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December 22, 2008SAN DIEGO (AP) He used to be known more for crocheting than running.
That only piqued everyone's interest in Ian Johnson - his quirks, his idiosyncrasies that helped him become the face of the Boise State football program as running became his forte.
Whether it was his proficiency for scoring touchdowns or Johnson's famous national-television proposal to his cheerleader girlfriend following the Fiesta Bowl two years ago, the Broncos' football program became synonymous with its starting running back.
Now after what seems like a decade chewing up the Boise's blue turf, Johnson is about to play his final game for the Broncos in Tuesday night's Poinsettia Bowl against No. 11 TCU.
"Ian obviously is the poster child at Boise State," said quarterback Kellen Moore. "He'll probably be that for quite a long time after this ... a guy who's been a great example of Boise State football, on and off the field."
That face of the program is still there, his engaging personality, thoughtful speech and wide smile. But he's no longer the star that finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore.
Johnson is now a role player, a part-time running back, part-time special teams standout. It's not due to a diminishment of his talent, but because the Broncos have taken a different course with their offense, necessitated by a young offensive line that can't consistently open the holes Johnson sprinted through and into fame two years ago.
So he splits carries with shifty youngsters Jeremy Avery and D.J. Harper. Johnson didn't record a 100-yard rushing game until the regular season finale against Fresno State when Johnson popped for 128 yards, his best day since the middle of the 2007 season.
It sounds stunning that Johnson, who ran for 1,713 yards and 25 touchdowns as a sophomore, averaged only 61.5 yards as a senior. But Johnson understood the offensive change that was needed if Boise State was to reach its potential with an inexperienced offensive line and a redshirt freshman at quarterback.
"The coaches knew I understood because I've been here for a while, I'm the old dog. I could see the writing on the wall," Johnson said. "The (offensive) line we had in 2006 was one where we were going to run the ball, we don't care what you line up in we're just going to do it.
"As those guys started to leave I recognized right away, 'we're not going to be able to do this as well, to do this as well.'"
Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson decided to volunteer himself for grunt work. He asked to be put on special teams, to do little things like block on punt returns and be the personal protector for the Broncos' punt team.
"Personal protector is certainly not a glamorous job," he jokes.
But if nothing else, those yeoman jobs only endeared him to a community that embraced Johnson as the Broncos grew in national prominence.
Even as his profile on the field has dwindled, Johnson still gets stopped when out for dinner or walking through Boise with his wife, Chrissy, by fans who continue to admire Boise's "star couple," part of the small-town, Bronco-centric attitude of the community. His intensely public personal life - partly his own doing with a public marriage proposal after scoring the winning two-point conversion against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl - and the willingness to embrace a public profile has wooed the community even more.
"When you understand the situation, it's not hard. It's definitely not the best thing in the world at all times because you want to relax and go out and have a bite to eat without any interruptions, but luckily for me and my wife we're both very personable people," Johnson said. "We love talking to people and we understand that if we're going to go outside this city has done so much for us it's only right for them to want to come and say 'hey, how's it going?'"
While Johnson's wife works 12-hour days as a private cheerleading coach, property manager and kickboxing instructor, Johnson is preparing himself for the next stage of his career. Despite the decrease in productivity the last two seasons, Johnson firmly believes he can be a successful NFL running back.
If nothing else, his turn playing on special teams this season only makes the 6-foot, 196-pound Johnson more marketable to the NFL. Not many likely NFL draft picks have tape of blocking on punt returns to add to their highlight reel.
But there's still one more goal for Johnson - the Western Athletic Conference all-time record for rushing touchdowns, a mark he currently shares with Marshall Faulk.
Johnson still speaks in awe of standing on the sidelines last month in the home finale against Fresno State and hearing fans chant "I-an! I-an!" trying to persuade coach Chris Petersen into giving Johnson one more goal line-carry and a chance at tying Faulk's mark of 57 TDs.
Petersen obliged and added another lasting memory for Johnson. His chance at holding the mark himself comes on Tuesday night when Johnson will conclude his career, ironically, in the stadium where Faulk was a college star.
"Will I settle (for) being tied with a Hall of Fame running back? Of course," Johnson said. "But would I love to be outright? Oh yeah, especially a game-winning or 50-plus-yard run."