Unleashed: The Perseverance of James Johnson
April 25, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - James Johnson is getting a second chance with his UW career.
No Husky knows the value of a re-start better than he does.
Johnson is the youngest of 13 children to a single mother in Victorville, Calif., a city on the edge of the Mojave Desert where nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. He left his mom in the eighth grade to live with his older brother by a dozen years outside San Diego, to pursue an opportunity for a better life, to get a do-over.
He flourished. His brother gave Johnson discipline, direction -- and a new sport. In four transformative years, Johnson went from potentially wayward to earning a football scholarship with the Huskies.
Now finally, after a starry splash at Washington then injuries at two key points that derailed his last two seasons and left him forgotten, Johnson has a huge, final opportunity with the Huskies.
It's his latest do-over.
The engaging, thankful wide receiver - he answers many questions with "Yes, sir" - has emerged as one of the Huskies' leaders on the eve of his senior season. He's poised to seize a long-awaited lead role following the departures of friends Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar, Washington's leading receivers as seniors last season. And he's poised to benefit from the return to full health of record-setting quarterback Keith Price.
"I think I had an awesome spring," Johnson said Wednesday as rain fell on us at the East Field, following the next-to-last practice before Washington's spring game Saturday at CenturyLink Field (1 p.m. here on GoHuskies.com with the live game chat answering your questions).
"I came out here and led."
After many of the 13 practices this month - well after drills, for 30 or more minutes, when teammates not only were off the field but inside Conibear Shellhouse eating lunch - Johnson has been running routes and catching passes from Price.
It happened again Wednesday, with Johnson in a red, no-contact jersey following his return from a mild concussion last week.
Ask Johnson how he's doing, and his answer is as sharp and quick as one of his crossing routes.
"Awesome, man," he says, using that word again.
Good - make that, awesome -- for No. 3 in purple.
James is an all-time kid as far as character," said wide receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty. "Perseverance and all those things, James is one of the best we've ever been around.
"It was always my hope that this would be the position he would be in, with a chance to be a captain and be a true leader of this football team. And he's earned that right. He's persevered. He's been through that storm, and weathered it.
"And now, here he is. It's a world of difference the confidence he's playing with. He's got to keep that going. And he will.
Being through everything he's been through, he's not going to stop.
"Being through everything he's been through, he's not going to stop."
"OH, MAN, IT WAS REALLY, REALLY TOUGH"
Johnson is the youngest of that baker's dozen of kids born to and raised by Dennia Johnson, a certified nursing assistant at a convalescent care facility in Victorville. The city of 115,000 is about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, and its per-capita income in a 2009 survey was $18,731. The 2010 U.S. Census showed African Americans were outnumbered by Caucasians and Latinos in Victorville by about 55 to 1 each. Johnson's was among the 20 percent of the city's households that had a woman householder with no husband present. And 19.24 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
That was environment from which Johnson's older brother, Greg Taylor Jr., took him when James was in middle school. Johnson moved two hours down Interstate 15 to Valley Center in north San Diego County. His brother became his legal guardian, Johnson says.
Taylor was 26 years old working in real estate and as an assistant high school football coach at the time. He had played college football at the College of Siskiyous from 1997-99, and then at San Diego State.
How hard was it for the baby of the family to leave his mother as an eighth grader?
"Oh, man, it was really, really tough," Johnson said.
"But I have a really big family, and the deal is I am the baby of 13 kids. My brother had always told my mother when I was younger that if he had the opportunity to take care of me and he would get set financially to where he could, he would do everything he could to help me so that I could have a better life for myself and have an opportunity for myself.
"Because my father was never there."
So, no, beating man-to-man coverage or finding the right spots in an opposing zone this fall will not exactly be the biggest challenges Johnson has ever faced.
"My mom, she did everything she could do, always keeping us positive and everything," he says. "But like I said, there was no father figure there. So the biggest thing the move taught me with my brother was discipline and work ethic."
Taylor did that by example. And through tough love.
Johnson had played basketball primarily into high school. He didn't try out for football until his freshman year. That was after his older brother by a dozen years began getting James out of bed at 5:30 in the morning with drill-sergeant like calls of "All right! Get up!"
Taylor would then put his college shoulder pads and helmet on the eighth grader and send him on training runs at or before dawn, to get used to the added weight Johnson would wear in his new sport.
"I found a love for this game," Johnson says. "And ever since then I've been trying to get better."
One year into his new life, James saw his older brother receive the first of his two master's degrees, in educational technology at National University based in San Diego.
"Number one, my brother always made sure I didn't take any short cuts to anything - washing dishes, homework, anything. And that was something that was really new to me," Johnson says. "And then, I wanted to play basketball and he was always challenging me: `You say you want to play basketball, but what do you play for? You just go out there and just ... play? You should want to be the best!'
"That's what he really taught me, getting up extra early in the morning. I remember getting up at 5:30 in the morning shooting (basketball) - boom!
"That was the biggest thing. He led by example, more than anything else."
Taylor is now a running backs coach at Hampton University in Virginia. He talks to his not-so-little-anymore brother, who has grown into a thick 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, on the phone once or twice a day. Every day.
"I love my brother to death," Johnson says, with a punctuating nod of his head.
He is already looking forward to his brother coming back to the West Coast this summer so Johnson can watch Taylor's kids, especially nephew Anthony, who just turned six.
"Me and Anthony are super close. He's just like my little brother," Johnson says.
How much does Taylor value his relationship with his youngest brother? This is a line in his Hampton athletics coach's bio:
"He is the father of four children: James Johnson (21), Jada Taylor (8), Anthony Taylor (5) and 3-month-old Kobe-Michael Taylor."
