Thursday, February 11, 2010

From Cub to Colt

The Super Bowl has long been seen as the Mecca of all sports. Millions of viewers worldwide tune in each year to watch the NFL’s top two teams battle it out for the title. In fact, CBS is scheduled to broadcast Sunday’s match-up between the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints to an estimated 150 million viewers nationwide. Plus, it is scheduled to be shown in about 230 countries across the globe.
To think that someone from the Delta, besides Mississippi Valley alum and future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, would play a significant role in the world’s largest sporting event could seem far-fetched for some.
But it’s quite true.
Leland High product Antonio Johnson will suit up as a starting defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts Sunday.
“It’s been good. It s a dream come true,” Johnson said during a phone interview. “Since I was a child, I’ve been dreaming of playing on this level. This was an ultimate goal of mine. I’m very grateful to play in this game.”
But Johnson’s quest to NFL stardom hasn’t been a fairy tale. After his time at Leland High, the 6-foot-3, 310 pound Johnson enrolled at Mississippi Delta Community College. Trojans head coach Jay Miller, who was introduced to Johnson by Leland coach Eugene Sanders, said the big guy had to tap into his potential to gain success.
“He was a raw kid. He didn’t have a lot of fundamentals, but he was a good solid player who got better, said Miller. “He started to see his way while he was at (MDCC).”
And Johnson’s improved talents earned him All-America Honorable Mention honors and a scholarship to Mississippi State. As a Bulldog, he recorded five sacks and started five of 12 games as a senior.
Johnson’s talents and size caught the attention of the Tennessee Titans, who drafted him in the 5th round of the 2007 draft. To hear his name called on draft day was a matchless experience that he worked for profusely, Johnson said.
“It was a dream come true. Coming from Leland, (chances) are slim to none. Folks count us out off top. You have to strive for what you want in life,” he said. “I always pushed myself and told myself that if I could get into somebody’s camp it would work out. I’m happy to be in this position.”
There he was with his childhood dream coming true at the ripe age of 22. Not only was Johnson playing professional football, but he was only a few hours away from home.
It all, however, came to an abrupt halt in early August 2007 when he tore his ACL and was forced to have season-ending surgery.
“I was pissed off,” Johnson said. “It made me work harder. I had to overcome adversity. Other than that, I kept grinding. I wasn’t going to let my knee stop me.”
And Johnson kept to his word. After fully rehabbing his knee and proving himself on the Titans practice squad, he was signed by the Colts in November 2008. He started four of the final eight games of the season.
Afterwards, Johnson was given a larger role this season, as he started 15 of 16 games. One of his best outings came near the end of the season against his former squad – the Titans – when he recorded eight tackles and two quarterback pressures.
Now, Johnson is hoping to have a similar type game today as the Colts face off against Drew Brees and the resurgent Saints.
“We’ve been game planning the Saints pretty tough. Whatever they bring to the table, we have to be ready for it,” he said.
“We don’t care what they doing. We have to focus on us and go out and be dominant. But I’m not going to get in a talking contest (with the Colts).”
Although Johnson and his teammates have been tossed into the media spotlight lately, he said NFL players like Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney are no different than your average Joe.
“It’s been a good experience and those are good guys,” he said. “They have fun just like us. We (are) all normal. We’re just elite guys on an elite level. They all humble and laid back cats.”
But Johnson and the Colts didn’t just recently get placed under the media microscope. The AFC champs chased history in 2009 when they almost became only the second team in NFL history to finish 16-0. However, Colts head coach Jim Caldwell made the heavily-debated decision to remove his starters from the final two games. Indianapolis finished 14-2.
“I felt like we could have done it. It was a businesss decision,” Johnson said. (Colts President) Bill Pollian wanted his guys healthy for the postseason.”
Despite the much scrutinized decision, the Colts have almost achieved their ultimate goal – win the Super Bowl. Indy’s tour to the grand stage took loads of hard work, Johnson said.
The solid effort Johnson has shown on and off the field was something Sanders saw years ago.
“I watch (Antonio) every Sunday. He was a good, humble kid,” said Sanders, who coached Johnson at Leland High. “I haven’t seen anyone work like that since Jerry Rice. It does have an influence on the kids. I see some of the kids working in 90 degree heat.”
Sanders also brought up a defining moment in Johnson’s upbringing.
“I coached him in junior high as well. In 7th grade he missed practice. I went to his house and picked him up. I chewed him out, and we didn’t have any more problems,” said Sanders.
Although Johnson has accomplished professional and financial success, he said “nothing will keep him away from home.” Johnson said he last came to Leland after Indy’s Dec. 17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Although athletes from the Delta, he said, may find it hard to achieve success, the big No. 99 – Johnson’s jersey number – had a little encouragement for area athletes.
“Whatever you have to do in life, give it 100 percent,” he said. “If you’re a garbage man, be the best garbage man. I can only give you my best. Everything else, I leave in the Lord’s hands.”

No comments: