Football

Johnson emerges as SU second-stringer two years after picking up football

Isaiah Johnson looked at his father Sylvester and bluntly delivered the news.

“Dad, if I don’t play in the next game, I’m going to quit,” Sylvester Johnson recalled his son saying.

Sylvester Johnson gazed back at him, serving as the voice of reason. “No, no. You’re not going to quit,” he said. “You’ll be fine.’”

And he was. After barely playing in the first three games his junior year of high school, Johnson considered quitting. After all, he just started playing football a few months earlier and he wasn’t seeing the field.

But an injury to a fellow defensive lineman paved the way for Johnson’s success. Looks streamed in from prominent schools. Instead of haphazardly banking on playing basketball in Delaware or at a Division II or III school, Johnson switched to the sport that gave him a chance at stardom, and the one that netted him a free ride to college.

Now a freshman defensive end in Syracuse, Johnson has seen action in three of four games. Two years ago, he didn’t believe he would go to any college, never mind play football for Syracuse.

“Honestly I just said, ‘Hey, a free school,’” Johnson said. “I didn’t care what sport it was.”

Sylvester Johnson said his son played competitive basketball starting from the age of 10 and continued all the way through his senior year of high school.

He described his son as a “fearless” big man who would “go to work on anybody.” He had a nice touch for a big man, Johnson said, and he wasn’t scared to mix it up.

“I thought that was going to be his path,” the elder Johnson said.

The younger Johnson averaged close to eight points, seven rebounds and three assists per game as a sophomore forward and center, his father said, starting on a loaded Red Lion High School team.

But toward the end of the year, as the Lions vied for a Delaware state title, Johnson’s playing time started to dwindle. Johnson said that to this day he still doesn’t understand why his son was benched.

In the championship game, Sylvester Johnson said, Johnson played a mere 40 seconds. He was visibly upset when he walked up to his father after the game.

“If he would have played more,” Johnson’s father said, “I don’t think he would have did football.”

Sylvester Johnson works as a custodial manager in Delaware. Colleagues would always ask him why his son was still playing basketball. At 6 feet 4 inches and 270 pounds of muscle, football was the obvious fit.

But Johnson simply wasn’t interested at first. He sat at home at the start of training camp.

“He’d go home after school and sit there and play with his fingernails,” Johnson’s high school football coach Dwayne Thomas said.

Johnson’s friends all played football, so he finally decided to give it a try. Midway through his junior basketball season, Johnson’s father asked his son to work out with the football team to bulk up.

As soon as he did, he stood out to coaches and recruiters, including former Rutgers and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano.

“When he first started,” the elder Johnson said, “he didn’t even know he wanted to play football. He didn’t have the hots for it.”

Recruiters told Johnson that if he stuck with football and dedicated the next few months to the sport he just picked up, he could eventually get a scholarship. Sylvester Johnson said that was the moment his son decided to commit to football — once he realized how much potential he truly had.

Then the looks emerged in bunches. First Marist, Massachusetts and Hawaii. Then Connecticut, Wake Forest and eventually Syracuse. Schools that Johnson didn’t lure on the court for basketball immediately noticed him for football.

“From the time he stepped on the field,” Thomas said, “a lot of [Atlantic Coast Conference] schools were interested in him.”

None of those other looks mattered, though. Johnson had his sights set on Syracuse.

He committed to SU just two days after attending a camp in June 2011. He was captivated by the cold weather, the school’s proximity to family in Buffalo and even the fact that Syracuse’s basketball team is one of the premier teams in the nation.

Now Johnson is comfortable as a second-stringer on the SU defense and last week he belly flopped on top of and dragged down a Tulane offensive player just a few snaps after batting down a pass. This week he might see more time if starting defensive end Robert Welsh, who missed the second half against the Green Wave, is limited.

Playing football at Syracuse seemed unfathomable three years ago, but now Johnson has found his sport and his niche.

Sylvester cried when he watched his son run through the tunnel at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., when Syracuse played Penn State.

“You don’t believe your son is going to be doing something like that,” he said. “I never saw it. I never would have imagined it.

“I thought it may have happened with basketball, but I never thought it would happen with football.”

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