49ers rookie never leaves without his football

SAN JOSE — Plenty of athletes are married to their sport.

Ronald Johnson? The 49ers rookie wide receiver takes his vows a step further.

Johnson not only eats, sleeps and breathes football. He actually sleeps with his football, a pigskin he, well, views like a family member. The word Johnson has scrawled on his football: Son.

"It sounds strange, but I have a relationship with the football," Johnson said. "I actually sleep with it. It sounds weird, but I do it. Just to get that extra edge everyone else doesn't have."

Johnson's dedication was a selling point for the Niners, who selected the USC wide receiver in the sixth round of the NFL draft.

Johnson's position coach at USC was John Morton, who is now his in his first year as the wide receivers coach in San Francisco. And Morton made a strong pitch for San Francisco to select a wideout guaranteed not to fail in the NFL due to lack of desire.

"There was an element of standing on the table for Ronald in the sense that the guy's all about football," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after the draft. "The guy loves the game, loves practice. That's the best hours of his day is when he's out there on the practice field."

Not that Johnson minds the weight room. Ever hear of athletes doing workouts to strengthen their ... hip flexors? Johnson said he does those to increase his flexibility so he can "make the great catches" and "get the extra edge."

Johnson said he's routinely been up until 2 a.m. recently cranking out his daily regimen of 300 sit-ups and 300 push-ups (fingertip push-ups to strengthen his hands), studying his playbook (he said he's written so many notes that he can barely make out the plays) and, of course, playing with his football.

Johnson will throw his football behind his back. He'll toss it up, let it fall below his waist and practice snatching it by the nose with one hand — anything to make catching it become "second nature."

"I like to see how long I can play with it and not let it hit the ground," he said.

Johnson takes his football everywhere. On the third day of the 49ers' four-day minicamp Wednesday at San Jose State, Johnson said his football, which he brought from his hometown of Muskegon, Mich., was in his car, having accompanied him from his hotel.

He used to sleep with an NCAA football at USC, but he's since switched to an official NFL ball. They're the same size, but Johnson says they have a different feel.

It's hard to be around Johnson and not pick up on his passion. Just ask one of his new teammates.

"Ronald just wants it so bad," Niners wide receiver Josh Morgan said. "That's probably the best thing I could say about him. He's so eager to get everything right now. When you're that eager to learn, and that eager to get it in you so you can get out there and play, you're always going to have some positive results."

The 5-10, 185-pound Johnson had plenty of those in college.

As a senior, he had 64 catches for 692 yards and eight touchdowns. He also averaged 14.2 yards on 22 punt returns, which ranked second in the Pac-10 and 12th in the nation.

He was projected as a mid-round draft pick, but tumbled to the middle of the sixth round. Some of his fall could be attributed to concerns about his durability. Johnson missed the first five games of his junior season with a broken collarbone and missed spring practice last year with wrist and elbow injuries.

He said his draft experience has only increased his already substantial drive.

"It gives me a lot of fuel because I do things right," he said. "I do what I have to do to be considered the best and I'm not considered up there right now. So I'll keep doing what I have to do so I can be the best."


For the second straight day, wide receiver Michael Crabtree took part in the morning classroom session, but did not participate in the practice. Crabtree missed Tuesday's practice with sore feet.

Tight end Delanie Walker did not attend Wednesday's practice after participating the first two days.

Quarterback Alex Smith will speak to the media today, the final day of the minicamp.

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at 49ers.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Eric Branch at eric.branch@pressdemocrat.com and follow him at twitter.com/Eric_Branch.