Thursday, February 11, 2010
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.”
It’s just another game.
From the outside looking in, Mississippi State and Ole Miss basketball fans might consider tonight’s matchup of the two touted rivals a must see.
But junior Bulldog Phil Turner sees the nationally televised game just like the previous 23.
“It’s more with the fans. It’s just a basketball game for us,” said the 6-foot-3 wingman. “We don’t have anything against Ole Miss more than we do Alabama or Arkansas. They’re just another opponent we have to beat.”
The 16-7 Dogs did exactly that on Jan. 9 in Oxford when State edged out an 80-75 victory over the Rebels. The game marked State’s first SEC victory and provided MSU with a 13-3 record. They followed it up by creeping past Arkansas 82-80 and used a late game rally to down Georgia 72-69. Turner, who scored a season-high 15 points, was key down the stretch in the battle of the Bulldogs.
Late last month, however, the Bulldogs hit a bump in the road when they were defeated by five points at the hands of Alabama and Arkansas. MSU went 7 of 44 from downtown during the two losses.
Although State has had its struggles from 3-point land, Dogs head coach Rick Stansbury is sticking with the gameplan, Turner said.
“(Stansbury) said keep shooting it,” said Turner, who has knocked down a 3-pointer in all but two games this season. “We’re a good shooting team, period. We’re only losing by one or two points a game. As long as we defend and rebound, our shots are going to come back.”
One explanation for MSU’s struggles that has been floating around is the team’s lack of depth. Top recruit Renardo Sidney has not played all season due to a NCAA investigation, freshman guard Shaun Smith has yet to play as a result of a hip injury and 6-foot-8 forward Elgin Bailey has battled with ankle problems.
Despite the chatter about State’s short lineup, Turner said a solution is in place.
“I feel like what we’re doing is giving Jarvis (Varnado) a break with Kodi (Augustus) sliding down to the (center position),” said Turner. “Coach (Richard) Akins is a great strength and conditioning coach. And he conditions way harder than the games are. We’re fine as far as the depth.”
Following two February losses, including a 69-62 loss to Florida last Saturday, MSU stands third place in the SEC West with a 4-4 record. State, who began the season as one of the favorites to win the division, is not satisfied, Turner said.
“We feel like we should’ve been undefeated,” said the Grenada native. “We lost some close games that we should’ve won. If we were coming into (tonight’s) game with one loss, we still wouldn’t be satisfied.”