Eagles' rookie quarterback looking to work his way back up

Posted: August 06, 2011

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Even the best passes, the ones that hang suspended so long against the sky that the other players gasp, even those must fall to earth again.

Jerrod Johnson threw the football that way when he became the next great thing. He could flick it 70 yards in practice and have it land as light as a hummingbird in the receiver's arms. Texas A&M had given Johnson a basketball scholarship, but he switched to football because his father played football there and Jerrod, who was like his father in every way, wanted to follow him that way as well.

Passes rise and they fall. Plans are made and unmade by life. Jerrod Johnson finds himself in training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles at Lehigh University midway through this hot summer. He is no longer the next thing, but a fourth-string, rookie quarterback on a team that doesn't appear to need him or, sometimes, even notice him.

The arm is still there, recovered from shoulder surgery prior to his senior season, and every now and then, when it is time for Johnson's occasional snaps, the ball comes out of his hand and describes its long arc across the field again. Then he blends back into the red shirts of the other quarterbacks, behind Michael Vick, Vince Young, and Mike Kafka. And he waits.

"I've just got to get back a little confidence so I can play the game the way I always played it, not doubting myself, not second-guessing myself. Just going out and playing the game," Johnson said after a practice session last week. "All the coaches have been positive with me to try to get me on that track and I think I'm on my way."

One year ago, Johnson was a Heisman Watch quarterback. This year, he just hopes someone is watching. It has been a quick descent, but, then again, he dropped from a great height.

Like father, like son

Pam Johnson did not want her younger boy to play football. It was too late to keep her husband, Larry, from getting hold of the older son, Marquis. But the quiet, little one - even as he grew into a 6-foot-5 man - she hoped would be allowed to stay with baseball (he had a 90 m.p.h. fastball in high school) or basketball (his AAU team reached the national elite eight four straight years). Deep down, she knew that wouldn't be the case, because that boy was his father.

"Football scared me, but Jerrod had a blessing, a gift," Pam Johnson said in a telephone interview from her Houston-area home. "He was so similar to my husband when he was growing up. He was very productive and quiet and focused on values in life. He came from a coaching family and he learned the right way. When he was a little, little boy he already held the football correctly."

Larry Johnson was a football coach and the principal at Humble High School. Pam was a track coach and teacher at another high school in the Houston suburbs. It was a teaching family, and the greatest lesson was that there is more to life than just yourself.

The Johnsons were trained as foster parents and there was always at least one extra child, usually two, in the house. Over the course of Jerrod's childhood, nearly two dozen foster children were also part of the family. They were black, white, Hispanic. Their birth parents were drug addicts, or the children had developmental issues or health problems. All that mattered is that they needed a home and found it there.

Larry Johnson, who was a defensive back and tight end at Texas A&M in the late 1970s, found extra work to help support the extended family, but there was always time for Marquis and Jerrod. He organized exercise sessions in the family garage and would diagram formations for them to memorize as they rested between sets. The restaurant place mats upon which most kids drew houses and dogs? Jerrod drew football plays, with Larry critiquing every slash and arrow.

"Jerrod was always taught that once you start something, you've got to finish it," Pam Johnson said. "We don't believe in that quitting stuff."

Marquis played his football at Prairie View A&M, but for Jerrod, it was always going to be Texas A&M. When he accepted a basketball scholarship there as a 17-year-old junior (then-Aggies assistant Buzz Williams said, "He could start for us now."), that was before a final football season at Humble High in which he was named Greater Houston player of the year. That changed things.

As a freshman at A&M, Johnson was a backup quarterback, but the plan was in place. He would compete for the starting job as a sophomore and it would be fully his by junior year. The straight line his father had drawn on the garage blackboard was nearing the end zone.

Then, as the team prepared to play Penn State in the Alamo Bowl in December 2007, Jerrod got a call from his brother. Come home. Dad's in the hospital. Larry Johnson, 50 years old, never sick, died as the result of a massive stroke, with his wife and two sons at his bedside.

"We were just in shock. Larry was a good father, a good husband, a good provider. With him, we had lived in a comfort zone," Pam Johnson said. "And Jerrod, being the kid he is, he said, 'Dad's not here. Do you want me to quit college and come home and be with you?' He was willing to give up everything he had to make sure the family stayed together."

Jerrod stayed in school, the family stayed together, and by his junior season, Johnson had the year his father had been waiting for but never got to see. Johnson set eight school quarterback records that season, including touchdowns and passing yards, and on one amazing afternoon against a Texas team headed for the BCS Championship Game, he was 26 for 33 for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 97 yards, and when fans left the game the quarterback they were talking about wasn't Colt McCoy.

"There's no question who was the best quarterback on the field that day," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said in a telephone interview last week. "He's extremely talented, and one of the highest character guys I've ever coached. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke. He's too much football sometimes. I told him to go out and get a girlfriend. He was always in the office studying tapes. He lives it and sleeps it."

Entering his senior season last year, Johnson was projected to go as high as the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. He was on the early Heisman Watch lists, and was selected the Big Twelve preseason offensive player of the year. And then the season happened.

An offseason arthroscopic procedure on his right shoulder that was supposed to relieve some minor pain left Johnson with a throwing arm that wouldn't loosen up. He struggled to get the same zip on the ball he had before and the Aggies struggled on the field, so much so that Sherman - in what he told friends was the hardest decision of his career - replaced Johnson at quarterback.

"My senior season was a huge disappointment to me, but those things happen," Johnson said. "It was definitely humbling to go from the highs that I had been on to the lows that I faced. But it made me stronger as a person. They say that adversity is what makes the man. I was able to overcome that and I'm 100 percent now. I can start fresh and new."

Johnson's stock dropped quickly after his senior season. He went undrafted, had to wait out the NFL lockout, and then listened to Sherman, who coached in Green Bay with Andy Reid, and chose to sign with the Eagles.

"He pushed me toward this. He said that I couldn't be around a better group of people, especially as a quarterback. I'm thankful for the opportunity," Johnson said.

Picking up the pieces

And so the arc begins another ascent, with Johnson standing among the veterans trying to gather the pieces of what fell to earth. In the space of so few years, he lost his father and mentor, lost the health of his arm, and appeared to lose a promising career. He is working to get as much of that back as possible, knowing that some of it is gone forever.

"Jerrod's here because of Mike's recommendation and because of his production on the field. This kid set all the records there and he's a great person and he's smart-smart," Reid said. "I'm going to give him a chance to put his own name on things. I tell these guys that they shouldn't ever count the numbers on the roster. Just take every play like it's the last play and go have some fun with it."

This is not the first coach Jerrod Johnson has had who told him to work hard and let the outcome take care of itself. That lesson started one-on-one in the backyard and was carried along in the packed stadiums of the Big Twelve on sweltering autumn afternoons.

"I was fortunate to have my father in my life as long as I did. He was a great man and a great football coach. Who I am today as a person is because of him," Johnson said. "It's been nice to have some success that I know he would have wanted me to have, but he's also still with me today. He's always with me."


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

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