December 23, 2010 7:35:00 AM
SULLIGENT, Ala. -- Like most high school football coaches, Josh Harper at South Lamar compiles statistics and videos to send to college recruiters, hoping a senior will get some attention and earn a football scholarship.
Once, however, he received an interesting question.
"When I put together the information and videos, I included the Sulligent game," said Harper, whose Stallions dropped a 48-7 decision to the Blue Devils on Oct. 28. "A couple of weeks later, one of the recruiters called me back. He said he liked the kid I was talking with him about from here.
"Then he asked me, ''Who''s that No. 72?'' I knew who he was talking about -- Tony Johnson."
Johnson, the leading tackler in Class 2A, Region 8 of the Alabama High School Athletics Association, was the anchor for Sulligent at offensive lineman and linebacker. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior averaged more than 12 tackles per game.
Johnson''s tenacious performance on the field and his leadership qualities in the locker room and in the community helped him be recognized as The Dispatch''s West Alabama All-Area Football Team''s Defensive Player of the Year.
At the recent Sulligent High fall awards banquet, Johnson carried away most of the football team''s top honors. He said he wasn''t expecting to be so honored by his coaches.
"I really was surprised (about the awards)," Johnson said. "I sure didn''t think I was going to get the MVP award. I didn''t think I was that good. I was trying to do my best."
His effort was noticed on several fronts. In the team''s 10-3 season -- which ended with a 43-23 third-round playoff loss to Lineville -- Johnson had 113 solo tackles and 51 assists for 164 total.
His most outstanding performances included 17 solo tackles against Lamar County (in a 14-0 loss), 16 solos against Westminster Christian (in a 40-19 playoff victory), and 15 solos against Red Bay (in a 13-7 victory).
Johnson also had three interceptions for 44 yards in returns, four fumble recoveries for 36 yards, and two blocked field goals.
Johnson began his high school career as the only ninth-grader on the varsity team. He then started for the Blue Devils for three years.
He grew up in Sulligent with a football in his hands at an early age.
"I started football in Sulligent in kindergarten," Johnson said. "We hung out and did just about everything. During school and during practices, we hung out all the time. We were a big family, like a real family. We''d go over to each other''s houses, ate together, just had fun."
When it came time to step up as a senior -- especially during difficult times at Sulligent -- Johnson responded.
"Just having a senior like Tony Johnson, there wasn''t any way that team was going to go down," Sulligent defensive coordinator Garry Holmes said. "It was going to go up."
Sulligent interim coach Ronnie Hubbert kept the team on an even keel as the team leaders watched over the younger players.
Having Hubbert as head coach "was a more stabilizing thing than anything," Holmes said. "Having the leadership we had and as many seniors as we had made the difference. They took control and controlled their own destiny.
"Coach Hubbert took care of the kids and let them carry them where they would go," he said.
Johnson said the seniors banded together to take care of the team.
"I felt a part (of the senior leadership)," Johnson said. "I felt a part of the team, trying to keep them up before a game just so we could have fun. That''s all it really is to do, have fun."
Johnson said the Blue Devils knew what they had to do after losing two games. He said the Blue Devils worked each week as a unit to correct their mistakes.
"We had our ups and downs," Johnson said. "(In the 43-0 loss to Hamilton), we knew we played bad. We played hard for that game, so we came back the next Monday, and we just knew what we had to do."
As part of a family, each person was expected to do their part for the good of the team.
"I just felt if I did what I had to do and they did what they had to do," Johnson said, "everything would just come together and it would be great."
Johnson said he hasn''t made a choice for a college, but has talked extensively with Mississippi State.