Oct. 2, 2008
By Christian Caple
Frustration has likely never been worse for those in and around the Washington football program than now, as the Huskies desperately try to salvage what was labeled long ago as a make-or-break season for coach Tyrone Willingham.
Except, perhaps, for Tripper Johnson, a junior safety who is as seasoned as anyone in the art of ups and downs, taking the good with the bad and keeping an even keel during the most discouraging of times.
Spending the better part of a decade in professional baseball's minor leagues will do that.
"It's part of the game," said Johnson, drafted 32nd overall in the 2000 Major League Baseball draft by the Baltimore Orioles, of the frustration associated with an eight-year tour through the minors. "Baseball is a long run. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's pretty frustrating that I didn't make it [to the majors]. I gave it everything I've got; it just didn't work out."
That long run ended last fall when the Pittsburgh Pirates chose not to re-sign Johnson, a free agent at the time, to a minor league contract.
Johnson, who originally signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the UW in 2000, spent the 2007 season with Pittsburgh's Class-A advanced affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats.
"My overall options in the minors didn't look too good," said Johnson. "It was kind of a situation where I could go to a tryout and try to make a team but I wasn't guaranteed a spot."
Though the Braves invited him to spring training, Johnson decided to end his baseball career and pursue a dream he had maintained since playing at Newport High School in Bellevue.
"In the back of my head I always wanted to play college football," said Johnson, who was recruited by Rick Neuheisel to play football out of high school. "I've always wanted to do it and I'm fortunate enough to get the chance now."
As it would turn out, he's been given more than just a chance. Injuries to other UW safeties expected to be key contributors this season -- Victor Aiyewa, Jason Wells and more recently, Darin Harris -- have thrust Johnson suddenly into the competition for playing time.
As with any new player, Johnson has experienced peaks and valleys in his first season on the field. But the learning curve is even steeper for Johnson, who hasn't played football since he was a first-team All-King-County selection defensive back during his senior season at Newport.
"The game's a little faster than when he last left it," said UW defensive backs coach J.D. Williams. "But he's slowly getting better also. You've got to look at him like he's a freshman, also, because he's been away from the game for so long."
Johnson admits it hasn't been easy.
"I've definitely made my mistakes out there and I knew that was going to happen," said Johnson. "It's been a while and it's going to be a learning process, but I feel like I'm athletic enough and I have good enough instincts where eventually I'll figure things out."
What he hasn't figured out yet on the field may be balanced by the experience he's gained on his strange route back to the gridiron. Johnson -- who turned 26 in April and said teammates refer to him as "Uncle Trip" on occasion -- can draw from his lengthy go-round in the minors to ease the breaking-in process for his teammates, some of whom are eight years younger than he.
"A lot of these young guys get rushed out there and they struggle a little bit like I have and it's one of those things where you've just got to bounce back," said Johnson. "You're going to struggle. When you're doing bad and struggling, you just have to react to that. From my life experience of pro baseball, I've had my ups and downs so I try to help these young guys out."
According to Williams, he's earned his teammates' respect.
"Going into spring, he came in and I think he wanted to prove that he could play with the guys," said Williams. "I think he's respected by the DB's because he works hard and puts in a lot of hours like the rest of them."
So it's easier for Johnson -- a grizzled sports veteran compared to the 10 true freshmen who have seen playing time this year -- to keep in perspective a 0-4 start and a whirlwind of speculation regarding his coach's job security.
"I love every part of [playing football again], except for the losing," said Johnson. "You start losing, you start getting frustrated. There's still a lot of games left, we're so young, we're going to get better. Don't lose sight of that goal. There's a long way to go."
That's something that he knows better than most.