T.J. Johnson: A cut above
The 71st annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas was held last weekend in Spartanburg, SC. It's a game that has perennially featured the top senior football prospects from the states of North and South Carolina, and many great players have proudly donned the Sandlapper and Tar Heel colors over the years, supporting the Shriner's Children Hospitals and upholding the tradition of "Strong legs run so weak legs may walk."
There was something different about this year's game, though. For the first time ever, the small town school of Aynor, a 2A football program located a half hour northwest of Myrtle Beach, SC, had a player selected to take part in the game - offensive lineman T.J. Johnson.
"The Shrine Bowl's been around for over seventy years, and this is the first player we've ever had from Aynor," said Aynor football coach Jody Jenerette. "It's been a great honor for T.J. and a great honor for our community. We're very proud of him."
According to Jenerette, it was no accident that Johnson earned a spot among the state's elite, though. He said Johnson's emergence as one of the state's top linemen was the result of years of hard work and dedication.
"His work ethic is unbelievable. It's crazy how much he loves to lift and loves to improve. He's the kind of guy that wants to stay after practice and get better. He's just a winner," said Jenerette. "When I got there the first day, I told him this is what he had to do if he wanted to be one of the best players in South Carolina, and he has done every single thing that I asked him to do and more."
Along with being the first Shrine Bowl selection in school history, Johnson has also become the first Aynor football player to commit to a Division I school in over twenty years. After considering scholarship offers from Kentucky, Maryland, Wake Forest, North Carolina State and over a half dozen others, Johnson pledged his commitment to the home-state Gamecocks back in July. Jenerette has watched Johnson grow and mature as a player throughout his high school career, and he is now looking forward to seeing what the future holds for him on the college level.
"He's still a young kid. He's going to graduate at seventeen. He's strong as a dang bull, and he's going to go up there and compete. I hope he doesn't have to go up there and play early because (redshirting) may be best for him. He may go up there and impress early, though. He's a center or a guard at the next level. He's just an amazing athlete, and he's going to do well."
Johnson currently measures in at a solid 6'4" and 280 pounds, but Jenerette believes he will add enough good weight on the next level to compete at over 300 pounds.
"I'd like to see him at about 305 (pounds). T.J.'s not going to be a fat lineman. He's one of those guys that watches his calories and understands what to eat and what not to put in his body. I'd like to see him playing at about 305 and getting after it."
While Johnson is clearly a special player with a tremendous upside on the gridiron, Jenerette said he is equally as good of a person off the field.
"The number one thing I can say about T.J. is that he's a Christian. He knows Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and that's what gets him through. He carries his Bible to school with him everyday. He's just one of those guys you want to be around. You want your daughter to date him. He's a great young man."
After a strong week of practice at the Shrine Bowl, where Johnson drew rave reviews from coaches and scouts as one of the top offensive linemen in attendance, he unfortunately broke a small bone in his left ankle early in the game. Johnson has since had successful surgery, and he's expected to be back to full speed in about six weeks.
The Sandlappers went on to win the Shrine Bowl in an exciting but sloppy 31-24 display without Johnson. However, despite the injury, Johnson represented the school and city of Aynor well, and Jenerette has no doubt that he will continue to do so in the coming years.
"I'm really glad he came up here and competed. He's really given it his all. He's still young in football because he's only played true football for about three years. T.J.'s still got a bright future ahead of him."
Johnson was recently honored by the Carolina Panthers as a Community Captain for his tremendous involvement in community service and his excellence in the sporting arena and in the classroom. Johnson reports a 3.9 GPA. He plans to report to USC in the summer.
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