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In each issue of Bucknuts The Magazine, we have in-depth features on Ohio State football players, coaches and prospects. We also have analysis pieces on the Buckeyes as well as their opponents, the Big Ten and college football world in general. Plus, we have features on OSU athletes in a variety of sports, including men's and women's basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and other sports.
Headline: Golden State Gem
By Gary Housteau
(From May 2006 issue)
Most Ohio State fans already know by now that Mark Johnson is a prep All-American linebacker from Los Angeles Dorsey High School.
Those same fans probably know Johnson, who signed with OSU in February, was born and raised in Los Angeles and attended Culver City High School for three years before transferring to Dorsey. Of course, Dorsey is the same high school that sent Na'il Diggs to Ohio State.
But one thing that a lot of Buckeye fans might be surprised to know is that Johnson was a competitive swimmer growing up, similar to what Bobby Carpenter was at one time.
"I grew up playing many sports and swimming was my main sport for seven years," Johnson said. "We live real close to a swimming pool and we used to pass it every day, and I told my grandmother, Theresa Johnson, that I wanted to learn how to swim."
Swimming became the foundation of Johnson's athletic ability. He used to swim with COLA, an acronym for the City Of Los Angeles swim team. He swam every day in the summer with practice Monday through Friday and meets on Saturday and Sunday.
"I was one of the best in the region in swimming before I went to high school," Johnson said. "Swimming was my foundation for conditioning. I was kind of chubby when I was younger and swimming worked for me. I believe that it's given me great endurance and it pretty much put me in an athletic mode at a young age."
Johnson also played baseball and basketball while growing and he didn't start playing tackle football until the ninth grade.
"I had a passion for baseball and I still want to play baseball later on," Johnson said. "I was pretty good in baseball. I played centerfield in my freshman year."
At the start of high school, Johnson's focus switched from swimming and baseball to football and baseball. He stopped swimming competitively in high school and even got away from it completely for three years.
"I wanted to use football to go to college but I think I might even swim when I get to Ohio State," he said. "I haven't been on a swim team since the beginning of high school."
But Johnson started swimming again, for training purposes, prior to his senior season at Dorsey.
"I've been training in the pool now since the summer going into my senior year," he said. "I wake up and go to the pool and swim some laps and run in the pool three times a week. I noticed that you need an extra edge or something different to better yourself in football, and swimming is a great way to keep your endurance up and to have lean muscle. So it all came back to me."
So Johnson abandoned swimming for football but he came back to it when he wanted to become a better football player. He also stopped playing baseball after his freshman year and took up hurdles with the track team to try to help make him a better football player.
"Football was a new talent that I discovered in the ninth grade and I'm still trying to find ways to make me a better football player," Johnson said. "In the summer during my transition from eighth grade to ninth grade, I decided to try out for football because I always wanted to play it. So when I played it and I put on the pads, there was nothing else like it. My parents wouldn't let me play football when I was younger."
He's been a natural at the sport from the very beginning. Johnson started out on the freshman team at Culver City but was moved up to the varsity toward the end of the season and he's been on the varsity ever since.
"I was always big and fast so I just had to develop the knowledge of the game," Johnson said. "People said that I had talent but I didn't really know until I started playing during the season."
In his freshman year, Johnson played running back, wide receiver, linebacker and strong safety before he settled in at linebacker in his sophomore year. He started his sophomore year and he played exclusively at linebacker and had 111 tackles in 11 games.
In his junior season, he played linebacker and some tight end on offense. He recorded 148 tackles and was the player of the year in his conference.
Then, Johnson transferred to Dorsey for his senior season. He actually went there in time for the second semester in his junior year.
"I started working out with the football team and the track team and I adjusted well," Johnson said. "Dorsey has great tradition. It's unbelievable there. They have a lot of people in the NFL now."
Dorsey was the top-ranked team in the city going into the season and ultimately finished with a 10-3 record, losing in the state semifinals.
But Johnson's season ended prematurely when he dislocated his thumb in the first game of the postseason.
"I got hurt in the Carson game on the first play, on the kickoff. It was the first playoff game," Johnson said. "I dislocated my thumb. I played like three more plays after the incident happened but after that I was done for the season. When it first happened I couldn't really feel it because of all of the adrenaline, but the next day after I had my cast on, I could feel it. It was pretty painful."
Just one series in the playoffs and it was over for Johnson.
"When I came off the field, the trainer told me I was done," Johnson said. "At the moment it was kind of hard to deal with. It was a harsh reality but I'm trying to use that as a positive to make me stronger."
He was still contributing to the team but it wasn't the same.
"I was still helping out from the sideline. I was encouraging the players and I felt like I was still in the game. Like I was in the game the whole way," Johnson said. "My heart was right there. I wasn't out there physically but mentally I was a part of the team."
