Growing up in Ann Arbor and playing high school football across the street from Michigan Stadium, Drake Johnson has had no shortage of support in his time at Michigan.
But when the senior running back left last year’s Ohio State game with an apparent injury, the support shifted from pushing forward to pulling back.
There’s more to life than football.
You have a lot to be proud of.
You don’t have to do it anymore.
Johnson had just torn his ACL for the second time in as many seasons. What was supposed to be a freak accident had become an epidemic.
“The first time everyone was just like ‘Oh it was a freak accident, it won’t happen again,’ ” Johnson said. “But the second time, they can’t tell you it was a freak accident. It’s not so much ‘Oh, hey you’re going to be fine, ‘ it’s more like ‘Do you really want to go back to playing football, is this something you want to do?’ ”
“I don’t know why you’re even asking me this question.”
After climbing half a dozen rungs on the depth chart, coming back from an ACL tear, then averaging a team-high six yards per carry on a dismal offense last season, no one would discredit Johnson for walking away from football.
But with a stacked running back competition, a new ACL and an even newer coaching staff, he wants to do it all over again.
“I understand if (walking away) is your approach after two knee surgeries, but not for me,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m being repetitive or anything, but two knee surgeries later, it’s not a big deal, it’s just another new ACL, and this one works. As long as I can get a new one and I can run, I’m good to play.”
To do that, the six-foot-one, 207-pound back will have to beat out three other backs with experience as starters. Juniors De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green and USC transfer Ty Isaac, among others, are all eyeing the starting job. And while it’s likely that all four backs could see playing time, Johnson is no longer interested in guest spots.
“My Dad always calls it The Drake Show, and he said ‘I know you gave them a glimpse of it, you’ve done it,’ but they haven’t seen the full show, and that’s what my mentality is, is waiting for the day that the show comes on.
“It’s not out of cockiness or anything, it’s just going out there and playing well and having a good time doing it.”
Johnson seems miraculously upbeat after what’s supposed to be two devastating injuries, but according junior wideout Jehu Chesson, Johnson’s roommate, it’s just Drake being Drake.
“It breaks my heart to see him struggling to get up the stairs,” Chesson said. “The simple things he couldn’t do for a long time, but he’d still smile. His will to fight and his will to succeed always trumps whatever situation he’s in and I pray that he keeps that mentality with him for the rest of his life.”
Added Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: “You’re talking about one of my favorite guys. … From the beginning, (Johnson)’s just been ahead of schedule. We’ve had to slow him down. We’ve had to tell him: ‘No, you’re not running yet. You’re not cutting yet. We know that you’re gifted, and a gifted healer. We see it.’ But still the doctors have to, and we have as coaches, slow him down.”
Though Johnson’s time on the football field has been limited since the injury, Chesson knows that his roommate will remain competitive because of his off-field demeanor. The two — along with roommate and senior fullback Sione Houma — host Monopoly parties regularly, where Johnson uses the same aggressive approach to pursue his goals on the field to dominate the board, ‘never’ losing.
“It’s amazing to be around a guy like that,” Chesson said. “I like to surround myself with people whom I aspire to be, and the amount of drive that he has to be great — you can’t match it.”
A self-proclaimed jokester on the team, Johnson feels that after redshirting freshman year and missing plenty of game action in the two years since, success can no longer be the only goal.
“Too many people, I don’t want to say don’t enjoy football, but don’t take it one day at a time and enjoy what they’re doing,” Johnson said. “My mentality going into camp is that I’m going to enjoy myself. I’m going to let it hang loose, I’m going to have fun, and wherever it takes me is where it’ll take me.”
Johnson knows there’s more to life than football; he knows he doesn’t have to do it anymore, but it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a major hit or a cult classic, The Drake Show will go on.