March 1, 2006

Next big thing

The comparisons are there. He's got the same physical attributes and facial features. They have even been linked as distant cousins.

While he's only entering his junior season, Gilmer running back Justin Johnson is being mentioned in the same breath as Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson. The comparisons are scary.

The 6-foot-3, 210 pound Johnson has physically dominated at the high school level. He started on defense and special teams early in 2005, before moving to running back where he averaged nearly 10 yards per carry.

"It's an honor to be compared to Adrian Peterson," Johnson said. "We've become friends because I've been over to Oklahoma a few times to see my cousin and teammate Manuel Johnson. AD is from East Texas, so we have that and a lot of other things in common.

"I think he's the greatest college football running back I've ever seen, but when I met him I was surprised to see that I was a big as he was," he said. "At that point I thought to myself that I will be here (in college) one day and hope to pass his accomplishments up."

On his 2006 Rivals.com questionnaire he defines his play as "violent." That was evident on a special teams play earlier this season where he knocked out a return man, earning him the "Hit of the Year" in Deep East Texas.

"I'm a physical player but play with sportsmanship," Johnson replied. "I'm not out to hurt anybody. I just love to play the game."

His physical features and exploits on the field have drawn early attention from colleges, such as Oklahoma and Texas.

"Justin has been exposed to college coaches because of his teammates," Johnson's guardian Todd Robison said. "Manuel got him interested in Oklahoma and Curtis Brown, who recently committed to Texas, sleeps about 10-feet away from Justin. It's the Red River Rivalry, right here in my house.

"He was one of two sophomore invited to the Texas Junior Day last weekend, and was also on hand in Norman for their Junior Day several weeks ago. He's been to both schools' summer camps as well."



Gilmer, Texas is a small town of just over 5,000 people surrounded by towns like Ore City, Big Sandy, Union Grove and East Mountain. Like most small East Texas towns, high school football is life.

Coach Jeff Traylor is a Gilmer-native who returned to his hometown to coach and change lives. Traylor went to Stephen F. Austin and walked onto the football team. After graduating from SFA, he coached at Big Sandy, before taking a position at Jacksonville, where he coached Josh and Luke McCown under current Tyler ISD Athletic Director, Danny Long.

Upon getting the head job at Gilmer, Traylor challenged some of his old high-school teammates and friends to support his efforts in the community.

Robison was one of those guys. An international business executive who moved back to his home town after an assignment in Europe, Robison came back to Gilmer and found many of his high school teammates on Traylor's coaching staff.

Naturally, he wanted to help with some of the kids in any way he could. It didn't hurt that he has a 270-acre ranch that could be a safe haven for several athletes passing through the program.

"When Jeff became the head coach in Gilmer, it was like we had keys to the field house again," Robison said about his return home. "Jeff told us how some of the kids in Gilmer really needed help and told us to come back and see for ourselves.

"He challenged us and there was a group of us who had played together in the 80's in Gilmer who really responded. We wanted to help."

The community responded and in a big way around the theme of family.

"This is our town," Robison said. "And this was not going to happen in our town. We all went to school in this town and we are united for this football team. Everybody at the barbershop or the grocery store wore the 'G' on their helmet. We all did two-a-days and won games together. From that collective experience, there is a tremendous amount of respect for each other and a connection in the community that transcends race, creed and economic conditions.

"We grew up like brothers, so it wasn't difficult for us to unite like a family again behind these kids. They are all our kids."

Over the past five years, Gilmer football has been restored by a unifying coach and a proud community with the common link of Friday night football madness. Gilmer won the Class 3A state championship in 2004, but fell last year to Canton High and quarterback G.J. Kinne in the third round of the playoffs, 61-58.

Gilmer will most likely be favored to win state in 2006 with Curtis Brown at receiver and Johnson at running back, not to mention the other dozen D-1 prospects in this small 3A program.

"I love it around here in East Texas," the prospect Johnson said. "There is some serious talent here and our guys really love each other. We hang out together all the time, fish together. We are bonded like a family. We keep each other out of trouble - we even push each other to make better grades.

"There is a support system here and you know people are always there that have your back."

If not for the local daily paper and the interstate running through it, Gilmer seems like a throw-back fantasyland where time stood still - a town from a simpler and better time.



On a clipboard are Johnson's goals. Of course he wants to win another state championship, but he also wants to do the unthinkable.

"I want to break Tommy Palmer's rushing record," he said. "I want that record."

Blasphemy. Palmer rushed for 1,868 yards in 1984 before playing for Jim Wacker at TCU.

"In Gilmer, you don't get much bigger than Tommy Palmer," Johnson's guardian Robison said. "He's a legend, but I think that Justin can do it. They are the exact same type of runner. People who see Justin play are reminded of Tommy."

Nicknamed the "bus", Johnson is prepared for the next two seasons at Gilmer and the recruiting process. It seems that it will be a war between Texas and Oklahoma.

"I love both colleges and I want to play somewhere where I know people," the talented Johnson said. "Manuel and Curtis are family to me. They will play a part in my decision."


For now he will work out, attend camps, and make friends with his amiable personality.

"I met J.B. Shugarts at the Texas Junior Day," he said. "He and I were the only sophomores there. He was (a) giant, so I just followed him around. I think I made a new friend. I wouldn't mind following him around on the football field in college either.

"He's planning on coming up for our first game against Canton and I'm planning on going down to Houston to see him play."

It's like a screen play -- The Big City opening doors for Big Country.



 

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