David Johnson went from table to table, high-fiving or fist-bumping every kid who wanted to, wearing that giant smile of his as the students talked and laugh with music pulsating in the background.
Tuesday was a beautiful day to be outside at Sunnyslope Elementary School in north Phoenix, where the Cardinals running back showed up to cap off his "Running Through Bullying" campaign by honoring the two girls who wrote the best essay on the subject out of hundreds submitted. Johnson couldn't have been happier with the result.
He would have been here regardless. His anti-bullying cause is long-standing, and Johnson made that his focus (and his game footwear) last year when the NFL began their "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative. He started the essay contest with a talk at training camp with students back in August, when he still dreamed of another 2,000-yards-from-scrimmage season.
That dream is long gone, broken once his wrist did the same on the turf in Detroit during the regular-season opener. The chance Johnson plays again this season is virtually zero, as the games fly by and with the running back still not practicing. Coach Bruce Arians has said as much, although the usual caveats provide the slightest crease of hope.
Johnson doesn't talk about returning this season anymore as much as he just talks about his eventual return. It's been difficult for him to sit out, but Johnson – one of the more optimistic people you will meet – also sees it as an opportunity.
"It means more time to be out there in the community," Johnson said, "which is a blessing and a curse."
These are the things that shape him, Johnson figures. This injury, the first long-term injury he's ever had. Family issues, like wondering where he would live when he was growing up. And yes, he was bullied.
Johnson has had the surprised looks and arched eyebrows from the kids he has talked to, kids who see the chiseled 6-foot-1, 224-pounder and wonder how he ever could have been bullied.
"I get that the most when I tell my story," Johnson said. "'There's no way you were bullied.' They didn't know I wasn't always this big. Sometimes they don't believe me and I have to really tell my story, that I had to go through the same thing they have to go through."
JOHNSON'S OWN BULLY STORY
The winter was frigid, as they tended to be in Iowa, and middle-schooler Johnson and his cousin – who is the same age – were at the YMCA playing basketball.
Johnson's bully, the high school kid three or four years older who tormented him around the time Johnson was in sixth grade until he was in eighth, grabbed Johnson's winter hat and let Johnson know it was his now.
Johnson protested, but "I never saw that hat again."
Images from the running back's visit to essay-winning kids' school
Another time, the kid showed up and started beating up Johnson and his cousin. Johnson ran away, leaving his cousin to fight. "I still feel bad," Johnson admitted.
Given the age difference, Johnson was never impacted in school. The bullying came after school, when he was hanging out or playing somewhere. It made an impact, although Johnson never did talk to anyone about it.
A top athlete even then, Johnson said the bullying never carried over to when he played sports, or even when he was in school. He was able to compartmentalize, and never once thought about doing harm to himself – something that he understands is a problem for many who are bullied.
Hurting more than his memories of being bullied are his memories of not intervening when he saw others being bullied – a big reason why this has become his cause.
"I didn't do any (bullying) but I'd stand and watch," Johnson said. "I want to get in front of it (now). I want to talk about it. I feel like, with kids being bullied, I feel like if they have one friend, one kid they spoke to, that would change their lives."
The final four essays Johnson and his wife judged for Cox's "Running Through Bullying" campaign included entries about preventing kids from committing suicide because of bullying and even one titled "Kindergarten Nightmare" recounting a very real and violent bullying experience at a young age. The winning essay – from fifth-grade students Megan Torres and Nubia Gutierrez – was about Sunnyslope's "Bully Patrol Squad" and how the entire school has made it their goal to end bullying.
"Now that we have less room for bullying," Torres said, "we have more room for kindness."
The two girls received an award from Johnson in front of their peers this week, complete with a pizza-and-chicken-finger party while Johnson interacted with every kid on hand.
"It lets them know they aren't the only ones going through it," said Johnson's friend and fellow running back Kerwynn Williams. "It's someone tangible they can see and someone they look up to."
FOOTBALL WILL COME -- EVENTUALLY
This weekend the NFL will hold its "My Cause, My Cleats" games. The Cardinals will have plenty of players representing, whether it is Larry Fitzgerald's homage to breast cancer and his mother or Frostee Rucker's shoutout to the American Diabetes Association.
Johnson would be wearing cleats for his foundation "Mission 31" if he were able to play. He, of course, cannot. Johnson and fellow injured-reserve running back T.J. Logan were out on the field early Wednesday, getting in some conditioning while teammates were in meetings. No one has said it for sure, but 2018 certainly feels like the vibe when it comes to Johnson playing another game.
"At the beginning it was very tough," said Johnson, who had never previously missed more than one game playing football on any level. "I was down on myself. I was thinking, what could I have done on that play better, to change the play, maybe my wrist wasn't strong enough."
Arians said Johnson, like other players on IR like quarterback Carson Palmer, are "always around." Johnson has made his appearances in the locker room, and he travels on the road. The carrot of playing again this season dangled for a while, but mostly, Johnson stays engaged by talking with teammates and coaches as much as he can.
"It's easy to feel yourself not being part of the team, when you don't have to come to all this stuff every day," Williams said. "It's almost like your offseason is extended. You don't have the fun part of football, playing the game, and you don't have the time with your teammates as much in the meetings or locker room time. As teammates and friends, you want to make sure your friend is in a good place."
That's not always a simple process. Watching video from games is difficult "because it's not me, it's a different number." But there are other things on which to focus, like his family and baby son David Jr., or trying to show kids that being positive – even if you are bullied – is a good way to get you through life.
Johnson smiles, knowing he's the first to take that advice.
"It's not as bad as it could be," Johnson said.