In all, the 6-3 ½, 230-pound specimen of a linebacker with 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash played in nine of the 10 regular season games, sitting out one game with a toe injury, and recorded 120 tackles. Although his tackle numbers might not reflect it, Johnson thinks he had his best year as a senior.
"I thought it was my best season overall," he said. "I had a better feel of the game and I was playing against better competition. I believe it brought out the best in me."
As a result, Johnson was selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American game but he eventually had to withdraw from the contest because of his injury.
"I was picked to play in it, but because of my thumb incident I decided to pull out," he said. "It was tough to watch but it was amazing to see those guys play. I was still excited because I had some friends playing in the game, so I was encouraging them. I know that things happen so there's nothing else to do but get better."
He was also excited to see some of his future friends and teammates play so well in the game.
"It was a good day for Ohio State but it could have been better," Johnson said. "It just showed that Ohio State has a great recruiting class and how much tradition they have."
He has never met Chris Wells or Robert Rose yet but he did meet up with another member of Ohio State's recruiting class earlier on.
"I know Thaddeus Gibson. I met him at USC's camp," Johnson said. "We were on the same team in the drills and he's a nice guy to play with. On the field it's all about business and we were playing pretty well together. I'm looking forward to playing with him again in the future."
Ohio State is a long way from home but Johnson has no regrets about his decision.
"I'm going to miss a lot of people in California, but I just pray to God and I know that He knows what's best for me," Johnson said. "So I'm going to go out there and stay focused. School comes first and football is second. I'm a student-athlete. Football is a priority but I'm a student-athlete."
Johnson remembered watching Ohio State in the 2002 national championship game against Miami (Fla.) and he's been interested in them ever since.
"That was a great game and they had great fans and I've always remembered that," Johnson said. "And they lose all their linebackers so the jobs are wide open. They have great coaches as well and they play in the Big Ten."
Linebackers coach Luke Fickell recruited Johnson for Ohio State.
"He visited my school and saw my tape and they wanted me," Johnson said. "I was always in love with Ohio State, I was just lost. They were always one of my top two choices since the recruiting process started. But I still wanted to weigh my options. My recruiting process was great but I had to take the process slow and a get a feel for all the coaches."
His final decision came down to LSU and Ohio State. Cal was the only other school he was looking and he eliminated them at in the end. Those were the only schools where he took his official visits to. He visited LSU in October and Cal in December.
"USC has a lot of linebackers, and I liked UCLA, but they didn't offer me. So I chose Ohio State," said Johnson as he explained his decision-making process. "I took my recruiting trip to Cal, and when I came back from my recruiting trip there they had (received a commitment from) another linebacker and they were the only other school that I was thinking about. So that's when I committed to Ohio State. I knew Ohio State was the place that I wanted to go to the whole time but I was just trying to delay the recruiting process and take all of my trips."
Johnson officially committed to Ohio State on his official visit to the school on the first weekend in January.
"My official visit was great," he said. "Doug Worthington was my host and everything was great. I saw the school and the stadium was great. I can't wait to play in it. I committed in his office when I met Coach Tressel. It was great. I went from seeing him on TV at the bowl game to sitting down in his office and having a conversation with him. Just me, him and my dad. He was straight up and very down to earth so that's what I liked the most about him. It was a great experience and I can't wait to play for him."
Johnson plans to come to Columbus in the summer and enroll in school early.
"I want to come out there early and take a couple of classes and work out with the team," he said. "And when camp starts I'm going to compete for any of the linebacker spots. I like Will backer, I like Mike backer and I like Sam, too. I just want to get on the field. I really like the Will. I like to make tackles."
He just wants to contribute and help make the team better no matter what position he's playing at.
"I dream about being on the field and helping my team to my fullest ability to win," Johnson said. "I'm ready to go the minute I step on campus. As soon as I get there I want to be a part of the tradition. As soon as we put the pads on is when I want to be a part of it. As soon as we start lifting in the summer time, as soon as I get there I want to be a part of it."
He already experienced the feeling of being a part of the tradition on his visit and he wants more now. He met Troy Smith that weekend and that left an indelible impression on him.
"I met Troy Smith and I got to talk to him for about five minutes," Johnson said. "It was great meeting him. Lest I remind you, I was there the weekend after they won the bowl game and there was a lot of hype coming off that game. They were like heroes and stars and it was just an honor to meet him and know that he was going to be my teammate next year. I met A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel. It was great. We took pictures and we were holding conversations."
And now his time is coming and Johnson can't wait to be a Buckeye.
"This is the only thing that's on my mind from day to day," Johnson said. "I'm working out hard and I want to get on that defense. I want to be a part of that defense and I want to help the team win. That's all I want to do. I want to win games and I want to contribute. And I love the colors."
With that kind of attitude, along with his obvious physical talent, Ohio State fans are certain to love seeing Johnson play in those colors.