April 27, 2011

Johnson vows triumphant return after devestating injury

DonTaye Johnson was well on his way to putting up PlayStation numbers. In just three games last year the 6-foot-2, 220-pound do-everything junior from St. John's Catholic Prep had piled up 600 all-purpose yards, scored five touchdowns, recorded over 20 tackles and intercepted a pass. All-Conference honors were a given; an All-State mention was certainly on the radar.

"He could do everything," said St. John's senior receiver DeShawn Weaver. "He was a deep threat, he could run the ball and he could play great defense. He was an important part of what we did."

But then it ended. All of it. With one single blow.

In the second quarter against Boys' Latin, Johnson was lined up in the slot. He ran a 15-yard seam route and made a nifty one-handed snag on an overthrown pass. But when he planted his left foot and tried to cut his knee suddenly gave out. Johnson collapsed while the defense piled on.

"I didn't know what happened," Johnson said. "My knee didn't really hurt, even after I was tackled. I thought I just twisted it. I got up and walked off the field. I was going to ice it and come right back in."

After icing his knee, Johnson tried to run on the sideline. But he managed just a few weak limps. Sensing something was seriously wrong, the St. John's staff told him to go to the hospital for X-rays.

The diagnosis? A torn anterior cruciate ligament. Johnson's promising season was instantly over.

"It was one of those freak injuries you hear about; the same thing happened to two of my basketball guys," said St. John's coach John Ricca. "After the X-rays came back I kept hoping it was a misdiagnosis. But, sure enough, it was a torn ACL."

With Johnson out, St. John's promptly suffered a lopsided 54-6 defeat the very next week. They would win only twice in the final seven games, including just one victory in the conference.

Their prolific offense, which was averaging over 40 points per game, scored more than 40 just once the rest of the way. (And that outburst came against an inferior C-Conference opponent.)

"After he tore his ACL our whole game plan changed," Weaver said. "Teams started to focus on me and Lamont [Wims] instead of all three of us. It was harder to get open."

Granted, the Vikings could still put up some points without Johnson. But the team certainly felt his loss, especially on defense where they struggled mightily. They surrendered 32 points per game in the last seven contests.

"It's not hard to figure out," Ricca said. "If you have three special players on offense it's harder to stop then two. You can double-team two guys, but you can't really double-team three. We didn't have another receiver of his quality to replace him, but he was also arguably one of our two most valuable players on defense. And he returned punts, too. It was a big loss for us."

The Vikings were certainly feeling the pain, but not as much as Johnson. With the support of his teammates, friends and family, he tried to keep a positive attitude. But immobilizing a three-sport athlete who's a born competitor isn't exactly easy on the psyche.

"I was frustrated because I couldn't play football or basketball," Johnson said. "But I kept telling myself that God had a plan for me. I said to myself, 'There's nothing you can do. Just take it day by day and get ready for next season.'"

After a few days of downtime Johnson began the long, arduous rehab process. Day after day for the next six months he worked with physical therapists on lifting weights and training with medicine balls. Eventually he began running hills and performing simple agility drills that tested the knee's sturdiness.

"It was really tough," Johnson said. "They pushed me real hard to get back to 100 percent. But it paid off a lot."

Maybe so, but Johnson won't know if he's truly 100 percent until he straps on the pads. He still hasn't tested his cutting and acceleration on a football field. And he most definitely has not been hit by a 220-pound linebacker.

"I'm not nave," Ricca said. "I know that some guys come back and are as good as new. Others struggle with it and are never the same. We just hope he'll be fine, but time will tell."

The injury could potentially derail a promising football career that had "Division-I scholarship" written all over it. Johnson was on varsity from Day One his freshman year and became a starter before the season ended. In his sophomore year he racked up over 800 yards and eight touchdowns to go along with 87 tackles and a pick on defense. Not to mention he was already 6-1, 210 pounds, a college body among skinny high schoolers.

"He did not look like an underclassman at all," Weaver said. "He looked like a senior, almost like he already belonged in college."

Scouts thought so, too. They began contacting Johnson the summer before his junior season. The talk only intensified after he dominated the first three games last year.

"His potential is that of a Division-I kid," Ricca said. "He just looks like a football player. He's 6-2, 220 with a sub-4.6 40 [yard dash] and can play anywhere on the field. Who wouldn't want him?"

But then came the injury. On cue, the interest tapered off considerably. While many of the top prospects were showing off for recruiters and earning early offers, Johnson was stuck rehabbing his knee.

He has thus far been unable to attend any major combines or junior days. Which means his Division-I college career will likely hinge on his senior season.

"It is what it is," Johnson said. "There's nothing I can do about it. But I'm really not that worried. I know I'm going to come back stronger and better then before. I know I'm still one of the top [recruits] out there, and I'm determined to prove myself next year."

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