Embracing the Slow Grind

Former USF and current Cleveland Browns running back D’Ernest Johnson (holding football) during a 2019 preseason game against Washington. Johnson started Slow Grind apparel, which embodies his unconventional journey to the NFL.

Former USF running back D’Ernest Johnson knows all too well how to take it slow and steady. After all, his opportunity with the Cleveland Browns wasn’t exactly handed to him.

By no means did his dream of playing in the NFL come easy. Johnson knew he would have to toil if he was going to make it. So he decided to embody his journey to the pros in his very own line of athletic clothing.

Enter, Slow Grind apparel.

“I’ve been going on my slow grind since back in high school because whatever you chase there’s a grind to it,” Johnson said. “Slow Grind, it stands for staying focused on the ultimate goal. Sometimes the process don’t come fast, it takes time.”

The logo symbolizes taking it slow in life and was inspired by the classic tale “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The turtle will get there eventually, but it won’t be right away, Johnson said.

“No matter how long it takes he’s gonna get there,” he said. “He can go in the middle of the street, get ran over a little bit, or anything, but at the same time he’s focused on ambition.”

Having scored 29 touchdowns in 4,186 yards, he left USF and entered the 2018 NFL draft ready for any team that would select him.

Except no team selected Johnson. He was picked up by the Saints as an undrafted free agent but only lasted through rookie minicamp.

That’s when he decided to take a break from football and wound up in Key West fishing for mahi-mahi. If football wasn’t going to put food on the table, he had to do something, he said.

“I didn’t have any options really,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Man, I gotta do something.’ I had to do whatever it takes to provide for my son.”

It definitely helped that fishing was already something he enjoyed. But he knew football was his end goal.

“I actually enjoy fishing, even when I was little I liked fishing,” Johnson said. “Fishing was fun, but that wasn’t something I wanted to stick to and make that my career.”

As much as it sounded like paradise, it was hard on Johnson and his girlfriend, Jasmine.

“That was honestly a really difficult time for us,” she said.

“He’s been playing football his whole life, so for him to have to take such a long break for the first time in his life it was really rough. He actually beat himself up about it a little bit.

“I just had to constantly remind him to keep his focus on making it to the league.”

A full calendar year went by before Johnson finally made his return to football, and he signed with the Orlando Apollos of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.

The league didn’t last a full season before it folded, and once again, Johnson was temporarily out of work.

He signed with the Cleveland Browns a month after the AAF folded and was given his biggest opportunity yet.

Like Johnson’s football career, Slow Grind took its time getting fully off the ground. The idea has been around since at least his time in high school, but the online store didn’t launch until May. The shop sells branded hats, shirts and tanks in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes.

Johnson has since returned to camp with the Browns, so he hasn’t had much time to focus on the business. His brother Tshumbi, a former wide receiver at Cincinnati, and Jasmine have helped keep the site running and fulfilling orders.

“Business has been good,” Tshumbi said. “A lot of different individuals have been shopping with us and that’s a pretty good thing.

“Just trying to stay on top of things because we never want to lose track of what we’re doing right now. At the end of the day, we’re all partners in this.”

In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, Slow Grind managed to take off and continue rolling. The pandemic gave D’Ernest and Jasmine time to finalize details.

“The pandemic actually helped a lot because me and my girl had time to work on the website, to work on getting all the merch,” D’Ernest said. “It wasn’t that hard shipping it out. We’ll bag the shirts up, and we’ll ship them out ourselves.”

In a way, D’Ernest’s dedication to his dream of getting into the NFL mirrors the diligence he has with Slow Grind apparel mirrors the peaks and valleys he went through.

But Slow Grind isn’t just for those pursuing a career in elite sports. It’s for anyone who wants to achieve something. Obstacles are going to come their way, and there isn’t always a simple way around them, D’Ernest said.

“People go through different obstacles and goals that they want to achieve, but sometimes you got to take a different route to achieve that goal,” he said.