"I'm looking forward to him moving back to San Diego sometimes soon," James said of his big brother. "I can't wait for that."
A SPLASH, THEN SPRAINS
Johnson flourished living with Taylor. He had 2,930 yards receiving in his career at Valley Center High School, a San Diego section record, despite having never played football until ninth grade. He then had his pick of top college football programs.
"I was going through the recruiting process and I really didn't know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. It was between Oregon, San Diego State and Cal," he says. "I had UCLA and USC, but I really wanted to get out of California, at least the southern part of it.
I met Coach Sark. And I came up here and fell in love with this place and these guys.
Then, as he says, "I met Coach Sark. And I came up here and fell in love with this place and these guys: Jermaine, D'Andre Goodwin, Devin Aguilar, those are my guys. Even the younger guys they recruited, they've all been awesome guys."
Johnson started the first game of his Huskies career, Sept. 5, 2009, on national television against 11th-ranked LSU at Husky Stadium. It was also the first game in the head-coaching career of Steve Sarkisian. And Johnson's first career catch was a 17-yard touchdown from Jake Locker.
How's that for a debut?
He had a career-high 39 catches that freshman season. He seemed destined to be a four-year starter and prodigious producer in Sarkisian's dynamic offensive system.
But then in the summer of 2010, during his sophomore preseason camp, Johnson sustained a high-ankle sprain. The injury of the ligaments that connect the tibia and fibula in the lower leg often lingers for months.
"You know, if you are not in camp, other guys are going to get the opportunity to make plays - and play," he says. "So it was tough getting back in the rotation."
By the time Washington rallied for four consecutive wins to end the season, including a domination of Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl in Johnson's adopted home area of San Diego, he was pushed down the depth chart. Forgotten.
He struggled off the field, as well. He had started his UW career as a near-3.0 student who had potential to be an all-conference academic selection, but then his grades began slipping.
"I allowed that (injury) really to affect me mentally, because I was so young at the time," he says. "But I grew from that."
Dougherty saw 2010 as Johnson's low point.
"Really, his sophomore year was the year that was really tough for him," the receivers coach said.
Johnson returned eager for a fresh start in 2011.
"Then I come back for my junior year, and I'm having a heck of a start. Getting back into things," he says. "And next thing you know - boom! Another high ankle sprain."
It was to the same, right ankle. He was sidelined for about a month. His reliability to a new coaching staff was again in doubt. He fell back down the depth chart. Again.
"I don't even think I got really, fully healthy until the bowl game," he says of December's Alamo Bowl.
Yet even on just one good leg, he had a career day in September with two touchdowns and 108 yards receiving at Nebraska. He finished with 26 receptions for the year amid a loaded receiving corps led by the record-setting Kearse.
Now, Kearse and Aguilar are gone. And Johnson is basically healthy - knock on wood - with experience, leadership and renewed confidence.
"He had so much early success. Really from his first practice here the guy was making plays and making catches," Sarkisian says. "First game, first touchdown against LSU. And then it wasn't so easy.
"Next thing you know you are down on the depth chart and guys are making plays in front of you and it's hard to find your way back up. I think we've all seen through years and years of doing this some guys at that point almost quit and hang `em up.
"To James' credit he just kept battling ... whether it was in the weight room or the film room with Coach Dougherty, or on the football field working on the details, the little things. He got his confidence back to where he knew he was going to play, it was just a matter of time. And then it showed up."
Sarkisian then looked over his shoulder at Johnson catching extra passes after practice yet again from Price.
"Today he's still out there catching balls," the coach marveled, "when 99 percent of our team is in the locker room.
"He knows what's at stake."
Yes, Johnson knows his time has finally arrived. And he constantly reminds himself how he got here, of the setbacks.
I use (setbacks) to keep me extremely humble and motivated, to be the best I can be - at everything.
"I use those to keep me extremely humble and motivated, to be the best I can be - at everything. In the weight room. In the classroom. Out here on the field," he says. "I'm studying with Keith as far as chemistry, coming out here catching extra balls, stuff like that."
Johnson's perseverance is a reminder of how exponentially college players - heck, people -- grow from 17- and 18-year-old freshmen wide-eyed and new to a college campus into confident seniors. Into men.
He has the size and speed. Now, through it all, from Victorville to that new home and life with his brother outside San Diego, to the fast start and that humbling middle at UW, Johnson has a sense of place as a Huskies' leader.
The only flaw Sarkisian sees in Johnson is a compliment: That he sometimes tries too hard.
"I think James has been awesome," Sarkisian says. "He's had (to) persevere through and he has been awesome at it, almost a model of how to deal with it. ... He can get himself almost too jacked up, too worked up, because he's such an unbelievable competitor."
Sarkisian says the staff's challenge is to keep Johnson on a "level that's just not Code Red, just a notch below that."
"He's an unbelievable kid," Sarkisian said. "A great leader, works his tail off every day.
"I couldn't ask for any more."
Though he needs to be more consistent academically to do it, Johnson is on track to graduate after spring quarter in 2013. He intends to apply this summer to complete a bachelor's degree in sociology.
"I'm a year away from graduating on time for a four-year guy. I'm grateful," he says.
I asked him if he can believe he will be a senior this fall.
"You know, I really can't," he said. "My time here has been really, really good. I think I have a great opportunity, depending on how well I do this year, to go out there and give myself a good chance to play on the next level.
"That's not what it's about. It's about winning games.
"But, you know, you've got to have your long-term goals. Always."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.