Derrell Johnson's Last Game As A Buckeye

Although Derrell Johnson of Cardinal Mooney might have dreamed of playing college football for Ohio State, when things broke off between him and the Buckeyes, he didn't have to look very hard to find a team that was more than willing to take him. But in his last high school football game, Johnson hopes to do everything he can to lead Ohio to victory in the 49th Annual Big 33 Football Classic.

It was like a fairy tale without the happy ending.

For the longest time, many Ohio State fans who follow the recruiting scene closely were rooting for Derrell Johnson of Cardinal Mooney High School to become a Buckeye. But in the end it just didn't work out that way.

"It's been a long journey for me," said Johnson during some down town on Friday before the Big 33 game. "There's been numerous colleges in and out of the picture because of grades, because of timing, because of scholarships and that's just how the whole thing played out.

"But everything happens for a reason and the way things happened, with my love for Ohio State and with all of the other schools, I definitely found a home. I love the people that I'll be with for the next four years and that's just how it all played out. So I'm happy where I'm going."

And Johnson is certainly happy where he's at now.

"Right now I'm in the Big 33 game and that's an honor in itself," Johnson said. "To represent all the other Ohio guys that played here before us and be a member of the ‘06 class of the Big 33 is an opportunity that I'll never forget and I wouldn't pass up for the world."

There's a lot that Johnson won't forget about his senior season. He transferred to Cardinal Mooney in the winter of 2005 and had a long academic struggle ahead of him to earn his college eligibility. He burst upon the scene as the signal caller for the Cardinals in a big way but he was hampered with two separate leg injuries during the year, with the last one costing him a much-coveted shot at playing in the state championship contest against Coldwater.

But Johnson continued to navigate his academic ship to where it looked like eligibility, his final destination, was just beyond the horizon. He chose not to sign a letter of intent with anybody on signing day in February as he still harbored hopes of obtaining a scholarship offer from the Ohio State Buckeyes, an option that, just a few years before, for numerous reasons, was beyond the realm of possibility for him.

But when he eventually learned that Ohio State would no longer be a viable option for him, he shifted his focus elsewhere.

"There came a point where it was obvious what was going to happen with me and my involvement with being a Buckeye," Johnson said. "It didn't play out exactly like I wanted it to but I was fortunate enough to be recruited by a lot of the other Big Ten schools and the University of Iowa. And I'm grateful that."

He no longer thinks about what might have been. But to his credit, Ohio State was a school that Johnson set his sights for and almost made it happen.

"Being an Ohio guy, automatically, you want to play for the Buckeyes," Johnson said. "The head coach is from my home town and he's a great guy. He's one of the greatest guys around and if you ask anyone they'll tell you. Automatically you want to be a part of that. You want to be a part of everything that came before you at Ohio State and my family was so much involved in everything with me. Unfortunately I wasn't able to become a Buckeye but I'm definitely thankful to be a Hawkeye, that's for sure."

Johnson believes it was destined to happen this way.

"I think that everything comes down to fate," he said. "I think the road that I've had these last four years was the road I was going to take regardless. That's just how it was meant to be. When I was a freshman at Campbell I had no idea that I'd ever had the opportunity to play college football. I've always dreamed of it but I never thought I'd develop to be a good enough athlete. And in the beginning, academically, I didn't understand the importance of how that went along with being a student-athlete."

But everything started to become more clear for Johnson when he became more involved with the family of one of his classmates at Campbell. Eventually Dr. Anthony and Lauren Koulianos adopted this charismatic personality who was at the helm of a rudderless ship, and the rest is now history.

"The changing point in my life definitely was the emphasis from my parents," Johnson said. "Even I didn't realize the opportunity that I was going to have. But when they said, ‘this has been your dream and this is what you have to do to get it done to fulfill it,' I finally realized something like this could really happen. So after realizing what's important and what's not important in the big picture of it all, everything started to sink in and I started to realize what I needed to get done in order to fulfill my dreams."

While Johnson continues to have some contact with his birth mother, he's happily a full-fledged member of the Koulianos family now.

"The situation is obviously understood now and there's no hard feelings. It's just the way it is and I'm grateful for the way it is," he said. "I wouldn't trade my parents that I have now for anyone else in the world. That's just how I feel."

And now Johnson wants to represent his family and his home state in a big way before he makes the trek to Iowa.

"I think this is huge. This is biggest stage thus far in my life that I'll be playing on and I'm thrilled to death to have this opportunity," he said. "A lot of guys would die to play in this game and I was selected as one of the 33 or 34 guys. So I'm going to take that opportunity and I'm going to give it my best shot and I'm going to enjoy every moment of it. I'm thrilled. I got butterflies inside already. I can't wait until Saturday night. I'm going to give it my best shot."

He's confident his team will do well in the Big 33 game.

"I think we have a great team," Johnson said. "Ohio high school football is all about good players that come from good schools and we have great coaches, and that's going to carryover to tomorrow night."

Johnson will quarterback the Ohio team initially but he will also be used in many other ways as a wide receiver and as a kick returner.

"I'm going to give it my best effort and that's all I can do and that's all that I know," he said. "And I think that I have guys around me that have the same outlook. So we'll work together and help each other and go into the game as a team. But every time I have a chance to make a play in the game, I'm going to give it my best shot and hopefully it all works out."

Admittedly Johnson has been dreaming this week about making big plays for the team.

"That's all you can do as one of the guys that is going to be handling the ball," he said. "Making big plays for the team to keep us in the game and make things happen. If you give 100 percent every play, then things are going to happen your way."

And he even dreams about being the man in the game.

"Every guy should. If you don't then you don't deserve to play in this game," Johnson said. "This game is all about making plays and with all of the best athletes in the game you have to go out and make it happen. I definitely want to do that, without a doubt, and hopefully it works out."

But Johnson already feels like a winner regardless of how he plays in the game or how the game turns out. Iowa will soon find out just how good a football player he really is.

"I'm ready to challenge myself physically and academically to stay on top of things at Iowa," he said. "It's a new start, college is definitely a new start, and it's all about how hard you're willing to work to be successful. So I'm excited and I can't wait to get started. I look forward to getting to know the guys on my team and just competing every Saturday, trying to become the best player that I can be."

Johnson will be in Iowa for two weeks in July just to get familiar with his new surroundings before he officially reports on Aug. 5.

"Just coming in as a freshman I just want to be an asset to the team in anyway I can," he said. "I know it's going to be a lot of hard work but that's what it's all about so I'm excited."

He'll play wide receiver for the Hawkeyes.

"Because I didn't play wide receiver in high school obviously there's a few things that I don't know," Johnson said. "But I have a pretty good hold on the position right now and I'm going to be able to adapt well."

More than any other thing at this point in his life, Johnson is motivated by success.

"What makes me tick is having success," Johnson said. "I have a chance to succeed in life and that makes me feel really good. And if I go about doing things in the right way, hopefully, everything will work out for me."

He certainly holds no grudges against Ohio State.

"You really can't hold any grudges," Johnson said. "Like I said, for one, everything happens for a reason and, two, there were some things that I could have did better to make the opportunity for me a little easier to manage. There were some things that I didn't actually have in line earlier in high school academically and that's no one's fault but mine. So this is how it played out and there's definitely no hard feelings."

And if Johnson is still at Iowa in his senior year, he'll have a chance to actually play in the Horseshoe after all.

"That would be great," he said. "That's something that I always wanted to do, to play in that atmosphere, it's one-of-a-kind. And in Ohio anyone who knows football knows that."

And anyone who's a high school football fan in Ohio will be rooting for Johnson during the Big 33.


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