Finally, five torturous weeks of waiting were over for Justin Johnson.
Johnson donned the cherry and white Saturday for the first time this season after learning last Monday that he was academically eligible to compete for the football team. Right before the Owls charged onto the field before kickoff, Johnson said he stood amidst his teammates and soaked in all he’d missed.
“I felt like I was home,” said Johnson, a senior. “It was just a great feeling, good to be back with the boys. All I wanted to do is just make a statement and do it for the team.”
Seniors JC Braker and Gary Stockman joined Johnson in being reinstated when they were declared eligible Friday.
Since finding out in late August that he was academically ineligible per NCAA regulations, Johnson actively pursued an appeal while continuing to train as if he might play any Saturday.
Wait until next week, he was told when he called the university’s office of Student Services and Compliance. Maybe next week, they’d say when he called back. Just one more week, they’d assure him again.
The news came back less than 48 hours after the Owls suffered an embarrassing 70-7 loss to Bowling Green: Johnson was academically eligible. Plus, due to a possible season-ending injury to defensive end Rodney Wormley, Johnson would have to start immediately in place of strong safety Christian Dunbar, who took over Wormley’s vacant spot.
Riding a wave of adrenaline, Johnson made the very first tackle of the game, pulling down Maryland’s Jo Jo Walker on the opening kickoff. He then tackled Terrapins wideout Derrick Fenner on the first play from scrimmage.
Jumping back into the fray would not have been easy if Johnson hadn’t stayed ready to play while he was ineligible, senior defensive end Mike Mendenhall said.
“He stayed in shape, he worked out,” Mendenhall said. “His face was around the whole season, at meetings, in the weight room, and that enabled him to come in and play [Saturday].”
After the game, Johnson’s excitement was tempered by the Owls’ 38-7 beating at the hands of the Terps.
“It felt good to be back; I felt like I could’ve been doing this since Arizona State [Week 1],” Johnson said. “But in the big aspect, we didn’t win, so it didn’t feel too good.”
There was some rustiness on the first series, Johnson admitted, but he shook it off and was eager to make hits. He spent five weeks watching helplessly, and five games remain for him to try to make a difference.
Ben Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.