Johnson Changes Mind Just in Time for Ventura

Times Staff Writer

John Johnson knew he made the right decision the first time he carried the ball for Ventura College in a scrimmage Saturday against Hancock College.

Johnson, a former Channel Islands High standout, burst through a hole in the line and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.

On his next carry, Johnson was tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a three-yard loss. But it didn't matter. Johnson was excited to be back in motion.

"I couldn't believe how good it felt to run the ball again," Johnson said. "It was excitement all over again, just like my junior year."

Johnson, who ranks third all-time among Ventura County rushers, had planned to sit out this football season and concentrate on baseball at Ventura. The Seattle Mariners selected Johnson in the 54th round of the June amateur draft and promised him a signing bonus if he had an all-star season.

Johnson, a middle infielder, closed his high school baseball career at Channel Islands by batting .412 in 24 games. He also had five home runs and 15 runs batted in. Not exactly star material, but he showed potential.

If he played football, Johnson reasoned, he might jeopardize a baseball contract by missing too many games, and he also would risk his athletic career if he reinjured his right knee.

Then Johnson saw his friends tossing a football around. When practice began at Ventura College, Johnson watched through a chain-link fence. He talked to his friends and his family, then changed his mind. His brother, Steve Johnson, Ventura College's Most Valuable Player in 1984, gave the deciding sales pitch.

"My brother told me to go through life without any regrets," Johnson said. "He said I might regret never playing football again and he was right. The more my friends talked about it and the more my family brought it up, the more I wanted to play.

"I couldn't stand it anymore."

Pirate Coach Phil Passno, under pressure to find another running back, heard the good news about Johnson on Aug. 29. In three days, Johnson learned the offense and Friday began practicing with the team. The next day he played in the scrimmage.

"He provides an ingredient to this team that we need in our backfield," Passno said. "It was his decision. The coaches did little to influence his decision."

But, the coach added, "We're really happy to have him on the team."

Johnson rushed four times in the scrimmage for 88 yards. He is expected to alternate with returning tailback Ryan Rapoza in Saturday's opener against Porterville. The game will be played at either Ventura's Larabee Stadium, if the lights are installed, or at Rio Mesa High.

"He gave an impressive performance in our scrimmage," Passno said of Johnson. "The quickness was there and his knee doesn't seem to bother him. I expect him to have about 15 carries in our first game."

Johnson ran for 3,485 yards in his three-year career at Channel Islands. He was expected to surpass Marc Monestime of Thousand Oaks as the county's all-time leading ground-gainer during his senior season. But Johnson reinjured his right knee in the first Marmonte League game against Westlake.

He underwent his second knee operation and missed one game, finishing with 1,185 yards and eight touchdowns. He failed to pass even his brother, Hilria, for second on the county list but he did set a county mark in scoring with 264 points.

Johnson then lost interest in football and did not play in the Ventura County all-star game during the summer.

"I lost the joy of scoring touchdowns and the joy of playing with my teammates when I got hurt the second time," Johnson said. "I spent most of my time rehabilitating my knee and I lost touch with my teammates. It was a very lonely experience."

Johnson signed a letter of intent with the University of Arizona, but lost his freshman eligibility when he failed to meet NCAA Proposition 48 standards. At Ventura College he hopes to earn a second chance to play for the Wildcats.

"I kind of wonder how I would do at that level of competition," Johnson said.

"I could have gone to Arizona and lost a year of eligibility. But I wanted a chance to play, whether it was baseball or football. I have no regrets. Hopefully, in a year or two, I will be playing there."

But for now, Johnson will be carrying the offensive load for the Pirates.

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