Even in reserve role, James Johnson personifies Tillman jersey honor

Though he hasn't started a game this season, Arizona State safety James Johnson is one of a select few defensive players to consistently wear the coveted Pat Tillman practice jersey.

Measuring how much a given player contributes to a team is certainly an art form.

Many choose to analyze athletes by placing high value on hyper-athletic players with raw skills that are projectable at the next level. The eye-test, or scout-inspired analysis, also highlights vocality—how outspoken the player is in regards to leading others. Conversely, those who are more statistically-inclined prefer a less subjective approach, and instead claim they can base their judgment on a player strictly through emotionless and unbinding raw numbers.

But after a few weeks of the ASU football season transpired, it became very apparent that neither of those methodologies would do justice to the contributions of redshirt sophomore James Johnson

Johnson was a legitimate contender for the Bandit safety starting position at one point, but former walk-on Jordan Simone ultimately seized control of the battle and hasn’t looked back. He worked with the first-team at field safety to start preseason camp this year, but saw sophomore Armand Perry and win the starting job. Simone's entrenchment at safety prompted ASU coaches to explore using Johnson at Spur linebacker, as starter Laiu Moeakiola was dealing with nagging injuries. Alas, Moeakiola has remained healthy for the better part of the 2015 season, which has resulted in Johnson being a reserve on the depth chart and no clear avenue to immediate playing time, given the caliber of players ahead of him. So, measuring his contributions based on his stats clearly wasn’t a suitable option.

The eye-test approach—determining how much he means to the program because of his leadership abilities and his flashy athletic skills—wasn’t acceptable either because of his personality and physical makeup. A soft-spoken, lead-by-example and brain-over-brawn type-athlete, Johnson wasn’t going to be noticed by many as a standout performer, or even remotely important to the functionality of the team.

And yet since spring practices, Johnson’s practice attire has been unwavering.

ASU reserves the Pat Tillman 42 camouflage jersey for only players who tirelessly exhibit the traits of sacrifice, loyalty and hard work, and do so on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. Collectively, the coaching staff determines the limited number of players who will be awarded the jersey for practice time.

While no one else seemed to be paying much attention to Johnson, partly because of events out of his control, the coaching staff continued to give his character the vote of confidence each and every practice.

The following video on was produced in the spirit of explaining why.


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