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AMES — Leonard Johnson made a deal with his buddies.
While in college at Iowa State, just like most other students, Johnson was strapped for cash. So when it came time to figure out what to eat, Johnson and his friends made an arrangement.
If his football teammates paid for the ingredients, Johnson would make dinner from scratch.
“I love cooking and that’s my passion,” said Johnson, who was back in Ames last weekend, taking a break before entering his sixth NFL season. “When I get done (playing), I’ll invite former players and current players (to cook with me) and share a little bit of their story.”
Johnson, who signed with the Buffalo Bills last month, spent last season with the Carolina Panthers and had 30 tackles and one sack in 10 games. He was out the first six games while recovering from an Achilles injury.
During that time, Johnson grew close with quarterback Cam Newton. The Players’ Tribune released a video last month showing the pair making a seafood dish in Newton’s home. Johnson was in his element in that kitchen.
“Not only is he a great football player, but to my surprise during training camp, I found out he’s an unbelievable cook,” Newton said in the video. “Not no ramen noodle, lucky charm, hot dog; you know what I mean? He’s got culinary skills.”
Those culinary skills started long before Johnson’s college and pro football days, and sprouted mostly out of necessity.
The Clearwater, Fla., native remembers his mom, who was a good cook in her own right, working a lot. There wasn’t much food in the refrigerator, so Johnson would frequently visit his friend’s house.
At his friend’s place, the refrigerator was fully stocked and, at just 7 or 8 years old, Johnson would let his creativity in the kitchen take over.
“I would just go over to their house and experiment,” Johnson said. “The food would come out pretty good.”
As a 7-year-old, Johnson remembers standing on a block corner in his neighborhood waiting for all of his friends to get together to cook. He had walked a mile and a half to get a carton of eggs while one of his friends would provide the hamburger and bacon.
Even as football became a priority, Johnson’s love for cooking never diminished. Some of those dinners he made while living in Ames drew quite a crowd. Even former ISU defensive backs coach Bobby Elliott was one of the guests during a “DB dinner.”
Spaghetti, Johnson said, was on the menu that night. He likes to add shrimp and a hint of other seafood, calling back to his Florida roots.
“I had a small little apartment on Welch (Avenue) and coach Elliott, I’ll never forget,” Johnson said. “He comes over and looking all good and I’m like, ‘Coach, you’re going to a 5-star apartment, not a restaurant.’”
Time spent in the NFL has given Johnson another avenue to pursue cooking endeavors. When his playing career is over, he hopes to host a television show on the Food Network — what he hopes to call “Behind the Helmet” — bringing in former and current football players to talk about a variety of topics while cooking.
Johnson, he said, already has been in talks with the network about the possibility.
“It’s just a blessing, man. It’s crazy,” Johnson said. “It’s a blessing because you look back at life and you take so many different turns and so many different things come up. You look back and it’s just like, man, I can’t believe all of the things that happen.”
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