It’s a long and tough road to get to the NFL for most players, but it might be an even more difficult task to get yourself mentally and physically “Ready To Play” in the NFL week in and week out. As we work our way towards the start of the NFL season, we’re speaking with a different NFL player each week and getting a first-hand account from them on how they get themselves ready for all of the rigors that come with competing at the NFL level. Here’s San Francisco 49ers’ cornerback Dontae Johnson, discussing how he gets “Ready To Play.”

Just being drafted last year to the 49ers – such a great organization – I knew it was going to be a challenge for me to make it and stay on the roster. Besides all of the talent that they have, they have so much experience with all of the veteran leadership there.

Going into my first real offseason this year, my mindset changed a lot because of the simple fact that I am competing for a starting position. Still, I know that the process that goes into it is still the same.

It’s comes down to the simple fact that I need to work hard just to make the roster, that’s my mindset going into camp even though I am competing for a starting spot. Still, I feel a lot more comfortable coming into this training camp.

I’ve always been told that the greatest teacher is experience and me getting that much experience last season was so important. It really showed me exactly what I need to do this year to get myself ready.

This offseason I was actually down in Miami training in Boca Raton with Tony Villani. Then I trained in California at the facility with a few of the guys.

Thankfully I did get away from the game before that for a little bit though. I was able to come back home to New Jersey for a while, which was great. My whole family is on the East coast so getting back there was nice.

I needed to get away from it all to be honest. It was just a long season, a long process. Especially going from my senior year to going to the Senior Bowl to the combine, then to OTA’s, training camp, preseason and the whole regular season – it was just a lot of football.

Still, I feel much better coming into this year physically and I know that if I keep working hard and listening to all of the veteran guys I’ll continue to grow week in and week out.

There were a few guys that I leaned on after being thrown into the fire my first year. In the secondary it was Parrish Cox, who’s now with the Tennessee Titans, I learned a lot from him, as well as Patrick Willis, he really gave me a lot of confidence to just go out there and play, and just play comfortable. He has a lot of insightful facts and different tools and tricks from playing the game and seeing a lot of things throughout his year. I learned a lot from Antoine Bethea, too. He’s one of those veteran guys, had a Super Bowl win, and he just knows what it takes to win and compete at this level.

I picked up a lot of the little things that the vets do, especially because they’ve been through these situations and they’ve been through their rookie year, second year, and so forth.

Little things like pre-workout routines during the week, or post-practice workouts. Little things to look for when I’m watching film and what not. Definitely some eating habits too and different things like that.

During the season it’s pretty much the same layout each week as far as getting ready for Sunday. You get into a pretty good routine of waking up and going into the facility early, eating breakfast, getting film work in, getting lifts in throughout the week and stuff like that. But some things do change. Sometimes the preparation that goes into each week based on our opponents might change. Based on our game plan I might need to understand more if we’re going to put in more of a complex defense during the week. In that case I’ll tend to watch more film just to be ready for all the different checks and different calls that we might have. As opposed to a week where we’re not having too many different calls and I primarily focus on getting my body ready and getting physically ready I do more stuff on the field and do more lifting.

The night before a game I usually try to get some pasta in me, just to try and store some energy before we play. That’s the big thing, pasta and vegetables. The day of the game it’s kind of hard for me to eat but I try to get some protein in me, whether that’s a chicken breast or a protein shake, I usually try to get some type of food in my stomach. Other than that I really try and drink a lot the night before and the day of as well.

I wouldn’t say it’s nerves, but I just don’t really have an appetite on game day because I’m just so focused on the game. Sometimes I’ll sneak a power bar or a little protein shake at half time. Actually, my one ritual is I always try to have a candy bar before a game. 

From there it’s game time.

I remember in high school that everything just wasn’t as demanding physically and mentally as college. And then the difference between college and the pros was the same way.

One of the biggest adjustments from college to the pros is just the speed, the speed of the game will continue to increase with all these great athletes that are in the league and keep entering the league every year. And the mental preparation too. You have to study more and prepare more and know what to expect. At this level, one mistake can lead to a costly first down or a touchdown. The mental preparation is huge as far as being prepared and knowing there’s more at stake now that you’re playing professionally, as opposed to college, where if you lose one game, you can still make a bowl game, but you lose one pro game, you might be out of the playoffs.

Being ready is all about working hard. There are a few people who really helped me understand the value of working hard and taught me that what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it.

One of the most inspirational people in my life was my mother, I couldn’t have done it without. Whether it was getting me from wherever I needed to be – football practice, school, basketball practice, whatever it was she made sure to get it done for me.

I learned early from people like my mother and my coaches that how hard you work is almost always going to determine the magnitude of your success.

The work that I put in toward it, I feel like it paid off and it helped me succeed and get into the college level where I was able to go to North Carolina State for free on a full scholarship and graduate as well, and it eventually lead to me getting drafted by the San Francisco 49ers.