Greg Garno: The day Drake Johnson got his chance to shine

Katherine Pekala/Daily
Buy this photo

By Greg Garno, Managing Sports Editor
Published November 1, 2014

Before we get to the moment where Drake Johnson sat in the stands with students, when he leapt so effortlessly into his moment as a star, we have to go back to the moment he fell.

Before we talk about the guy who trended on Twitter and earned the praise on TV following Michigan’s 34-10 victory over Indiana, we have to remember his last moment he was talked about.

And before we talk about how a stadium with 103,511 people all focused on the running back, we have to go back the first time Michigan Stadium focused on him.

We have to go back to the last day of August last year, in the third quarter against Central Michigan, when he finally saw time on field after redshirting his first season. He hadn’t even played 10 snaps — most of the playing time came on special teams.

But when he went to make a tackle on kickoff coverage, he was hit from behind and fell awkwardly onto his knee.

The entire stadium went silent, the players cleared the way and a team of trainers escorted Johnson off the field. A torn ACL for two minutes of playing time. He was relegated to a season on the sidelines to watch and wait.

He wouldn’t get his opportunity to sit on the ledge while students cheered with him.

The guy from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, who grew up in the shadow of the Big House, finally had his chance to live out a dream of playing football. He competed in the hurdles for the Pioneers — one of the best in the state of Michigan — with opportunities to go nearly anywhere to continue running.

But he came to the same place where he once roamed the sideline from time to time, telling the players then, “I’m going to be better than all of you.”

His mom, Pam St. John, the cheerleading coach at the University, had been working here before he was born. He adored running backs like Mike Hart, one of the reasons he chose to wear Hart’s number 20.

“Coming from being eight to 20 now and playing here, it’s just, like, insane,” Johnson said. “It’s just insane thinking now I’m the one playing.”

So he worked through his ACL injury in search of that moment. He rehabbed for a year in which his participation was limited in spring practice and through the summer. It wasn’t until midway through camp this year that he even felt comfortable taking hits.

“We’ve always thought he was talented,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “The thing about Drake is that he’s always been very motivated and a hard worker.”

And before we see his reward for working through his injury to leaping onto the ledge by the student section, we have to talk about how he got his chance.

We need to go back to Oct. 4 of this year, when starting running back Derrick Green went off with an injury of his own, one that would put him out for the rest of the season. His injury gave more time to De’Veon Smith and Justice Hayes, and it meant Drake Johnson might have a chance to make an impact.

So he got his opportunity in the second quarter Saturday, bursting for 18 yards on his first carry. He was given the ball four more times before he got the ball at the 10-yard line in the third quarter.

He received the ball and the hole on the line opened up as if a gate to a driveway had just swung open. He went through untouched with the student section directly in front of him, until he caught someone “out of the corner of (his) eye.”

So he used that speed that he had on the track to run through the end zone, and he leapt — with the same ability he used while hurdling in high school — in the direction of the student section.

But he didn’t get to the ledge, not quite. We’ll get to that later. Instead, he stopped himself short and came back down to celebrate with his teammates.

“I was like, ‘You know, this is just another touchdown in high school,’ ” Johnson said. “But this wasn’t just another touchdown in high school. This really just happened — in the Big House.

“As I was coming back down, everyone was like ‘Good job, Drake.’ But they only do that when people score, so I just scored.”

He’d go on to score once more, stepping over a defender on his way to the end zone, as he rushed for 123 yards on 16 attempts. Johnson had previously rushed for 41 total yards all season.

For a running game that looked stagnant and struggled, his emergence brought a spark when it was needed. He had worked his way to this moment, ever since that day he was helped off the field.

“It was good to see it, but I wasn’t surprised to see it,” said redshirt sophomore wide receiver Amara Darboh. “I know he’s a great athlete. It was just a matter of time.”

Only after the clock wound down and the fans that remained broke out in the fight song did Johnson sit in the student section. He sprinted to the section, with that same speed, and he jumped once more.

But he stayed this time to soak up the moment, his arms around his teammates. He sat on that ledge with a smile across his face that carried over to the press conference.

The fans patted him on the back, the TV cameras focused on him at the end, the Internet sang his praises.

“I can’t think of any other word but ‘magical experience,’ ” he said.

If only for one day in his career, as he had prophesied, he had been better than everybody else.

Garno can be reached at ggarno@umich.edu or on Twitter: @G_Garno.