Next Stop Gainesville For Carl Johnson

SAN ANTONIO --- At 6-6 and 340 pounds, he is an imposing figure, a mountain of a man and yet he's just a teenager, still feeling his way through life, still trying to figure out who he is and where he is going. Carl Johnson is plenty aware that his future has few limitations. When you have his combination of tremendous size, dancing feet and intelligence, football will take you a long, long way in life. You don't have to go looking for opportunity. It will find you.

He's here at the US Army All-American Bowl this week, the last stop on a celebrated high school career before he moves on to his next station in life. Next Monday, the USA Today and Parade All-American will begin his next chapter at the University of Florida. He's bypassing the last semester of high school in Durham, North Carolina to enroll early at the University of Florida so he will be able to participate in spring football practice. This journey began on the mean streets of southside Richmond, Virginia, moved on to Durham and now will take him to Gainesville. He's gone from the uncertainty of life back in Richmond to love and acceptance in Durham to a future filled with plenty of hope at the University of Florida.

The story about how he came to Durham where he was adopted by Jeff and Tabetha Parker has been well documented. Jeff and Tabetha are Mom and Dad, best friends and mentors. They have raised him as their own since Carl was a big eighth grader. He came to Durham from Richmond to play basketball at Mt. Zion Academy where Jeff was the football coach. Carl was already living with Jeff and Tabitha when Mt. Zion disbanded its football program. He's been with them ever since. They have taught him to decide what is important in life and remain consistent to his priorities while maintaining a genuine, humble approach.

"The most important thing my dad has taught me is always keep God first," said Johnson Monday afternoon. "Without Him, football would just be a part of my imagination. There is football because God put it in my life for a reason. God made everything and so I keep Him first, my family second, school and then my other priorities after that. Everything else just works out when you've got things in the right order."

* * *

It was a couple of weeks ago when Carl Johnson's understanding of what is important in life was reshuffled. Visiting the Shiner's Children's Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina as part of the Shine Bowl football game that pits the best high school players from North Carolina against the best in South Carolina, he had the kind of humbling experience that will be a part of him for a lifetime.

There in the Shiner's Children's Hospital he met one kid after another that faces daily challenges that he can't even begin to imagine. He met kids whose lives have been crippled since birth because of defects and others who have seen their lives altered by horrendous accidents. He met one crippled kid after another and each time, he felt his heart shatter into a million pieces.

"I got to see the other side of the world, what most people don't ever get to see," he said. "I saw these kids who are deformed or missing limbs or are missing body parts from an accident or something."

In spite of their terrible circumstances, the children weren't looking for pity. They had smiles on their faces and hope in their eyes. All they wanted was someone to take a few moments to share with them.

"There was this one kid in a wheelchair who just wanted to play football with me for 10 minutes," he said. "You could see it in his eyes that he would give his life to play one down of football like I play and I've played what? Two or three thousand snaps in my career and he would give anything just to play one … it meant a lot for me to play with this kid. He was happy and smiling just because I would spend that time with him."

When he walked out of the hospital he took a few moments to re-assess his own priorities. He saw a mirror of himself in his mind and understood that perhaps there are times when he takes his size, strength and athletic ability for granted. He made a decision that from here on out, he will play football for those who aren't quite as fortunate.

"When I step on the field, I am playing for the kids who don't have a chance to play … the ones who can't run, who can't jump, who may not even be able to walk," he said. "That's my whole motivation now. Most players never see anything like that. We don't see that side of the world. We see the guys who have their good health and who have a chance to be great athletes but when you see that side of the world that is so far away from athletics it changes you.

"Some people's greatest dream would be just to run one step or jump just once …it's amazing and it makes me stop and realize just how God has blessed me."

* * *

Football wasn't a priority when Carl Johnson met Jeff Parker the first time. They became friends fast. It was Jeff who convinced Carl that he should start playing football after his eighth grade year at Mt. Zion.

