Boise star's work is never done

Times Staff Writer

By day he unclogs your drain, by night he leads the nation in scoring, by November he emerges from a hospital bed to save the non-Bowl Championship Series world and by December he finishes eighth in Heisman Trophy balloting?

Ian Johnson is Boise State Man!, the latest superhero to emerge from the Western Athletic Conference.

Johnson, from San Dimas, is WAC all right.

"I don't think when he got to Boise State they knew what they were getting," Colleen Johnson, Ian's mother, says. " 'Oh, that quirky California kid.' I choose to consider him unique."

Consider this:

In between leading Boise State to a 12-0 season, a berth in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, gaining 1,613 yards, leading the nation with 24 touchdowns, making the Associated Press All-America squad on the third team, knitting beanies for his teammates and almost dying after the San Jose State game, the sophomore tailback worked part-time as a plumber's assistant in Boise.

Ian Johnson averages 6.4 yards a carry on the ground and $9.25 an hour under it.

"First day, they want to test me out," Johnson says. "They want me to dig an eight-foot hole. There's rocks and gravel and I hit the water table at five feet. They were like, 'Wow, we didn't think you'd do it.' "

This isn't one of those "jobs" the NCAA investigates.

Johnson is employed by DeBest Plumbing Inc., which has served Boise-area customers for 33 years.

"I really do work there," Johnson says. "It's a real job. I come home greasy and muddy."

Milford Terrell, DeBest president and owner, confirms it. "He's digging trenches, throwing dirt, doing whatever we ask him to do," Terrell says. "He's got a work ethic that is unbelievable."

Johnson not only works in the football off-season, he works during it.

Boise State played only eight of its 12 games this year on Saturday, which left Johnson time for some weekend ditch shifts.

"There's no playing around," Terrell says of the job. "He has to work. You and I both know about prima donnas, and they don't work here very long."

Being a plumber's helper helped keep humble a guy who finished ahead of USC's Dwayne Jarrett in this year's final Heisman voting.

"It all goes out down in that eight-foot hole," Johnson says of the notoriety that has come his way. "When I'm in that hole, there's no Heisman."

Johnson is doing this because he's trying to stand on his own two work boots, be responsible, secure his horizons, all while making the monthly mortgage payments on the house that his parents purchased for him in Boise.

"It doesn't always work out that way," his mother says. "We do send him money, but he wants to be as self-sufficient as he can be."

Ian sees the practical side of plumbing.

"If I buy myself a new toilet, I don't have to pay the guy to put it in," he says. "I put it in myself."

As for football, no one outside the Johnson inner-circle could have imagined he would have gone from 663 rushing yards as a freshman to this, a center seat on the college game's center stage.

Johnson hasn't even come to grips with it.

The Boise State Bronco who rushed for 240 yards and five touchdowns against Oregon State?

"I still don't see me when I think about it," Johnson says. "I didn't do that. Ian Johnson did that, not me. The player is not all who I am, so I don't just take that and let it override the rest of my life."

Those 240 yards, it turns out, were just the start of Johnson's story board.

Let's pick up his exploits Nov. 11, in a game at San Jose State.

Johnson thought his ribs were cracked after he was hit on a second-quarter run, when in fact he had suffered a partially collapsed left lung.

"I knew something wrong," Johnson says. "We're football players, though. I can breathe, I'm tired, because my lung's collapsed. I don't know it's collapsed. I'm like, 'Oh, I broke a rib.' Long as I can go play to play, who cares what I feel like in between the plays?"

Boise State needed every breath. Johnson carried 29 times for 149 yards in a game the Broncos won, 23-20, on a last-second field goal.

Johnson says the doctors planned on examining him more thoroughly after the team got back home, but in the locker room after the game he didn't feel so hot.

Tailback Brett Denton suggested doctors look at Johnson's spleen, which they did.

"When they reached under my rib cage, they touched the air pocket where the lung collapsed," Johnson recalls. "It sent me into immense pain. I went in and out of consciousness. The pain was beyond what I felt before. I was dripping sweat, lost all color."

He was transported to San Jose's O'Connor Hospital, where he spent the next five days with a tube in his chest, recovering from pneumothorax, a collection of air or gas in the space surrounding the lungs.

"It was life threatening as it was, apparently, but had I gotten on the plane I probably would have died," Johnson says.

Two weeks after his injury, in a game Boise State had to win to secure a top-12 BCS ranking and an automatic Fiesta Bowl bid, Johnson returned to the lineup and rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 win over Nevada.

Johnson wore a protective flak jacket.

"After having playing three quarters with a collapsed lung, playing four quarters with a regular lung that's just out of shape is easy," Johnson says.

Is Cuban Gooding Jr. too old to play him in the movie?

This whole Boise experience seems as if it has been scripted.

Like most players who end up here, Johnson thought he should have been in a better football place.

He gained 3,627 yards at La Verne Damien High, but split time as a junior and didn't get many recruiting bites until his senior year.

"He was feeling like a forgotten child," his mother says.

Boise State discovered Johnson by accident, during a game between Damien and Rancho Cucamonga in which then-Boise assistant coach Robert Prince was recruiting Rancho defensive back Patrick Chung.

Boise State didn't land Chung, who went to Oregon, but Prince took note of the Damien runner that night.

"It was just a lot of very good scouting on our part," Boise State Coach Chris Peterson jokes. "That's the beauty of recruiting. It's an art, not a science, it's all in the eye of the beholder. Half the time, this has never changed, whether I was at Oregon or here, it seems like the guys you are so excited about getting into your program, you think are going to make the difference in your program, most of the time those guys don't make the difference."

It's the afterthoughts that count.

"Maybe those guys have more to prove," Peterson says.

Johnson took a recruiting visit to Boise and fell in love with it. More important, his parents fell in love with the place and may end up retiring there.

Ian, as it turned out, ended up in the perfect spot.

"Not all bad situations lead to a bad result," Johnson says. "They wanted me as much as I wanted to play football there. It wasn't like they were settling. That's the big thing. 'Wow, this team wants me.' "

Boise State let Johnson be himself, which is a full-time job.

Ian Johnson is exceptional.

His major is entrepreneurial management. His mother says he started making money at age 8 by selling candy.

He moved on to crochet in high school, and sold beanies to teammates and friends at Boise State until, last month, the NCAA told him to stop.

The wide-openness of Boise, unlike that collapsed lung, has allowed Johnson space to breathe.

"He is where he should be," his mother says. "Everything is falling into place for him."

Boise State coaches wonder sometimes whether Ian is taking on too much.

Peterson is already dropping hints that Johnson, if he is interested in winning next year's Heisman, may have to cut back on his plumbing work.

Insulting Johnson's work may be a mean means to that end.

"I wouldn't let that guy near my house," Peterson jokes. "I'd let him hang out with me and have dinner or something, but not to test my pipes."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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