James Johnson’s path to one of Queensland’s historic rugby league clubs was forged through a teenage stint in the backrow for his local team.
Johnson was 17 and weighed 78kg when the Lakes United Seagulls asked him to take on the bigger bodies in their first grade team in the Newcastle Rugby League.
The Seagulls, who had produced the likes of Paul Harrogan, Robbie Ross, Willie Mason and Brett Kimmorley, needed a new backrower and they liked what they saw in Johnson despite his size.
“I was way underweight back then but I just wanted to have a go and I had always played backrow,” Johnson said.
“I loved it and it was a real turning point in my career because I got through it and it made me think that I may be able to continue to develop as a footy player.”
Johnson has put on weight – he’s now 94kg – moved to the backline and moved to Brisbane to link with Norths Devils for the club’s history 90th anniversary season.
He spent the summer training with the Brisbane Broncos, earning two trial matches in the centres and wing for the NRL club alongside his new Devils teammate Jack Ahearn.
That puts Johnson in line for his Hostplus Cup debut on Saturday night under new Devils coach Dave Elliott when the two-time defending premiers take on Burleigh Bears at Bishop Park.
“I just can’t wait for this game,” Johnson said.
“If you can’t get excited for the first game of the season, then there’s something wrong.
“I’ve really enjoyed being here at Norths and getting to know the culture of the club. It’s been a good move.
“The first thing I did when I came here was look at the names on the wall. I really had no idea how many good players had been at the club.”
The wall of the Devils footy office contains all 1300-plus men who have played first grade for the club since 1933. Johnson saw the likes of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater among the many others who have graduated to the highest honours.
There’s another that started on a path Johnson would like to follow – outside back Matt King moved to the Devils from NSW before playing 220 NRL games, 10 Tests for Australia and nine State of Origin matches.
Johnson arrived in Brisbane last November as he celebrated his 21st birthday, heading north with his partner Riley Nechakoski for a Devils contract and a pre-season with the Broncos.
Johnson, who has an older sister and younger brother, is a qualified carpenter.
He’s parking that trade for now to focus on his football after impressing last year in the Newcastle Knights Jersey Flegg Under 21 team.
“I really enjoyed last season but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try something new,” Johnson said.
“It was challenging at times, especially in the first few weeks when I got here, but it’s turning out to be everything that I wanted in growing up and learning to do things I haven’t done before.
“The pre-season with the Broncos was part of that and I was learning so much there including around people like Kotoni Staggs and Herbie Farnworth.
“And I had Jack Ahearn and Liam Horne there as well so it was easy to come to Norths because I had got to know those guys.”
Johnson impressed with his physicality and his determination at the Broncos, preparing him well for Saturday’s season-opener.
He played for the Devils in the final pre-season match against Sunshine Coast Falcons.
“I’ve never been this fit and in this type of shape so I really can’t wait to get out there for Norths,” he said.