They are like tunnels with lights at the end of them, and those pathways guide Savion Johnson to more yardage, more touchdowns, and more victories, and that’s been the case since his single-digit days of donning a Little Patriots uniform.
And he sees them, everywhere, even away from a football field.
“All of the time. All. Of. The. Time,” Savion said. “If I’m in the car, if I’m listening to music, if I’m walking down the hallway in school, or if I am on the field, I am seeing the holes and the cuts I need to make.
“I don’t really have a favorite move to break a tackle because I just always do what comes naturally so I can get away and get to the end zone,” he continued. “That’s what it’s all about – performing the best I can for my team so we can win as many games as possible.”
That vision is actually what guided him into harm’s way. During a light practice in August he was running on the outside, and then he saw a seam in the middle of the field. Following God-given instincts, he made the cut as he’s made a million times before.
“I was there, yes. And I knew what the injury was as soon as I saw it take place,” said his father, Darryl “Boogie” Johnson, a former all-state running back and the 1991 Kennedy Award winner for Wheeling Park High School. “I knew it was his right ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) before anyone else knew it. You could just tell because I know how my son is. When he just laid there, I knew the injury because he has always popped right back up.
“He’s a tough guy. If he’s hurt, he’s going to tell you that he’s not hurt. But not that time,” he said. “When he couldn’t get up, I knew he was hurt, and he was hurt bad.”
The memory also is clear for the soon-to-be-senior student athlete. It was August 9, just 20 days away from the Patriots’ first game against Taylor Alderdice. He was coming off a spectacular sophomore season during which he rushed for 1,484 yards and 20 touchdowns while leading Wheeling Park to a sparkling 11-2 record. Savion was expected to eclipse those statistics as a junior and contend for West Virginia’s Kennedy Award, the honor bestowed upon the state’s best gridiron performer.
There were also whispers of a potential state championship, a title never yet achieved by Ohio County’s lone public high school.
“There wasn’t a sharp pain, but I could tell something was wrong. And then when I tried to move my right knee in a certain way and it wouldn’t, I knew something was really wrong,” Savion explained. “I was running on the outside and cut it inside, and then someone got blocked, and a lineman fell into my knee. That’s how it happened.
“When I realized the injury, I kind of lost my mind in disbelief,” he said. “Going into surgery was pretty scary, and then when I woke up, I remember being pretty mad. I was irritated.”
And it was only the beginning of the worst year of the young man’s life.
The Lost Season.
He was in a wheelchair, but he was there nonetheless for his teammates when the Patriots opened the 2014 football season, and he was pleased that his lifelong friend Theo Blackston had led Wheeling Park to a 30-13 victory with 298 yards on 43 carries.
Several of his teammates had sent Savion texts apologizing to him because they felt they might have had something to do with the injury. But blaming anyone is not something Savion has ever done, despite the fact he was sidelined not only for football but also for basketball and track.
“It was tough; it really was, and it wasn’t tough just on me but on my entire family,” Savion explained. “It was not a good year for any of us. It was a tough year.
“At first, there was a lot of disbelief that the injury happened at all, and then it was trying to get our minds around what we had to do to get me healthy again,” he said. “I didn’t get to play basketball or run track, either, so it’s been a long, long year.”
His father, who played three seasons for Oklahoma State until injuries halted his career, said much the same, but he and his wife, Natalie, rallied around their oldest of two sons, and little brother, Amare, was there for his big brother, too.
“I can tell you that it’s getting better for us now, but it was a tough year,” Boogie said. “It’s a tough thing to see one of your kids go through what he’s had to go through during this past year.
“I’ve hurt my knees plenty, so I know what he had to go through, and it wasn’t easy. It’s tough mentally and physically, and you miss an entire year while you are going through rehab. It was tough. It was very, very tough.”
Following surgery, the first step was the worst, Savion said. His rehabilitation began with what he referred to as a “range-of-motion machine.” For three hours per day for a couple of months, Savion’s knee was twisted, and bent, and stretched in ways he failed to appreciate. His father, though, was there filling a role he believed his son would need during that process and the many steps that followed.
“I’ve been there to motivate him, more or less, and of course he gets tired of hearing me ask him a bunch of questions about this and about that, but I’ve wanted to stay on him because I want him to be the best he can be,” Boogie explained. “We’ve driven him to Pittsburgh three days every week since April so he could work with Ron DeAngelo (director of Sports Performance Training at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine), and J.T. Thomas did a great job with him before that.
“My only role has been to motivate him. That’s it,” the father continued. “When you are in that position, it’s easy to get down because not every day is a good day when you are rehabbing. It’s a difficult process, and your emotions are constantly going up and down. I just wanted to try to help him stay positive and to believe he would make it back to the field even better than he was before.”
Savion has received much support during his rehabilitation, and that support also has motivated him. But not everyone has proven positive, and he is well aware of those folks, too.
“The support I have received has meant a lot to me and my family. All of the messages and the well wishes — that’s been pretty cool,” he said. “As far as the people who have been negative, I don’t have much to say to those people.
