METAIRIE — A pair of “juniors” made their dads proud Saturday.
Kenny Stills Jr. and Rufus Johnson Jr. became the last two members of the Saints’ 2013 draft class, continuing a football lineage begun by their fathers.
“Since age six, when I started playing football, I dreamed of playing in the NFL, especially since my dad played,” said Stills, a wide receiver from Oklahoma whose father, Ken, spent five years in the league as a safety with Green Bay and Minnesota. “It was almost like we were in competition for me to get drafted over him.”
Stills Jr. did, going to the Saints in the fifth round as the 144th player selected Saturday. Stills Sr. was 209 (eighth round) by the Packers in 1985 out of Wisconsin.
Rufus Johnson Sr. never made it to the NFL. His playing career ended at Texas Tech.
But for the younger Johnson, a defensive end out of Division II Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas, hearing his name called in the sixth round was perhaps even more meaningful.
His father is undergoing dialysis and, the younger Johnson said Saturday, “It’s a hard deal for him.”
But he added, seeing his son drafted brightened Johnson Sr.’s day.
“He’s just smiled and said, ‘Good work,’ ” the younger Johnson said. “And I kissed him on the forehead.
“It’s a big deal to him.’
Stills Jr. was indeed born to be in the NFL.
Not only was his father in the league, but his uncle, Gary, was a linebacker whose career lasted 10 years with three teams.
Stills Jr. grew up Encinitas, Calif., near San Diego, where he was a five-star recruit coming out of La Costa Canyon High School and even caught passes from Drew Brees, his future quarterback with the Saints, at Todd Durkin’s fitness center in San Diego.
“Getting rid of Drew Brees or at least letting him go was one of the worst things we (the Chargers) have done,” Stills said. “I knew he was great.”
At Oklahoma, Stills started all 38 games in which he played over three seasons, teaming with quarterback Landry Jones, who was drafted by Pittsburgh in the fourth round Saturday.
Johnson Jr.’s path to the pros was somewhat rockier.
An all-district player at Spruce High in Dallas who was recruited by Mississippi State and Baylor among others, Johnson was a nonqualifier who wound up at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College.
Two years later and with a self-confessed “bad attitude,” he wound up at Tarleton State, located about 75 southwest of Dallas.
At Tarleton, the alma mater of Saalim Hakim, a late-season addition to the Saints’ roster last season, Johnson blossomed as a prospect and grew as a person.
“I enjoyed my time there,” he said. “Coach (Cary) Fowler was a wonderful coach.
“He helped me mature a lot, helped me become a man and really looked out for me. Right now, it’s just a blessing.”
That’s why Johnson had a low-key watching party in his home Saturday and was overcome with emotion both when he got the call from the Saints and several minutes later in a conference call with the media.
“I can’t even talk right now,” he said. “My heart is beating fast. I’m sweating and stuff.
“I just broke down and couldn’t even talk to my dad. This is such a blessing to me.”
Stills had opted to leave Oklahoma a year early even though he had been advised he would be no better than a third-round choice,
The evaluations he received later were such that Stills didn’t even watch the draft Friday, spending time on the beach with his friends.
Then Saturday he watched as the fourth round went by plus the first 10 picks of the fifth before his name was called.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Stills, who was the 21st wide receiver selected. “I have a strong faith in my plan and God’s plan for me was to go in the fifth round. I am where I am because of that. All I have to do is god to work now and prove people wrong, all of the people that doubted me. I love being the underdog.”
In Johnson’s case, he had no choice.
“Coming from a small school, I know the bigger school guys are the ones who get drafted,” he said. “I felt like I was the underdog. I know a lot of people haven’t heard about me, but having this opportunity I really think I have a chance to showcase what I really can do at the top level.”
And fulfill his father’s dreams.
“My dad gave me the smile he’s been giving me since I was six years old, ever since I was playing Pop Warner,” Johnson said. “And then he told me now it’s time to go to work.”
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