Father inspires Jerrod Johnson
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Jerrod Johnson's first Super Bowl ended with tears and a thrown helmet. Never mind that it was youth football on a field near the Houston suburb of Humble, Texas. Johnson was 9 and it was 1997. He might as well have been the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe to his best friend's Brett Favre. Jerrod was better than most of the kids his age. He didn't lose much. He did that day, and his helmet went for a ride when it was over.
His coach and father, Larry Johnson, who also coached for Humble's high school team, saw it. He could live with his quarterback throwing interceptions -- helmets were a no-no.
"He just told me that I can never conduct myself that way," Johnson said. "If you want to be a leader, you can never be too high, you can never be too low. Just try to stay even-keel."
Most of his father's lessons began with Jerrod's tears fogging up his goofy glasses as a kid. Dad was always teaching; Jerrod was always learning. There were plenty of lessons about football, more about life, but a lot about what it meant to be an Aggie. Larry wore the maroon and white as a receiver and defensive back in the 1970s, and passed on his passion to Jerrod and his oldest son, Marquis.
"He grew up from Day 1 learning about this stuff. Me, I only learned about this stuff at A&M through recruiting," said Von Miller, Jerrod's teammate. "He's been born and raised to be an Aggie, and he's gonna die an Aggie. And his kids are gonna be Aggies and their kids are gonna be Aggies."
Jerrod watched the time come for those before him at Humble. Players such as Jackie Battle and David Boston embraced it and worked their way into college and eventually the NFL. Others were sidelined by mistakes along the way. Johnson saw how to do both and made his choice.
Johnson's time is now. He worked to earn a scholarship offer from the Aggies. He worked to hang on to his starting job after Stephen McGee returned from the injury that gave Johnson his first opportunity after two years on the bench. He worked to become the conference's best quarterback after just one season as a full-time starter. Now he's Texas A&M's best hope for a Big 12 title, their first since 1998.
"I put so much into football. It's a huge priority for me," said Johnson, who graduated in May with a degree in kinesiology and hopes of teaching and coaching after football. "It goes family-faith-football for me, now that I'm graduated. Everything else is expendable after that."
It's why the 22-year-old says he doesn't drink. It's why he passes hopping on a Jet Ski when he hits the lake with neighbor and teammate Jeff Fuller at Fuller's parents' home outside Dallas. It's why he doesn't share Fuller's affinity for fast foreign cars.
"Jerrod's always kind of been the safe guy," Fuller said.
Said Johnson: "I understand I'm always being watched, and there's certain things I can't do that other people might be able to. It comes with the territory."
Johnson made all the right decisions off the field to get to Texas A&M.
But the man who helped him do it will never to see his son's turn as the Aggies' leader.
Jerrod looked down at his cell phone. It was his brother, Marquis. Dad was in the hospital. Mom hadn't told him very many details, but Marquis said not to worry. Stay calm, relax and focus on the practices in preparation for Texas A&M's Alamo Bowl date with Penn State.
"No, I'm driving down there right now," Jerrod said.
He made the 100-mile drive back home, parking on the wrong side of huge, unfamiliar St. Luke's Hospital in Houston. Frantically wandering through the hallways of the hospital, he asked a doctor where the stroke unit was.
The doctor quickly realized he was talking to his patient's son and told Jerrod to follow him. His face told Jerrod there was reason for concern. A blood clot in his father's brain had interrupted a phone call with one of his students earlier that day. A little more than 24 hours later, Jerrod's father was dead.
Aggieland lost one of its own. Humble lost a coach and its principal. Jerrod's mother, Pamela Johnson, lost her husband. Marquis and numerous foster children given a home in the Johnson residence lost a father. Jerrod lost the mold from which to shape his own life.
Jerrod and his father's final conversation came Friday night, but it was short and revolved mostly around football. Closure didn't come from a brief stay beside his incapacitated father's deathbed, either. Days later, it arrived as Jerrod stood at the pulpit and delivered his father's eulogy to a crowd of nearly 3,000.
He told the crowd to look around. His father had impacted all of them in different ways. That's why they were there. Any memory anyone had of him was a blessing, and they should be thankful for every one.
In the church sat a section of people Jerrod knew well, next to a few others he didn't. While he spoke, he glanced at the sign in front of the roped-off seats that read "Texas A&M Players."
Starting quarterback Stephen McGee was there. So was fellow backup Ryan Tannehill and coach Dennis Franchione, among others.
Beside them sat several of his father's former teammates from his teams in the late '70s.
"It really made me calm and settled, and I understood how similar me and my father really were," Jerrod said.
Some of his peers' greatest fears are turning into their fathers. Jerrod fears becoming anything else.
"Don't just play football four years and leave," his father used to tell him. "Engulf yourself in everything that makes Texas A&M special and it'll make you a better person."
His father did. Nearly three decades later, his fellow Aggies were by his side to pay their respects.
It calmed Jerrod to see tangible proof that all that "Once an Aggie, forever an Aggie" stuff his dad used to talk about was more than just a cliché.
Now he passes along his father's messages to his team.
As the church cleared out, it was time for football. Maybe even a little later than Dad would have wanted. Jerrod's grandfather died when Jerrod was just a sophomore in high school. Knowing he had a responsibility to work toward his future, the family didn't tell Jerrod until he returned from a basketball tournament in Las Vegas. Texas A&M's basketball coaches were there and eventually offered him a scholarship.
"If he could have, I'm sure he would have looked up at me from his casket and said, 'Why aren't you at practice right now?' [His death] hurt me, and I was glad to be back for my mom, but she had the same mindset as he did: 'This is your dream,'" Jerrod said. "Not everybody shares my burdens there's 120 guys on the team expecting -- if something happened [to McGee, the starter], for me to be able to play. Everyone would have understood, but it would have been selfish for me to stay behind and feel sorry for myself. The reality of the situation is life goes on."
Jerrod drove to College Station the next day and rejoined his teammates.
Coach Mike Sherman handed Johnson his team before the 2009 season. He played in relief of an injured McGee in 2008 and didn't cede the starting job in the fall camp that followed. Ten starts as a sophomore gave him the foundation for a breakout season as a junior, but he's still best known for his 342-yard, four-touchdown performance in a nationally televised 49-39 loss to Texas last season.
With 23 starts behind him, Johnson is chasing a different result this year to make his biggest family happy.
"Sirr Parker caught the slant and went to the end zone [to win the 1998 Big 12 title in overtime] and that's still one of the biggest moments ever for Aggies. We haven't felt that in awhile and if I could bring that feeling back, it'd be huge," Johnson said. "If we win, I could have that legendary status of the Aggie greats. It's kind of hard to understand if you're not an Aggie, but Aggies know I can come back when I'm 70 years old and there's still going to be tons of people who want to talk to me about that 2010 season."
Johnson has faced the finality of a senior season before -- back in Humble. His career ended in the second round of the Texas 5A state playoffs against La Porte. The culprit?
"Four or five interceptions," Johnson recalls.
He made that tearful walk off the field again with Dad by his side, this time holding on to his helmet.
"Man, that was awful," he remembers his dad telling him. "You better not play like that at A&M or you'll never see the field."
Jerrod looked up and shot him a frustrated glare through the tears. Larry smiled and threw his arm around his son.
"Seize every moment. You'll never get this moment again. Remember how this feels," he said. "Never let this happen again."
David Ubben covers Big 12 football for ESPN.com.
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