During training camp, University of Washington football fans heard how good freshman receiver James Johnson was going to be.
On Saturday, they got to see him lead the Huskies in receptions in his first college game.
Now fans have the chance to hear directly from Johnson for the first time. And he has quite a tale to tell – not only of a football debut that exceeded even his expectations but also of an escape from the tough streets of Los Angeles and of successfully adapting into the desert fringes of rural San Diego County.
“I have 13 brothers and sisters,” Johnson said Tuesday, the first day that UW freshmen were allowed to speak to the media. “So eight brothers, five girls, and everybody kind of went their own way. And where we were living at the time in Southern California, (there was) just a lot of riffraff, and a lot of my brothers got into the wrong things and (my mother) didn’t want that for me. So she moved me down to San Diego (to live with oldest brother Greg Taylor, who became Johnson’s legal guardian). She knew that with my brother good things could happen.”
Johnson enrolled at Valley Center High School. He admits that the school was well out in the boonies – he was the only black student enrolled there until his sophomore year. But he said he found a way to fit in.
“Moving there just really made me be able to focus,” he said. “And my brother installed so many good habits in working hard; not only in football but the classroom, cleaning my room, washing dishes. No matter what it is, it’s always to give 100 percent.”
Johnson became a two-way star in football while also excelling in basketball and track. And his athleticism caught the eye of Jimmie Dougherty, who was offensive coordinator at the University of San Diego.
Dougherty was impressed by almost everything about Johnson, but he knew there was no chance of recruiting so talented a player to his Football Championship Subdivision program (formerly NCAA Division I-AA).
And he was right.
Johnson picked Football Bowl Subdivision member Washington – partly because he was so impressed with coach Steve Sarkisian, partly because most other major schools wanted him as a defensive player.
And now he is being coached by Dougherty after all, because Sarkisian hired Dougherty to coach UW’s receivers.
“It was kind of a weird twist of fate,” Dougherty said. “But I’m very excited to coach him for the next four years. He’s very humble. He carries himself the right way.
“He acts the right way. He’s never going to let anything get to his head. He’s going to keep on working, and I don’t see anything stopping him.”
Once on campus, Johnson began exceeding expectations. He drew raves through training camp and played his way into the starting lineup Saturday in the season opener against Louisiana State. His first catch went for a 17-yard touchdown that was the Huskies’ first score of the season.
“That was probably the best feeling in the world at the time,” he said. “My first catch. I was honestly just shocked. I really couldn’t hear anything because the crowd was so loud. The next thing I know, I was getting swarmed by all my teammates. So it was wonderful. Great. I loved it.”
Johnson ended with a game-high six receptions for 63 yards. He was disappointed that LSU walked away with the 31-23 victory, but he admits his own performance was even more than he had imagined.
“It was really, honestly, a dream come true,” he said “I’m here, as a receiver, at the University of Washington, able to play the position I wanted, and I’m succeeding at it. A lot of hard work has paid off, so it was a very fulfilling day – despite the fact that we lost. … I never knew what was going to happen. Honestly, I took it day by day. As camp continued to progress, and I got more familiar with the offense, that’s when I realized that I could play here, that I could contribute to the team.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808