Drake Johnson gave himself one hour for pity.
The day he found out he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament for the second time, Michigan’s then-redshirt sophomore running back needed to get his feelings out. He drove around, listening to Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey, wallowing in the raw emotion of being told he had reinjured his ACL. But just for an hour.
“After that … I had to get back,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have any more negative emotions if I wanted to play (again), so it was like, ‘It’s time to get going.’ ”
Johnson, who grew up in Ann Arbor and came to Michigan from Pioneer High School, made immense strides at the end of the 2014 season. He rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns in a breakout game against Indiana, and by the time the Ohio State game rolled around, he was verging on being the go-to back.
But in the third quarter against the Buckeyes, Johnson injured his knee as he scored a touchdown. He didn’t return to the game, and it was later revealed he had torn the same ACL he had injured his redshirt freshman season, in 2013.
It could have been a devastating blow to his confidence and to his career. But Johnson didn’t let his second torn ACL keep him down long.
Today, Johnson exudes optimism even when talking about one of the most difficult injuries an athlete can face. He worked himself back to health in time for camp, a nine-month process for the same injury that took him six the first time around.
“I was in a wheelchair for a few weeks,” Johnson said. “Luckily it was over winter break, so I kind of, like, wheel-chaired around my house. I got really bored, so I tried to do tricks on it, do wheelies on it and stuff, entertain myself. I got really good, actually.”
After getting out of the wheelchair, Johnson began the rehab process and expected to be ready for full contact by the first day of fall camp. But when he saw the speed at which his teammates were playing, he realized he wouldn’t be able to jump back in as quickly as he initially wanted.
And when he finally got the green light to return in August, he had to play catch-up to an even deeper stable of running backs than the Wolverines had last season. But according to Johnson, there hasn’t been any envy or hostility between him, redshirt junior De’Veon Smith, junior Derrick Green and redshirt sophomore Ty Isaac.
Instead, he says the competition has helped the backs learn from each other.
“I watch De’Veon, I watch Derrick and Ty all practice, and they do good things. They do dope things,” Johnson said. “You’re like, ‘Wow, that was dope.’ They make cuts, they make blocks, they make all these plays and you’re like, ‘I should do that!’
“That’s the kind of environment we have. I’ll pop off a long run, and I’ll look back, and they’ll be like, ‘Hey Drake, how’d you do that?’ Or, I’ll come back and I’ll watch them pop off a long run: ‘Hey, how’d you do that?’ ”
And so far, that growth is showing on the field. Through four games, Michigan is averaging 202 rushing yards per game. Johnson has gotten just 11 carries for 57 yards, but right now, he’s focused on being part of a unit that amasses large totals together.
After two torn ACLs, he’s not taking any role for granted, even if that means standing on the sideline, watching Smith carry the load. He isn’t content to warm the bench, but at the same time, he roots for his fellow backs, his friends, to succeed.
“We aren’t having to have this pissing contest to see who can kick the other in the shins harder,” Johnson said.
But Johnson is getting closer to being able to take back part of the load, adding burst and agility to a backfield that is mostly built for power.
“Obviously, like I said, everyone wants to be the starter,” Johnson said. “But I’m happy with wherever they’ll play me. I just want to be effective for the team, essentially. If that’s being a third-down back, if that’s goal-line back, if that’s second-string back. Whatever it is, I just want to help the team in a positive manner.”
The time for pity has long since passed. Now, Johnson just wants to play football.