Drake Johnson has been through this drill before, entering training camp for the Michigan football team after overcoming a devastating injury. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the 2013 season opener against Central Michigan, missed the rest of the season and recovered for 2014. Then he tore the same ACL in the 2014 season finale against Ohio State, missed the offseason and recovered for 2015. He’s no stranger to this process.
But this offseason brought a new challenge. In April, while stretching in the indoor track building, Johnson was run over by a forklift in an accident, sidelining him again.
“I can’t talk about it, but I can just say it was crappy,” Johnson said Sunday at the team’s media day. “It didn’t feel good.”
Yet Johnson has persevered again, working his way back to full speed for the start of training camp Monday. He will practice full-go to begin his fifth and final year at Michigan, competing for carries along with De’Veon Smith and Ty Isaac.
After making it through a season healthy for the first time last year, Johnson appeared to be armed for that competition. But the forklift incident required another arduous recovery.
“They’re different,” Johnson said of the two injuries. “ACL, I think physically was harder, but this was mentally. You play football and you expect, ‘OK, I might get hurt.’ You play the game knowing there are repercussions of the game. You could tear your ACL. You could suffer a broken bone or something. You could end up paralyzed, you know, knock on wood. Point being, there are physical repercussions to playing football. And you go into that knowing that. You have that mental preparedness.
“So when something the opposite happens like, you know, the incident, you’re not really expecting it, so you’re like, ‘Why did this happen?’ So there’s more of that ‘WTF’ moment where you’re just like, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen. I shouldn’t even have to be dealing with this right now. I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing and I still got (screwed) over.’”
That wasn’t an easy feeling for Johnson, who has, despite limited workload, gained 5.5 yards per carry during his career. He carried five times for just 11 yards but did catch a nine-yard touchdown in the Spring Game.
This summer’s injury temporarily derailed high hopes for Johnson, but he’ll be back in the conversation again after recovering. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has been outspoken with his respect for Johnson — at last year’s media day, Harbaugh’s first, he called Johnson one of his favorite players, and this summer he said the forklift incident “would have killed a lesser man.”
Johnson is still uncertain about the ongoing consequences of that injury. The affable running back is quick with the analogies and descriptions — last year he said “the carry fairy” enabled him to run well during a game — and he compared this particular injury to being dealt a 16 in blackjack.
“You’re just like, ‘OK, do I want to hit this, or do I want to just sit on it? Because I could be screwed over and not even knowing it,’” he said.
The recovery time from the injury can have a wide variation, depending on how his body responds. Johnson tried to return after the minimum amount of time, which could work out or it could take a toll on his body.
Or, to return to his blackjack metaphor, he chose to take another card but doesn’t know what it is.
“And right now, I think I’m sitting pretty fine, but even now, I don’t know what I got,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I got the five or the four, or maybe I got dealt a six and I don’t even know it yet.”
Whatever the next card is, Johnson feels fortunate to be on the field and even have a chance to compete. Though the injuries have limited him to 116 carries at Michigan, and he doesn’t yet know what this year will bring, he knows his ending could have been worse.
“Obviously, you have the thoughts that creep into your head, but I try to look at it in a positive light in the sense that I’ve come back from two ACLs and done relatively fine for having two ACLs,” Johnson said. “From this, I was like, ‘I didn’t die. I could have died.’ The doctor was like, ‘Dude, you dodged a bullet.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of did.’”
Now, Johnson puts his body back on the line during fall camp. He said he’ll know after camp whether rushing back was the right decision. If he comes out of it feeling OK from the chest down, he’ll be in good shape. If he starts feeling pain again, he may have come back too quickly.
Johnson hopes it’ll be the former. The dealer is about to turn over the last card, and all he can do now is wait and see.