There are a few things no athletes ever want to hear.
You’re out for the season.
You’re good, but you’re not great.
Akienreh Johnson has heard all of them the past five years.
The fifth-year senior guard has faced her fair share of setbacks during her basketball career. But due to an injury her freshman year, the NCAA granted Johnson a fifth year of eligibility and Michigan gets to have its veteran leader for one more season.
Nearly five years removed from tearing her ACL for a second time, Johnson barely mentions the injury that changed the course of her career. It isn’t the motivator it used to be. Instead, she looks at what she was able to accomplish afterwards, a recovery and comeback that surprised even her.
An injury is one obstacle, but the recovery isn’t just a step back, it can be an insurmountable mountain.
Months into her recovery after her second ACL injury, Johnson still wasn’t right. She wasn’t fast enough. Eventually, she discovered she wasn’t working hard enough.
“My whole entire life, I’ve always been the best player on the team,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really have to work as hard. I always knew I had a spot. But, in my mind, I was always a hard worker. I think that’s the biggest shocker. When you come to college I realized, like how you worked in high school, you’re really not working hard. It was awful to watch myself on film.”
Johnson didn’t come to that realization herself. Her coaches had to tell her. She can vividly remember the exact day her coaches pulled her aside and sat her down to talk. By this time, the guard was well into her sophomore season, months removed from her ACL surgery, and she was still not playing up to the level the coaches expected. Whether Johnson knew it or not, the coaches knew something had to change. She needed a spark.
“(My coaches) called me into their office,” Johnson said. “They’re like, ‘Okay, you can be such a great player if you just try a little harder and work a little harder. You can be one of the best players next to come out of Michigan. I just need you to step it up a little bit.’ ”
She took it to heart.
She watched film and it shocked her. Johnson now saw what the coaches saw. It became clear to her, at that moment — injury or not — she wasn’t working as hard as she could. For her, being the best player she could be, she didn’t have to be the highest scorer. Instead, she could be who the team needed her to be and she had to find her role.
In her eyes, that role would be the best rebounder, best defender and best playmaker she could be. Fast forward three years and the 6-foot guard is one of the most versatile two-way players on the team. It took some time, but Johnson finally learned and embraced her role.
Now, going into her fifth-year on the team, Johnson’s growth is clear.
“I think a couple years ago, when she first came back (from injury), she was able to defend, and then she came back and she was moving without the ball so exceptionally well,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said about Johnson after a game against Rutgers in January. “Then she was rebounding. Then she was scoring. … I think she has put all of those things together, and has been really healthy and playing with a lot of confidence, and her mental part of the game has been at the highest level it’s ever been.”
Johnson put it all together at just the right time. She started every game last season and is the most senior member of the team, but she still isn’t mentioned as often as some of her other teammates. She doesn’t garner the same type of praise that Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk do. With a deep team that can often be the case, but it doesn’t bother Johnson. She knows that whatever she does on the court isn’t her greatest contribution.
“I hear a lot of people say (I’m the mom),” Johnson said. “That means there’s a lot of trust in me. I’m just one of those types of people my whole life to where people just gravitate towards me and just naturally are comfortable with me. I know how to talk to people and I know how to listen.
“I’m a giver first and I (would give) the clothes off my back, to make somebody else happy. I think the team knows that. … I want to make sure everyone knows that they’re not alone. And you know, they can always call me if they need a ride, they want some food they need to just talk or anything like that.”
This role wasn’t thrown at her when she matured and got older, but rather she’s always known she can be that mother figure for all of those around her. Even as a freshman and sophomore on the team, people around her saw those qualities in her. To her, the culture of the team is of utmost importance, and Johnson is a large reason why that culture has become so positive and so pervasive throughout the program.
“Our culture and who we are, we want to say the same so we have certain expectations for each player that comes in and puts on that Michigan uniform,” Barnes Arico said. “You know those expectations really never change.”
Being here for the last five years, Johnson is a cornerstone of that culture and one of the main reasons why that culture hasn’t and doesn’t change. Her setbacks make her one of the only people to really be able to put herself in someone else’s shoes. Ultimately, wherever Johnson ranks in the annals of Michigan women’s basketball, her role as team mom and her work to establish a lasting culture will be what people remember most.
As a senior, Johnson finally solidified her spot in the starting lineup and as a leader. Then-senior Kayla Robbins suffered a season-ending injury when she tore her ACL near the end of the season. Johnson knew that with her co-captain off the court, her role became even more vital.
Robbins and Johnson, possibly more than any other pair, have a special relationship. They came into Michigan at the same time and were roommates. Both have had two separate ACL injuries, sharing similar and difficult roads to recovery.
“Watching her go down just broke my heart,” Johnson said. “I know what it feels like. She always told me to go play for both of us. Just go out there and try your best. I use her as motivation because I always told myself It was a reminder that any day can be your last day on the court any day. I stopped complaining.”
Still, there was one glaring difference: Johnson’s injury came at the beginning of her career. Getting injured early on allowed Johnson to recover and come back stronger. This wasn’t the case for Robbins, whose career ended when she landed on the court in Lincoln.
That sense of family is one of the only things that has remained constant throughout Johnson’s career at Michigan. As a sophomore in 2018, Johnson helped Michigan make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. The expectations for the teams in the beginning of her career and the expectations now are vastly different.
This year, even with those lofty expectations, there’s not a lot Johnson and the team can control. That might take some of the pressure off, knowing that so many aspects of this season are out of their hands. But, in this year, the stakes always seem to be higher.
“It means a lot (this season),” Johnson said. “We can’t control COVID-19. We can’t control things like that. (Our health and mental game) those are the things we can do to prepare ourselves. If we do have a game, we have to prepare, stay ready. This year is going to be a challenge.”
Maybe more than anyone else’s year, Johnson’s year is special and more meaningful. The then-senior waited in limbo when the season ended in March. She didn’t know what was going to happen or if she had a realistic shot at playing for a fifth season. Missing most of her freshman year combined with her fourth season’s untimely ending, she was granted the extra year.
“It was a very overwhelming feeling,” Johnson said. “My senior year didn’t end the way that a lot of other people you see that had that path.”
Johnson’s own five year path at Michigan has been long and winding. This year might just be the cherry on top. If she’s able to perform to the level she and her coaches think she is capable of, she could parlay that into some sort of professional career. She would be the first player that Barnes Arico brought in and stayed their whole time at Michigan to go pro. Johnson has been an integral part of the culture on the team, but she looks to expand that even as she graduates.
“(I want to) start that culture (of going pro) with me,” Johnson said. “(To) be able to come back and talk to the young ones about how to get there. The hard work, dedication it takes to get to where you want to get.”
Johnson’s long winding road to where she is now is nearing its end. She might have only one season left, but in no way is it an ending. The culture and family she has built will outlast her time on the team.
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