The 2008 offseason was shaping up to be the best of Spencer Johnson's life. Coveted by the Bills as a free agent Johnson signed the most lucrative contract of his career. He was going to get a genuine opportunity to start and his versatility was going to get him on the field more than he did in Minnesota.
But the security he felt with a long term contract was taken away a few months later when the man he looked up to was taken away.
Johnson's father was a logger down in Alabama. After turning 55 in early June Johnnie B. Johnson decided it was time to retire from a job that's as blue collar as they come. Tragically during his last week of work he was a fatal victim of an accident on the job site.
For Johnson, his mother and three sisters it was nothing less than shocking. Johnson himself got the news the last day of Bills minicamp.
"It was tough. It was a tough one to swallow," said Johnson. "We've got a strong family that's close-knit with my aunties and my uncles. And they were there around the clock for my mom and myself and my sisters. Just the support of family helped us through it."
Bills Vice President of Pro Personnel, John Guy accompanied Johnson home.
"It's a very strong, integrated community down there," said Guy. "Spencer was on a pair of state high school championship teams down there. He's a real respected man down there."
Being the only son Johnson and his father had a strong relationship.
"Me and my dad were close," Johnson said. "He taught me everything I know. He was a good person. A lot of guys where I'm from don't have two parents."
"Spencer looks just like his father," said Guy.
Johnson grew up learning the value of hard work from his dad who had his hands in everything.
"When I was younger I would go into the woods with him and help him with the logging," said Johnson. "He was a mechanic also so I'd be passing him tools working on the car. We also have cows and stuff so my dad always had me out in the field bailing hay, so I definitely know what hard work is and that's what he was a hard worker, a great person and a great father."
Learning those lessons at an early age was a benefit to Johnson. Coming out of Auburn the defensive lineman was an unheralded prospect and went undrafted. He was signed by Minnesota as a rookie free agent which is usually an unlikely way to make an NFL roster.
"Knowing the odds are stacked against you all I had to fall back on was my work ethic and going out and making plays and doing it to the best of my ability 100 percent," Johnson said. "Through hard work I have gotten here coming in as an undrafted free agent."
But Johnson doesn't take the career he has carved out for himself for granted. He feels that would be disrespecting the values his parents instilled in him.
"I know that I'm blessed," he said. "My mom reminds me and my dad would remind me."
Johnson's parents would make it up to about three games a season when he played in Minnesota to share their son's success with him.
"When I first made the team as a rookie in Minnesota that's when they started flying," said Johnson. "That's the first time they got on an airplane. Mom didn't want to fly, dad didn't care and they had a ball. Dad liked being around the guys on the team and taking in the atmosphere."
Now Johnson knows his dad will be at every one of his games.
As tough as bearing the loss of his father has been, Johnson wants to do right by him as well, which is why he's focused on his work at training camp. And Johnson plans to dedicate his upcoming work this season to his dad.
"He'll be extra motivation," said Johnson of his father. "He was proud of me and I know he was proud of me and I was proud to have him as a father. My mom and my family know I'll be playing for him, but at the same time I'll be playing for them also now being the man of the family."
Johnson isn't a flashy player that reacts wildly after a big play, but this season he will have one gesture when he makes things happen for the Bills.
"When you see me pointing up to the sky that's who I'm pointing to," said Johnson. "My father."