"The only reason I ever did play football was because my dad conned me into playing football," said Johnson. "He said it would make me a better basketball player and that's all it took. I was a basketball player long before I was a football player. Even now, when I have time to myself and I need to get away from football, I'll go play basketball."

Football became an addicting adventure. He started out as a quarterback and then moved to tight end because he was growing so quickly that it was obvious there was lineman in his future. The adjustment was more mental than it was physical. By the time he got to high school, he had discovered books, history, and plenty of other joys of learning so it was natural for him to ask why.

"When I got to high school I started playing when I got to high school I started playing tight end and they said put your hand down here and do this," Johnson recalled. "I'm saying 'what's with this? I've never done this and I'm definitely not used to this.' Everything was new.

"I'm playing tight end and it's my freshman year and this coach says put your hand down here and fire off the ball and I'm asking 'what's this firing off the ball?' The coach starts yelling at me and my dad had to tell him this is just my second year of playing football and that I was a quarterback last year. The coach goes 'ooooohhhh' and then he got used to the learning process I was going through."

He became an interior lineman his sophomore year because he kept on growing and all of Durham Southern's offensive line had graduated. He found a home at tackle and discovered that the offensive line has its fun moments even though it's a lot of hard work.

"When you're an offensive lineman, you have to make your own fun or the grind will get to you," he said. "If you don't, you'll hate it because it's a job and not a game anymore."

Making his own fun usually has something to do with turning defensive linemen into what former Gator offensive lineman and future NFL Hall of Famer Lomas Brown used to call "dead roaches." That's when you knock the defender on his back and his arms and legs are pointed skyward, kind of like a dead roach. "Dead roaches" have evolved to the point that they're called "pancakes" now. Carl Johnson is "The Pancake Man." He has this habit of pancaking opponents and that's how he finds his fun.

* * *

Carl and Jeff visited the University of Florida unofficially for four days back in June. At that point in time, most of the nation's recruiting experts figured he was favoring Tennessee or Florida State. The four days on the Florida campus changed that perspective completely.

"It was the people I met on campus, the students mostly," he said. "I went all over the campus and everywhere I went they treated me like I was an average student, just a normal guy.

"I visited other schools and everywhere else people acted like 'Oh my God, look who's here! He's a football player!' and things like that. At Florida, I met people who just wanted to know me for me."

He also discovered that Urban Meyer is a lot like Jeff Parker, trustworthy and straightforward, a man with his priorities in the right places.

"Coach Meyer is all about what you can be and what you can do and making sure you're living your life right," said Johnson. "He's very goal oriented, too. He makes sure that you know that it's your team and your teammates first before it's about you.

"What I also like is the way he's involved in your life. "He's there at your study hall, there with you when you eat …he drops by your dorm room … when you least expect it he will pop up at your classes and he'll talk to your teachers and professors because he really wants to know what's going on in your life. When a head coach is that involved in your life that means he really cares about you. It's special when you have a coach like that because that means he's more about teaching life."

He also discovered that Shelley Meyer is a whole lot like Tabetha Parker, kindhearted and caring away from football and borderline whacko once a game kicks off.

"Her and my mom are the sweetest things away from football but when a game is on, oh my gosh!" he said. "She [Tabetha] doesn't sit with females. She sits down there with my dad's old coaching buddies. She said these females who don't know anything about football drive her crazy so she has to sit down there with people who know football."

Asked if his mom is like Coach Bill Yoast's daughter as she was portrayed in the movie "Remember the Titans", Johnson replied, "Yep … that's her exactly!"

* * *

He will become a Gator officially when he enrolls in classes in Gainesville in just a few days. This next step on his already extraordinary journey is even more anticipated because of Florida's 31-24 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

"The older guys are going to be hyped and ready to start working hard for next year because they beat Iowa," he said. "They're going to be working hard and that means I'll be able to learn a lot from them. I'm ready to learn … I'm ready to get there and be a part of the team. I'm ready to be a Gator."

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