Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Johnson finds the right words


Maryland cornerback Jeremiah Johnson, a budding poet, reading his poetry during U Maryland's annual student-athlete talent show Dec. 10. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)
December 18, 2013

The student talent show was starting in an hour and Jeremiah Johnson needed to finish memorizing his poem, so he retreated into an empty stairwell and unfolded two sheets of notebook paper. Poetry had given Johnson, a junior cornerback at Maryland, a freedom of expression football never could, but performing on stage was something entirely unfamiliar. With friends and teammates in the audience at Comcast Center, watching him recite the first poem he ever wrote, everything had to be perfect on this cold December night.

“My favorite promises to make are the ones that are nearly impossible to keep,” began Johnson, eyes closed and fingers tapping the rails to measure the beat. Two young children passed by, and they must have wondered why the muscular man in the backward flat-brimmed hat, gray Maryland T-shirt and cargo shorts was whispering to himself.

Each Saturday during the fall, Johnson defends wide receivers before thousands of fans. The colloquialism calls this being “on an island.” He likes the feeling: alone, all eyes trained on him.

But spoken-word performances were different. He had read this particular poem only once before, at a more intimate gathering in September. Tonight, event organizers projected a capacity crowd, and on stage Johnson couldn’t hide behind a facemask. He would be vulnerable and exposed, with nothing but a microphone in his hands and the words in his head.

“Like I said, I memorized it before,” Johnson said, finishing the poem and refolding the paper tight. He snapped his fingers and walked ahead, into the auxiliary gym where the audience members were sitting down.

A blessing in disguise

Right now, I feel so inspired, more than ever

Probably by my doctor who told me the time it would take for me to reach my goal is longer than never.

It was a routine physical, during Johnson’s days at Suitland High. The doctor measured his height, 5 feet 11, and his weight, somewhere north of 150 pounds. Johnson could run the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and was being recruited to play college football. The doctor asked what Johnson wanted to do with his life. “Make the NFL,” he said.

The doctor explained to Johnson that the odds were slim. The following year, in 2011, an NCAA-issued study would estimate that just 6.1 percent of high school football players play in college, and just 1.7 percent of college football players play professionally. That meant, as Johnson sat in that examination room, his odds of reaching the NFL were 0.08 percent.

The moment stuck with Johnson, through his redshirt season in 2010, time spent as a reserve in 2011 and the 12 games he started the season after that. This fall, the expectations were high for the speedster billed as a shutdown corner, until his toe bent backward during a kickoff return against Florida International, and he again visited a doctor’s office for some sobering news.

The diagnosis — fractured toe, out eight weeks — disappointed Johnson, but now he calls it a “blessing in disguise.” Johnson was happy the injury helped senior Isaac Goins play during his last season, and freshman Will Likely during his first. He kept asking questions and taking notes during meetings, but sometimes during pregame stretches Johnson realized he wasn’t about to play and would grow sad.

Aside from watching spoken-word videos on YouTube, Johnson didn’t have much of an affinity for poetry. Never wrote one in elementary school, never considered it in high school. But one day, he sat down at his dorm room desk and turned on rap music — either J. Cole or Kanye, he said he can’t remember — and the words started flowing, so he grabbed a pen and ripped some paper from a class notebook and started writing.

Back in the auditorium, Johnson sat in the front row to review the poem one last time, when Likely approached. They roomed together during training camp, and Johnson considers him a little brother, but right now Likely wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

“I’m nervous for you, bro,” he said, and Johnson said he was too.

Soon, the talent show began, and Johnson was ushered behind some curtains. He entered from stage right and tried not to look directly into the faces that looked back: some athletes, some teammates, some regular students who knew only that Johnson played football. With both hands he grabbed the microphone and asked the crowd to consider attending the Military Bowl against Marshall on Dec. 27, where for the first time in months he planned to play fully healthy.

“All right, cool,” Johnson said, and then he took a deep breath.

Maintaining the dream

When they told you “anything is possible,” did you really believe it

When they told you “dream big” did you really perceive it

I’m tryna send a message and I hope you receive it

See I gave birth to my dream and I remember the day I conceived it. . .

Here Johnson stopped. Mid-sentence, right after “conceived it.”

“Oh,” he said, cupping his mouth, because a profanity almost snuck out too. Later, after the wild applause came from the audience and his teammates offered a standing ovation, Johnson would privately admonish himself for forgetting the words that came next, but the recovery happened so fast that few seemed to notice.

So he continued, through the verses about obstacle-filled roads, to how losing both grandmothers and one grandfather forced him to make “a positive from two subtractions.” Because Johnson was redshirted, and because the fractured toe was the only serious injury of his college career, he cannot get a year of eligibility back. Next fall will mark his final season of college football, and whatever lies beyond is a mystery. He still hopes to make the NFL. He wants to prove the doctor wrong, or at least prove he belongs within the one percent.

“So now I put my city on my back,” he told the crowd. “I’m doing it for my team. Regardless the situation, just make it by any means.”

The poem was coming to an end. Johnson slowed down, elongating the syllables for emphasis. He had stumbled along the way but, right now, that didn’t matter. He wanted the audience to hear these final words, to see him so vulnerable and to hear that he truly meant them.

“But before I lose your attention and start repeating myself,” Johnson said, “I’m just a man with a dream like everyone else.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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