High School Sports

Bluffton's Johnson goes from amiable to maniacal

Teammate Andrew Nickerl says C.J. Johnson is unlike anyone you will ever meet in life. He's probably right.

Bluffton High School wrestling coach John Hollman says Johnson is so competitive that he wishes he had chains to hold him back. The bigger the moment, the more Johnson wants to be a part of it. And the tighter Hollman needs to yank on the leash.

Johnson is tougher than most -- tougher than all, some teammates say -- but that shouldn't surprise you when you hear he has played the entire football season on only one fully functioning knee.

He's stronger than most, though you wouldn't guess it by his 165-pound frame.

He's athletic enough to dunk a basketball without a running start. He's 2 inches shy of 6 feet tall.

But if you only know C.J. Johnson as an athlete -- as naturally talented as he may be -- you are missing out. And that combination is what makes this self-proclaimed maniac on the football field so unique.

THE C.J. SHOW

Hollman says getting to know C.J. Johnson is like making a new best friend. In some ways, he's right.

During competition -- on the wrestling mat or the football field -- Hollman fears he has created some sort of caged animal looking to break out and let loose.

Elsewhere, the rage is nonexistent.

The same kid wore tights during spirit week to complete a Batman and Robin duo with a friend. The same kid ran through the hallways at Bluffton High School dressed in bell-bottoms and an afro -- without a shirt, no less -- to garner extra attention another day.

He insists on smiling for pictures because he thinks it shows his goofy side.

Some teammates say he has no enemies, only friends.

"If you saw him wrestle or play football, then you saw him away from competition, you wouldn't even think he's the same kid," Hollman said. "He's a flip-the-switch guy."

In his first full season ever -- yes, ever -- of football, Johnson has managed to blend the two together.

No one questions his drive during a game. And no one questions his ability to lighten the mood when necessary.

Johnson has taken the class clown to the locker room. He's the guy known for sometimes being a bit tardy, using only a smile for an excuse. He concerns himself with his fashion. Often times, it's simply intended to take the edge off.

Thursday afternoon -- a day before Bluffton's football team travels to Hartsville for the third round of the Class 3-A playoffs -- Johnson had teammate Corey Stoner tackle him during the team meal. He later faked an injury, just to put a scare into head coach Ken Cribb.

"He's charismatic. He's loud. He's the guy that is always going to bring a smile to your face and find a way to make you laugh," said Nickerl, a senior lineman for the Bobcats.

"On the field, he's a completely different person," Nickerl continued. "He's got a serious side to him that you don't see any other time."

ANOTHER TRY

C.J. Johnson says he was darn near cut from his seventh-grade football team. Some are beginning to wonder if he's actually right.

It didn't really matter that he made it -- he was purely a bench warmer. A 100-pound scout team rag doll that took so many beatings during practice he eventually decided football simply wasn't for him. He quit before the season even finished, and Schofield Middle School in Aiken was forced to find a new practice dummy.

It took Johnson five more years to summon the courage to return to the gridiron.

It took only a matter of days for him to experience flashbacks to middle school football. The terminology of first-year coach Ken Cribb's Wing-T offense flew over his head. The plays looked like confusing algebra problems.

"It was actually really frustrating," Johnson said. "I worked at it so much over the summer. Every day, I was staying after practice trying to catch up."

Eventually, he not only caught up, he sped right by his peers. His athleticism made him a guarantee to make the team, and by the season opener at Hilton Head High, Johnson was battling for playing time at running back.

Starter Desmond Jenkins was injured in the game against the Seahawks, giving way for Johnson to earn a starting spot. Johnson made good use of his opportunity immediately, scoring touchdowns in each of his first three games.

"I think he accidentally figured out how good he was," Cribb said.

NO TIME FOR PAIN

C.J. Johnson says his right knee injury is severe enough that it requires surgery. He makes opponents forget, but he's right.

Johnson's job is to bowl over defenders. And he's awfully good at it.

He is quick enough to juke or cut past a few. Mostly, though, he relies on his low center of gravity and strength to simply power through them.

"He's as good as it gets right now," Cribb said. "He's got good hands, really great speed, super strong, low center of gravity. He's hard to knock down."

Johnson has rushed for 820 yards in his senior season -- just 18 shy of team leader Zachary Scott. He's found the end zone 13 times on the ground, good for a new school record.

And he's done it on one knee.

Johnson's right knee injury is a tendon sleeve fracture. He injured it in a scrimmage against Whale Branch before the season even started. He injured it further in a game against Berkeley on Oct. 22. Doctors told him he needs surgery and would miss the remainder of the season.

That, however, simply isn't an option. Not at this time, anyway.

With the Bobcats (11-1) making a postseason run, Johnson elected to put off the surgery -- which requires a three-month recovery period -- and attend physical therapy three times per week instead.

The therapy is designed to reduce inflammation in the knee, which gives him deep pain each time he runs, cuts or jumps.

"He's one of the toughest people I know," Nickerl said. "I don't know a lot of people that could play through that type of pain."

Doctors have told Johnson he can't injure it any worse, he said. Whether or not someone can play through the injury simply depends on their pain tolerance.

Advantage, Johnson.

"I'm a pretty easy-going guy, but when someone tells me I'm going to be done for the year, I'm going to be rebellious against that," Johnson said. "The football field -- that's where I get to be a maniac. No one is keeping me off it."

CLASS 3-A LOWER STATE SEMIFINALS

Bluffton High School at Hartsville

Who: Bluffton HIgh School (11-1, 4-1 Region 7-AAA) at Hartsville (9-3, 5-0 Region 6-AAA)

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Kelleytown Stadium, 214 Clyde Road, Hartsville

PROJECTED STARTERS

Bluffton

Offense: QB C.J. Frazier, WB Eric Boyles, WB C.J. Johnson, FB Zachary Scott, WR Corey Stoner, WR Marquis Webber, C Chris Tillotson, RG Andrew Nickerl, RT Michael Sulka, LG Yerko Castedo, LT Austin Chittum.

Defense: DE Taylor McDonnell, DE B.J. Kitty, DT Anthony Gardner, DT Josh Black, ILB Michael Grant, ILB Lewis Black, OLB Desmond Jenkins, OLB Jimmy Tillman, CB Tony Burns, CB Anthony Smith, FS Travis Ramsey.

Special Teams: K/P Mallie Sprouse, KR/PR Eric Boyles.

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