sub package. And Maragos? “He’s ready to play anywhere, anytime, anyhow,” Richard said. “He’s always well prepared. He’s very sharp. He’s very bright.”
It’s an outlet that allows them to, well, let it all out several times a game.
“I look at my role on the team as playing special teams right now, because that’s where I fit,” Maragos said. “You take your role and you maximize it. If you have an opportunity to go out there and play and compete at the highest level, you want to be the best at whatever your role is. That’s special teams, and I take pride in that.”
Johnson concurred: “Special teams is all about pride. It’s a lot of one-on-one matchups. You’ve got to block your man or you’ve got to beat your man to get to the ball. So you’ve got to have pride.”
Besides playing the waiting game is nothing new for either. In addition to patience, perseverance also is a virtue they share.
The 5-foot-10, 212-pound Johnson was a middle linebacker on the same Dominguez High School team in Compton, Calif., that also featured Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Johnson ended up at Boise State because they were one of only two schools that offered him the opportunity to play college football (San Jose State was the other).
“I’ve played the underdog role my whole life when it comes to football,” he said. “It makes you fight and push that much more.”
Despite leading Boise State in tackles for three consecutive seasons as a safety, Johnson was not selected in the 2011 NFL Draft. He signed with the Seahawks as a free agent and beat considerable odds by earning a spot on the 53-man roster as a rookie. He appeared in seven games last season, primarily on special teams.
“Then I get to the league and go undrafted,” Johnson said. “It’s a journey. I’ve had a long journey and you’ve just got to continue to grind and keep faith and trust in your abilities.”
That attitude paid dividends this preseason, when Chancellor was limited by an injury and Johnson not only got to play with the No. 1 defense, he made plays. He intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and had four solo tackles against the Denver Broncos. He recovered a fumble and had five tackles to share the team lead against the Kansas City Chiefs. He had three more tackles in the finale against the Oakland Raiders.
“You just have to make sure you stay ready,” Johnson said of stepping in and stepping up. “Those are big shoes to fill. If your numbers is called, you can’t have a drop off. You’ve got to try to play at a Pro Bowl level, because he does.”
Maragos, meanwhile, was an all-state wide receiver at William Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., and went to the University of Wisconsin – eventually.
“I didn’t get any recruiting attention out of high school,” said Maragos, who also was Wisconsin’s Player of the Year as a senior. “I walked on at Western Michigan – 13 out of 13 on the depth chart as a wide receiver. I worked myself all the way up to our No. 3 receiver my true freshman year.”
And he was playing behind? Greg Jennings, who’s now a Pro Bowl receiver for the Green Bay Packers.
Despite his hard work, the coaches at Western Michigan continued to recruit younger players rather than give Maragos a scholarship. So he left and walked on at Wisconsin. That’s where he switched to safety, as a junior.
The 5-10, 200-pound Maragos wasn’t drafted either, but signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2010 – where he played behind former University of Washington safety Deshon Goldson, who also was voted to the NFC Pro Bowl team last season.
“To begin with, I was underneath Deshon. I come here, I’m behind Earl,” Maragos said, smiling. “It’s probably the two best free safeties you can get.
“So when I look at, I see it as an opportunity to really extend my game. It has drastically increased my game watching Earl. I just watch the way he does things. I watch the way he prepares. I’m probably watching him more than he thinks I am and really just trying to take my game to that next level.”
After bouncing back and forth between the 49ers’ practice squad and active roster as a rookie, Maragos was released last year and signed to the Seahawks’ practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster for the final 11 games and contributed 11 coverage tackles on special teams – which tied for second on the club.
“I just keep trying to make the most of my opportunities, just like I always have,” he said.
So here Maragos and Johnson are, sharing a common dream and predicament.
“They know they’re good enough to play,” Richard said. “And they’re still hungry.”