Johnson, who received guidance from his brother Greg Taylor, has six catches for 63 yards and a TD in his first college game
It seemed like it had come oh, so easy for James Johnson when in the first quarter of the first game of his college football career, he turned his first catch into a touchdown.
“That was probably the best feeling in the world at the time,” said Johnson, a true freshman receiver for the Huskies of his 17-yard touchdown catch and run in an eventual 31-23 loss to Louisiana State. “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.”
But as is generally the case with overnight sensations, there were a lot of hard days and long nights before Johnson hit paydirt.
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Many of them arrived when he was in the seventh grade and moved to live with an older brother, Greg Taylor, in San Marcos, Calif. Johnson is the youngest boy in a family of 13 living at the time in Inglewood
“A lot of my brothers (there are six men, seven women in the family) got into the wrong things and she [his mother] didn’t want that for me,” Johnson said Tuesday in his first media comments since coming to UW — newcomers had previously been kept off-limits by Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian.
Taylor, in fact, says his younger brother missed 112 days of school as a sixth-grader with his father in jail and his mother struggling to keep the family afloat.
Taylor had been a football player at San Diego State in 1999-2000 but says a lack of direction helped prevent his career from being what it could have been. He didn’t want the same fate for his brother.
“I kind of gave him the choice that you can go to school and be successful or not go to school and be living the way the family is,” said Taylor, who eventually earned two Master’s degrees.
Taylor is the only college graduate in the family so far — and is now in his sixth year as the defensive-backs coach at Palomar College.
Taylor imposed early curfew, 5 a.m. wake-up calls and daily chores, all of which Johnson initially resisted.
“Then after about a year he completely broke one day and said he wanted to be the best player he could be and the best person he could be,” Taylor said. “At that point, he started to be successful.”
Says Johnson: “I probably wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t in my life at that time.”
Taylor, 31, and his wife and Johnson moved a couple of years later to a more rural area where Johnson ended up attending Valley Center High School, about 25 miles east of Oceanside. By his account, he was the only African-American at the school for a year and one of only a handful in a student body of 1,350 throughout his four years.
“He had some challenges with that,” said Rob Gilster, the head coach at Valley Center. “But he was just great with it.”
Johnson said his first few days at Valley Center “were a culture shock.” He hadn’t played organized football until his first year at Valley Center, concentrating on basketball. But he quickly became a team leader — he was captain as a senior — and also developed a close relationship with quarterback Tyler Bernard, now a baseball player at Arizona State, a transition he cites now for helping him adapt quickly to college.
By his senior year he was a highly-recruited receiver/defensive back. He attended a few football camps at USC where he first drew the eye of Sarkisian, though the Trojans never offered a scholarship.
When Sarkisian got the UW job last December, one of the first calls he made was to Johnson.
Johnson was thinking of Oregon, or maybe San Diego State, which also was talking to him about basketball. But when the Huskies told him he could play his preferred position of receiver he was sold on the Huskies.
“I really didn’t want to play defense, and I really felt something — [Sarkisian's] heart and his will to want to win,” Johnson said. “That’s what got me to come here.”
He arrived at UW early this summer to take part in voluntary workouts and impressed coaches from day one with his maturity and mastery of the position.
By the end of camp he was running with the starting unit, and on the first offensive play of the Sarkisian era, he was on the field.
He finished with a game-high six catches for 63 yards in the best first game for a UW freshman receiver since Reggie Williams against Michigan in 2001.
“Nothing surprises me with that kid,” said receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty, who got to know Johnson while working as an assistant at the University of San Diego the last five years. “He carries himself like a vet and he has since the first day he stepped on campus.”
A thousand miles away, Taylor watched with admiration the man who had become from the boy he had inherited.
“He’s a great kid, a good person,” Taylor said. “That means more than anything outside of football.”