If you have enjoyed our Championship coverage and want to keep reading more positive stories about Wheeling, WV, be sure to like us on facebook here: Weelunk.
Football fans in the Wheeling area knew there was something about that young, Bantam-division-playing running back for the Little Patriots, and not just because of who his father was.
He was bigger than his teammates and opponents, and he was especially fast and quick, and if defensive players dared attempt to tackle him, they usually regretted it.
People thought the kid could grow up and do what his daddy didn’t do and that’s because not much has changed for Savion Johnson since, despite a couple of chinks in his armor.
He didn’t experience defeat very often during his Little Patriot days, and the same was true in middle school. Then he, like quarterback Cross Wilkinson this year, was a rare sophomore starter, and the young man impressed while gaining 1,484 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns during an 11-2 Wheeling Park season in 2013.
The hype heading into his junior year was extreme. All eyes were on the potential Kennedy Award winner during the team’s June workouts, and once pre-season camp opened, small crowds would gather to see Savion for themselves.
And then IT happened. His anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee tore on Aug. 9 after he cut back inside during a practice drill, got tackled, and a lineman rolled his leg. He knew it, his father, Darryl “Boogie” Johnson knew it, and all of a sudden a for-certain sparkling future in football became uncertain.
“That’s where his work ethic was the most important thing,” said his father. “He was mad, not at anyone but at the situation, because all he wanted to do was play football and help his team win games. He just wanted to do what he always did playing football, and that was taken away.
“He’s had to fight through a lot of things, and I wouldn’t want any other kids to go through what he had to go through,” Boogie said. “It was terrible, but that’s just the kind of kid he is, and I am proud of him and his team. Those boys backed him the whole time. No matter what anyone on the outside said, those boys are tight inside that locker room.”
With One Goal In Mind
And there he was in uniform for the Patriots’ opening game against Bridgeport on Aug. 28, but both teams were robbed when Mother Nature ended the contest in the first half with repeated lightning strikes and unfavorable weather patterns. No one was quite sure what impact a tie would have on championship points and state rankings, but there wasn’t a thing anyone could do once the SSAC ruled the contest a 0-0 final.
But 12 games later – 11 victories, a lone loss, and that damn tie – Johnson and his teammates found themselves exactly where they wished to be after he had steamrolled his way to 1,170 yards and 23 touchdowns. Capital High pulled off the upset in the Class AAA semifinals to set up a rematch of the 1991 championship, which was played at Laidley Field.
“We knew they were big, physical, and athletic. Capital was a very good team coming into the championship, and we knew it,” Johnson explained. “If you look at our offensive and defensive lines, we were pretty undersized for Triple-A. Some may think we looked big, but we’re not very big.
“Our guys are barely 200 pounds and not very tall either, and Capital was 6-3, 285 up and down, so we were in for an up-hill battle automatically,” he said. “We told the offense that there were going to be plays when they beat us because of their size, but we also told them that they had to be patient. We were and good things happened.”
Savion finished with 123 yards on 14 carries and one twice-separated left shoulder to lead the Wheeling Park football team to a 23-15 win and the first Triple-A state football championship in the 40-year history of the consolidated high school.
“I heard him yell, and I knew something was very wrong, and I was afraid it was the same thing that happened in Week 3 against University. That was a freak accident because it happened when he was stiff-arming,” the running back’s father explained. “But then, once it was put back in, there were no issues with it until those two big Capital players took him down hard near the goal line.
“It went right back in and no significant damage happened in the shoulder according to the tests. He’s definitely been blessed by God; that’s for sure,” he continued. “Once he got his brace, pads, and jersey on, he told me he was going back into the game no matter what. He said he didn’t care. He was going back in.”
Head coach Chris Daugherty approached Savion once the running back returned to the Patriots sideline and he said one thing to his star senior.
“Coach Doc told him, ‘I love you more than football, so if you are not OK, I do not want you to go back in.’ But Sa said he was OK, and apparently he was because he was playing like he’s always played, and he was running those bigger players over to help his team.”
“But after the second time it happened late in the game, he just went back in then, too. He just kind of ran back on the field without any of us knowing it. He was that determined,” Johnson admitted. “And I am so happy for him it’s unbelievable because I will now think about this game and not the one in 1991. That’s now over for me because these boys knocked that memory out of my mind. Now I’ll just remember Saturday.”
Boogie said he knew winning this title was very possible 10 years ago when his son and several of his Park teammates were seven years old and playing for the Little Patriots.
“I’ve had this group of kids in football, basketball, and baseball all of those years, so I knew what a special groups of kids they were and that they would have a chance to win a state championship with Wheeling Park,” Johnson said. “I just knew those kids were going to win it.
“It’s a family. We’re all a family, and you don’t have to be a member of the team now to be a part of that family,” he continued. “It started to be like that several years ago, and it has just continued through all of the stuff that happened to this team this year. They stuck together through it all because it’s a family. A very tight family.”
The Next Chapter
After most of the fans had departed the stadium and only the cheerleaders, players, and parents remained, the Millers had the chance to snap a photo of two longtime friends walking off of the field for that final time.
“It sort of became a tradition for my daughter, Kayley, and Savion to find each other after the games for a photo,” explained Kayley’s father, Dave Miller. “It was subtle, and it was special because it was their final time as participants with their respective squads.”
“Kayley and Savion were born only two months apart and because our families have been good friends for many years, it was just natural that they would meet very early in their lives, and they’ve stayed close to each other all of these years,” explained Kayley’s father. “Our two families have been good friends for generations, and it all started because of football.
“Natalie’s parents and my parents have roots in Pittsburgh, and both of our families were very involved with the game of football from the beginning,” he continued. “Then the two families ended up in Wheeling, and it’s continued here, too.”
The two good friends even attended the high school’s Homecoming Dance when they were both sophomores.
“Savion is a great young man, and it was great to see things work out for him this season. And to top it off with the state championship just made it better,” said Miller, Ward Four’s representative on Wheeling City Council. “He worked hard to come back from his knee injury, and I know I am very, very proud of him.
“My daughter grew up with Wheeling Park cheering because my wife was the coach for 10 years, and it’s something that Kayley has always wanted to do, so it was very special for her, too, to be able to cheer for the state champions during his final football game on Wheeling Island,” he added. “The young man has proven a lot, and I am looking forward to watching how his career as a college student and as a player progresses from this point.”
Following his impressive sophomore season, during which he gained more than 1,400 yards, several Division-I programs contacted Savion, including Georgia, Pittsburgh, Stanford, WVU, Florida, and Harvard.
Those scouts scattered, though, once news spread about his ACL injury and reconstruction, and while some interest has been expressed as recently as late last week, the Johnson family remains unsure where Savion’s career might continue.
“Right we are talking to a lot of people from a lot of different colleges, so we hope to know something for sure so he can get focused on the next step,” Johnson said. “It’s an interesting process because the player has to find out who likes them a lot, and then the player and the parents have to decide if that school is the right fit for football and academics.
“And I think there will be several players from the team that will move on and play the game on the college level,” he continued. “No one knows where at this point, but I believe there will be a lot of news in the next couple of months. That’s just how special a team Wheeling Park was this season.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)