“I have no idea why some people have chosen to be negative, but I don’t care either. I don’t let those people bother me much because people obviously don’t know me very well,” he said. “The people who actually know me know that I will do anything to win for my team, and they know that I try to make everyone around me better. That’s what it’s about to me.”
Savion had not held a football again until recently. In his mind, there was really no reason to hold a football.
But then arrived the day when his doctors and physical therapists put the pigskin back into his hands.
“I think it’s really close to being 100 percent because I’ve been running for months, and now I have started to make the cuts I’m going to have to make during the games,” Savion reported. “I have been going to the field at Wheeling Jesuit recently to do a lot my running, and then when we start mini-camp on Monday, I’ll be there back on the field. And I can’t wait for that.
“Right now I don’t think I’ll have to wear a brace because I haven’t worked out with one at all,” he said. “I might wear a sleeve over my knee, but no one has said a word about a brace, so I think that’s some pretty good news.”
The Patriots open the 2015 schedule with an away game in Bridgeport, W.Va., on Sept. 4. That’s the date in everyone’s mind.
“And he’ll be ready because he’s worked extremely hard to make sure he’s on that field,” Boogie said. “I know I’m going to keep an eye on him this summer because I really want him to be out there for that first game. I don’t want something freaky to happen again.
“But at the same time, I know him. No matter what he’s going to be going 100 percent because that’s what you have to do on the field no matter what the situation is,” the former all-stater continued. “When you are going 100 percent, you usually do not get hurt. But what happened last summer? I doubt anyone could have helped him avoid that. That stuff happens and football is a tough game on your body.”
His recovery coupled with a talented roster has allowed some to whisper of a state title once again.
“Winning a state championship is the goal, and I think we’ll have a great chance to make that happen this year,” Savion said. “Our defense is going to be great. Our offense is going to be great. Our attitude is great, and we’re all working very hard to make that happen for Wheeling Park.
“It’s all about the team. My dad taught me that at an early age, and now all of my teammates are like my brothers. They’ve been there for me during that horrible year, and now I’m looking forward to being there for them,” he continued. “That’s why this season, to me, is about much more than individual stuff. This season is about us as a team.”
The pressure on Savion Johnson to deliver during his senior season is there, and he knows it. But pressure, this student/athlete said, is nothing new. Not only is he Boogie Johnson’s son, but he also romped anywhere he wanted while with the Little Patriots and during his middle school days. When he arrived at high school, expectations preceded him.
“I used to feel pressure because of all the success my father had as football player, but not really anymore. I really don’t worry about that anymore,” Savion admitted. “I used to when I was younger because everyone always said I was good, but until I actually got to do it on the high school level, I felt that pressure.
“Before that I would hear, ‘Your dad did this,’ and ‘Your dad did that.’ But now, people know that I can do it, too,” he continued. “That took a lot of pressure off me. Now, I just want to get on the field and prove it again.
“I think it’s good that people have high expectations. To me, that means people expect something from me because people know now that I can play the game,” he said. “It is tough sometimes, but I think I’ll be able to handle it. I just have to get out there again and prove it again, and I think I’m up to that challenge.”
Football and the Future.
Georgia. WVU. Pitt. Ball State. Stanford. Harvard. Florida State. Cornell. James Madison.
Recruiters from all of those schools and more made a lot of noise about Savion Johnson following his impressive sophomore season. But they’ve since gone, and the Johnson family understands why.
“I do want to go to college and I do want to play football, but right now I have no idea where that might be,” Savion said. “Every school that was interested before my injury is now telling me that they are going to have to wait until mid-season. I understand that. Why would they show interest in me until they know that I am back on the field.
“They want to know that I’m healthy, and I want to show them that I’m now better than I was,” he said with a most determined look on his face. “That has put some pressure on me, but I knew that would be the case so I’ve been prepared for this for a long time. I know what I have to do, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
College, though, is not just about football for Savion. He’s an honor student who is far more prepared for high education than his father was, according to Boogie.
“Education is No. 1 to us and it always has been No. 1,” he insisted. “And Savion is a great student. He’s a much better student than I was, I can tell you that. I think he might get a little of that from his mom. At least that’s what she tries to say anyway.
“We talk to him about school more than we talk to him about football, and yes, he gets mad at us sometimes but he also understands why his grades are so important,” he said. “In life, you need your education and it doesn’t matter how long he plays the game. The end comes, and that’s when you need your education.”
Choosing his next school is a decision with which Boogie will be able to assist his son thanks to his own experiences as a prized recruit in the early 1990s. He was approached by several universities, but some wished to transition him away from the running back position and into a defensive back.
But Barry Sanders was a product of Oklahoma State, and he quickly went to the NFL despite his body build, the same of which Boogie possessed in 1992.
“I just want him to go to a school that really wants him to be there,” the proud father said. “If they really want you to be there then that means that want you on the field and not filling out the roster as depth.
“Sometimes student/athletes go into this recruiting with a dream of playing at a specific place, but that’s not the best way to go about it,” he said. “The whole point of going to college to play a sport is to get to play once you get there. But that’s something we’ll worry about in the future. Right now, this is all about getting him back on the field to help Wheeling Park win a lot of games.”
(Photos made available by the Johnson family)