April 10, 2014 10:06:31 AM
Scott Walters - email@example.com
Even though he is preparing for his sixth season in the National Football League, Rashad Johnson still gets nervous.
Johnson spoke with nervousness, but he also spoke with a purpose Monday night at the Pickens County High School football banquet.
The Tornadoes were celebrating the best season in school history -- a 15-0 campaign capped with an Alabama High School Activities Association Class 1A state championship.
Johnson understands where the Tornadoes came from and where they might be going. After all, he played his prep ball about 15 miles down the road at Sulligent High.
"Someone from Sulligent, Alabama, made it to the National Football League," Johnson said. "That tells each of you that it is possible. You can dream the dream. Hard work will help you reach your goals in life."
Johnson had two football scholarship offers when he was a senior at Sulligent High. One was to the University of West Alabama. The other was to The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
"The Citadel is a military-based school," Johnson said. "My dad reminded me I didn't even make my bed each day, so he pretty much took that off the table as an option."
Johnson always wanted to do bigger and better than anyone else, so he decided to walk on at the University of Alabama.
Johnson impressed at running back and earned the right to join the team as a redshirt. Still, the first year was hard, as some redshirts were allowed to dress but he wasn't. Eventually, the hard work in practice paid off and Johnson earned the right to dress.
"I was on the scout team and every day in practice, players would tease me about how hard I was going at it on every play," Johnson said. "They would say, 'Man, this is practice,' you aren't supposed to be like that in practice. I told them as long as my mom and dad were paying for my books, I was going to go that hard because I wanted to earn a scholarship."
Johnson eventually did. After a successful spring camp following his redshirt year, Johnson was awarded a scholarship. Then came the heart-wrenching news in an individual meeting with his position coach: He wasn't good enough to play running back and would have to switch to defense to earn playing time.
"I called home and told my dad to find me another place where I could play," Johnson said. "He told me what he told me every time I ever called home. He told me hard work will pay off in the end. I just had to keep working hard."
Through a position change, a medial collateral ligament injury, and an eventual coaching staff change, Johnson kept working. He kept grinding. He kept believing God had a purpose and was working that purpose through him.
A highly decorated University of Alabama career included Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Years honors his senior season. It also included the distinction of twice being named captain. Typically, only seniors are allowed to be captains in the program. Johnson is one of eight players to earn that distinction in two seasons.
"The main thing I want to convey is the need to have a passion," Johnson said. "You need to have a passion. You need to have something you are really good at and that you want to do. Once you figure out what your passion is, you need to work incredibly hard to see the goal of doing that passion met."
Many in attendance Monday night shared a similar passion. The Tornadoes are mighty good at football. However, in the rural community of Reform, some of the players might be the state's best-kept secrets.
Johnson can relate. He had similar ideas and hopes. He had similar dreams when he was 18 years old. He took to heart advice from his elders. That is why he jumped at Pickens County High coach Patrick Plott's invitation to come back and to make a difference in the life of another young man.
The other cornerstone of Johnson's remarks involved being selfish. He said it was important to be selfish, not to the detriment to others, but to better yourself.
"You can be selfish in a good kind of way," said Johnson, who also joked about his 10-year class reunion at Sulligent High this summer. "In high school, you make hundreds of decisions that will impact the rest of your life. You need to be selfish about those decisions. You don't need to let friends and family make decisions for you. You have to live with your decisions, so you need to make them and they need to be in your best interest."
Johnson said his ability to be independent and to push to reach his goals helped him become a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFL draft. Johnson has appeared in 70 games and has 156 tackles and six interceptions.
When the banquet concluded, several of Pickens County's current standouts gathered around Johnson and asked him more questions about what it was like to play in the NFL.
With the proper passion, hard work, and selfish intentions, one of those Tornadoes might get to have the next opportunity to give back in a special way, just like Johnson.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Commercial Dispatch. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter