LAKE FOREST – Caleb Johnson wasn’t supposed to be the first player from Houston Baptist University to reach the NFL.
Everybody around the program thought it would be Garrett Dolan, a linebacker who was one of the founding members of the now eight-year-old Division I FCS program. Dolan was one of 13 players who signed on when the program formed in 2013.
Dolan was already a veteran when Johnson, now a Chicago Bears linebacker, showed up in 2016 at the Houston school of about 4,000 students. Dolan was the big brother at the linebacker position, a player the younger guys like Johnson looked up to.
Dolan was a two-time All-American who finished his career in 2017 with 467 tackles, ranking seventh all-time in the FCS. He was one of the top linebackers in the FCS. Certainly a pro team somewhere would give him a shot.
Tragically, he never had the chance.
Dolan died in May 2018, a week after going undrafted and days away from his graduation. According to a Houston Chronicle story at the time, authorities believed Dolan fell from the roof of an apartment building. He was 23.
“It was weird because he was like the Superman on the team,” Johnson said. “He was doing everything. Doing it all. He was the big leader. It did leave a little gap for a while. I just felt like it was my responsibility, moving forward, to fill that role.”
Three years later, Johnson made Houston Baptist history, becoming the first player from the school not only sign with an NFL team, but also to make a 53-man roster.
Johnson, a 23-year-old linebacker, signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent in the spring after being the Southland Conference’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. Very few undrafted rookies typically make the active roster out of training camp, but Johnson impressed the Bears’ coaches throughout the summer. Of the dozen or so undrafted free agents that the Bears signed in 2021, Johnson was the only one to make the 53-man roster.
“For me to be able to be the first one from the school, it means a lot because it was really his dream,” Johnson said of Dolan.
An improbable journey
In the summer of 2016, Houston Baptist had a spot on the team open up late in the summer. Coach Vic Shealy reached out to a coach he trusted in the San Diego area, who recommended Johnson. Johnson, from Point Loma High School in San Diego, played safety and receiver in high school.
If Houston Baptist hadn’t called, Johnson suspects he probably would’ve wound up at an NAIA school or walked on somewhere. He was unranked by all the major recruiting websites.
He signed with Houston Baptist four days ahead of training camp. He knew next to nothing about this young FCS program.
“I just knew it was in Houston,” Johnson said. “It was hot. You step off the plane, it’s just humidity in your face.”
Once on campus, he began the transition to linebacker. At 6-foot-2, he often heard college coaches say he would make a good linebacker. Johnson gained about 20 pounds as a freshman, going from 200 to 220 pounds. He played 11 games as a true freshman.
“He might not have always saw himself as a linebacker,” Shealy said. “But he probably found out that to be really athletic and have some of the knowledge that comes from playing on the back end, and then to be able to utilize [it] – because obviously linebackers are playing in a lot of space – to be able to use all those skills, I think he’s pulled from it well.”
Johnson played in only three games in 2017 due to injury, but saved a season with a redshirt. Over the next three seasons, he was a mainstay for the Huskies at linebacker. He kept up the tradition that Dolan started for Huskies linebackers. Johnson finished his career third on the school’s career tackles list with 278.
That included the pandemic-shortened season in 2020, when Houston Baptist played only four games, with three of them coming against FBS opponents.
That was a blessing and a curse. For Johnson, it was fewer chances to put his abilities on tape, but those chances were also coming against top competition. He knew scouts were watching when the Huskies visited Texas Tech that season. He totaled 13 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, and Houston Baptist made a game of it in a 35-33 loss.
The next level
Houston Baptist didn’t have any experience with an NFL prospect. The school held its first Pro Day with only two athletes: Johnson and defensive end Andre Walker, who was a 2019 graduate. Even before the draft, Johnson knew the Bears might be seriously interested in him. Inside linebackers coach Bill McGovern called Johnson one day in the spring. Position coaches don’t call little-known FCS linebackers unless they’re serious.
Johnson went undrafted, but the Bears wanted to give him a shot.
“That’s where it kind of goes to the scouts and our personnel people [who] did a great job of identifying him as somebody that we were interested in,” McGovern said. “And we had a chance to look at some of the tape and the credit there goes to our scouting department.”
Johnson has become a special teams mainstay for the Bears this season. He has played limited snaps on defense, but with veterans like Roquan Smith and Alec Ogletree at inside linebacker, he will likely be used only in a pinch.
But he typically plays somewhere around 70% of special teams snaps. He recovered a fumble against Cleveland and was in on a key fumble against Pittsburgh, although Joel Iyiegbuniwe was credited with the forced fumble on the stat sheet.
“With special teams, it’s really kind of straightforward,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of what I like to do. It’s football. You really just play football. You really just get to focus on one specific thing and the skillset it takes to play special teams is a lot different than normal offense or defense.”
Shealy said Johnson was a consummate pro, even when he was in college. His eating habits were remarkably clean. He knew how to study film and he loved the weight room.
Even off the field, he keeps the distractions to a minimum. While many guys his age play video games, Johnson prefers to read. He said he doesn’t have a TV in his room. Lately, he’s been picking up the guitar.
“I know this sounds odd, but the Bears don’t have to pay him a penny and he’d still play for them,” Shealy said. “Now granted, he wants to make a living, but that’s how he’s wired. There’s something to be said about those guys that truly love the game and are not motivated just by what they can get out of the game.”
And he never forgets Dolan, who he believes should’ve been Houston Baptist’s first NFL player. Every time Johnson steps on the field, he has Dolan’s No. 40 written on his wrist tape.