“What does my son need to work on to become a college quarterback?”
I get asked this many times a year. My answer normally varies depending on recent inspiration or viewing of a specific signal caller. But three traits remain constant: Selflessness, Toughness, and Courage.
concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own; unselfish.
On Tuesday, Stephen Johnson announced his retirement from football on Kentucky Sports Radio. He also said that he is awaiting surgery on both shoulders and a knee. Let’s think about that for a minute. So, Johnson played through the 2017 season requiring three major surgeries and still led his team to a 7-5 regular season record which included an inspired victory at South Carolina and a home win over Tennessee. Yeah, I know UT was bad; who cares. They’ve been bad before and still beaten the Cats so that argument has lost its merit in my book.
Back to selflessness. One of the many times that Stephen Johnson injured one or both of his shoulders in 2017 was during the Tennessee game. Below is an excerpt from his KSR interview in which he described a state of mind that was solely focused on the Big Blue Nation and his teammates, not himself.
“I was just sitting there, waiting to get my numbing shot for my shoulder and they told me we had a fumble during our last drive. So I just said, ‘Put it in anywhere. Let me run out there.’ As soon as the shot was lifted out of my shoulder, I grabbed my helmet and ran straight out of the locker room.”
Ran straight out of the locker room after getting a numbing shot. May not sound much to some, but to me this simple statement speaks volumes. In that game he completed six passes for 46 yards while rushing for 84 which includes a TD run with :33 remaining on the clock. Selfless.
Dalton Green is my nephew. Like his Aunt Jenny and Uncle Freddie, Stephen Johnson is his favorite Wildcat. Dalton unexpectedly and inexplicably became ill during the 2017 football season. I asked Mark Stoops to sign a football for him following the Eastern Michigan game. The coach obliged, then we began discussing why.
A few days later, Stoops and our family’s favorite Wildcat Stephen Johnson surprised us with a visit to the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital ICU. Dalton was sluggish, but perked up and appeared to process the goings on and even wanted to play catch with SJ during the visit. Of course, Stephen obliged. Dalton lacked the strength to hold the football. Johnson did the catching and throwing. Dalton smiled. A smile was nothing short of a miracle at that point.
As Jen Smith documented, the duo’s visit lifted spirits. Prior to leaving the room I observed Stephen leaning down and whispering words of encouragement to Dalton. I saw empathy and Christian love in Johnson’s eyes as he was talking to and praying for a very sick child. Months later, I’m happy to report that Dalton is much, much better. He’s still recovering and often speaks of Stephen’s visit. His little eyes gleam every time he asks a random stranger, “So, do you know who visited me in the hospital?” Oh yeah, his room is decorated with Stephen Johnson pictures. Selfless.
(of a substance or object) strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough or careless handling.
A quarterback’s success can be measured by achievement throughout unsettling situations. He led the Cats into Columbia, South Carolina and beat a surging Gamecock team 23-13 by completing 16 of 25 passes for 169 yards to go along with 74 yards on the ground. The story goes that Carolina refused to shake hands before the game. A game captain, Johnson used that disrespect as encouragement to lead his team to a comfortable win while playing in highly uncomfortable, road conditions.
not deterred by danger or pain; brave.
Johnson’s courage should have never been questioned prior to enrolling at the University of Kentucky. He suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome until at the age of 13. Through his family’s prayer and faith, he’s been free from the disorder ever since.
I took this picture of Stephen Johnson at SEC Media Days. For a young man to overcome Tourette’s Syndrome to stare down a horde of media and flashing lights while maintaining this stern and focused appearance…at the moment this picture was taken, I didn’t give a darn about anything he did on the field. I was in tears thinking about a kid who suffered from an incapacitating disorder but was now standing tall on a national stage. Courageous.
Fast forward to today. Stephen revealed that he is to undergo surgeries on both shoulders and a knee. A throwing shoulder that he couldn’t feel after being hit late and out of bounds by a Northwestern defender. Yet another in-game trip to the locker room ensued. In typical SJ fashion, the senior led his team back from a scoreboard deficit and nearly won the Music City Bowl while battered and torn. Toughness.
What does all this mean?
I never held back on my support and affinity for Stephen Johnson. There were times that many questioned what seemed to be blind support of the quarterback, I never wavered. You see, there’s so much more to leading a football team than a completion percentage.
Did he complete 100% of his passes and lead the Cats to back to back 12 win seasons? No. Did he miss on some passes in 2017 that he connected on in 2016? Yes. But after Tuesday’s KSR interview you now you know why. Kentucky’s starting quarterback was suffering from significant injuries yet he never flinched, never backed down. But after revealing the extent of his injuries, the BBN has as explanation as well as an indication of the man that overcame staggering odds to lead his team to consecutive bowl games and .500 seasons within the conference.
Winner is a subjective term. Johnson completed his career as the Wildcat signal caller with a 14-8 regular season record. He is the only Kentucky quarterback since 1966 with four career games of at least 224 yards passing and 44 rushing yards. SJ was the first quarterback since 1993 to win four of his first six career true road games. I could go on with statistical data that would paint the picture of an accomplished quarterback, but I won’t. Not necessary. Not now.
Throughout the hour-long interview, Ryan Lemond and Drew Franklin accepted phone calls during which multiple callers became emotional when speaking to the former Wildcat. I think that’s all you need to know about the legacy of Stephen Johnson. The afterthought signee from Rancho Cucamonga, California captured the hearts of the Big Blue Nation. He’s Selfless, Tough, Courageous, a Winner, and my all-time favorite Kentucky Wildcat. It’s been an absolute honor to cover his career in Lexington. I’m going to miss seeing #15 on the field.