Sept. 11, 2009
By Maks Goldenshteyn
SEATTLE - Athletically speaking, James Johnson was once convinced he bore more resemblance to hulking NBA veteran Ben Wallace than to any wide receiver.
"That's a random guy, but that's what I played like. I played center. I was always the biggest guy on the team," the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Johnson said earlier this week.
No longer the biggest kid around as a freshman in high school, Johnson would set his sights on football at Valley Center High School, located outside of San Diego. But despite becoming an all-state wideout three years later, only San Diego State's coaching staff recruited Johnson to play on the offensive side of the ball in college.
Even as late as last fall, schools like Washington State, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Colorado and Utah wanted him at cornerback instead.
Why the lack of interest? It's a question that still baffles first-year UW receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty, who kept tabs on Johnson from his sophomore year onward while an assistant at the University of San Diego.
"I was like, `Shoot, I wish I could have recruited that kid to play for the University of San Diego,' but we couldn't get him," Dougherty said. "I said, `That kid's going to be special in the Pac-10 some day.'"
If his six-catch performance against No.11 LSU Saturday night was any indicator -- the first grab resulting in a touchdown after Johnson shed standout LSU safety Chad Jones -- it's hard to imagine Johnson being better suited for anything else.
Admittedly, Johnson says he'd probably have settled for playing in Oregon's defensive backfield had he not received a scholarship offer from Washington.
Simply put, "I just had to get out of California," Johnson said.
Growing up as the youngest of 14 children and living in Inglewood, Calif., the odds were stacked again Johnson from the start. So in seventh grade, his mother sent him to live with older brother Greg Taylor, a defensive backs coach at Palomar College.
"Where we were living at the time, there was a lot of riff raff," Johnson said. "A lot of my brothers got into the wrong things. She didn't want that for me. She wanted me to live with my brother. She knew that good things could happen."
And slowly, they did.
Taylor, now 31, enrolled his younger brother at Valley Central High School in a rural area of Southern California. Until his sophomore year, Johnson was the only African American student there. Aside from some initial challenges, Johnson says he met some of his best friends there including his high school quarterback Tyler Bernard, now an ASU baseball player.
At home, Taylor, a former SDSU player, made sure his brother was keeping up with his schoolwork and helping out around the house.
Under Taylor`s direction, Johnson continued racking up accolades on the football field. He took part in track and qualified for state in hurdles and was a successful basketball player -- SDSU recruited him for that too.
"A lot of who I am today and the way that I play is a resemblance to what he taught me," Johnson said. "I love him to death. I probably wouldn't be here if he wasn't at my life at the time."
It wasn't until a visit from newly hired UW coach Steve Sarkisian during December of his senior year -- relatively late in the recruiting process -- that Johnson was offered another opportunity to play receiver.
And it wasn't long before Johnson took a liking to the charismatic first-year head coach.
"I didn't trust anyone else," Johnson said. "All the other schools, no offense, they have good coaches, but I just didn't feel like in my gut, in my heart, that I found a place I could go and succeed at. I hadn't found that until I met coach Sark."
Johnson arrived on campus early this summer for voluntary workouts, mastering the offense before the start of fall camp. On the third day, the true freshman was already making one-handed touchdown catches in traffic, making over the shoulder grabs in the end zone and managing to hang on for a touchdown despite getting thumped by safety Greg Walker.
It was an effort that got Johnson noticed in a hurry.
"We obviously have a long way to go, but if we were playing Saturday he [Johnson] would play, that's for sure," Sarkisian told reporters that day.
And about a month later against LSU, in front of 70,000 fans and the entire country, Johnson got the start against one of the better secondaries in the country. He responded by turning in the best performance a UW freshman receiver has had in eight seasons.
"I just think he goes out and plays and it doesn't matter who, what, when, where or how," Sarkisian said. "`This is what I'm supposed to do, here's the ball, let me catch it and go make my play.'"
His older brother Greg had a game to coach and couldn't make it to Seattle last Saturday, but he did catch the ESPN broadcast. His reaction to Johnson's game?
"He just said, 'Continue to keep getting better. Don't just catch six [passes]. Catch 12. Score two touchdowns,'" Johnson said.
"He's telling me to keep my nose on the grindstone. Continue to work hard. Stay humble and hungry."
The Ben Wallace hairstyle, however, is optional.