LOVINGSTON — You’d never know what he’d been through looking at him now. Watching James Johnson dart across the practice field to make a tackle or seeing him line up for a blocking drill, or observing him leading the rest of his team in stretches and warmups, you’d never know that less than 12 months ago, his classmates and coaches didn’t know if he’d ever step onto the gridiron again.
In the fall of 2018, Johnson traded his after-school football activities with the Nelson County varsity team for work duties on a farm in Lovingston at the conclusion of the Governors’ season.
Between late August and early November last year, there were some down moments for the squad, which earned just three wins. After a handful of losses, though, the Governors ended on a high note, with a rare victory and momentum to carry into 2019. Johnson was part of a junior class that showed gains physically and mentally, and for a team that perennially lacks numbers and experience, things were looking up.
But for Johnson, one moment after the season put everything at a standstill. Johnson’s promising football career that was on an upward trajectory took a sharp turn, quickly crashing back toward the earth.
“I was really concerned,” Nelson coach Matt Hicks said, recalling his reaction to the news one of his players, Johnson, had been in a bad accident at work.
“… When you hear farm accident, you just kind of wonder what that … means for him long term.”
Johnson, who recently had finished a junior campaign in which he played both ways as a linebacker and center, was at work at a small farm, going about business as normal when the incident occurred.
He and a co-worker were inside a barn, moving boards when a hay bale, part of a stack three high, fell, taking Johnson to the ground with it. Johnson, under the weight of the bale, was pinned to the ground from his waist down.
“It wasn’t too good,” Johnson recalled of his immediate feelings after the accident.
When he arrived at the hospital, the then-Nelson County junior learned the diagnosis: a broken pelvis, in three places.
Surgeries ensued and provided the solution, Johnson explained.
“They just had to screw it all back together,” he said nonchalantly during a recent practice, adding three screws remain today.
Then, Johnson faced a long road to full recovery. For a couple weeks, he could barely move.
“There was a long period of time where the goal for the day was for him to stand, count to 10 or 20 and sit back down,” Hicks said.
Knowing Johnson was in such condition then, Hicks added, made Hicks doubt the possibility of Johnson’s return to athletics.
“In my mind, I was talking about … the progression of hopefully he can walk and move around and have a normal life,” he said.
But Johnson never saw his situation through that lens. Asked if he ever thought football was erased from his future plans, Johnson didn’t hesitate.
“No,” he said. “Not really.”
Months out of school, then, when he had to use a walker to get around, then a cane, were just part of a new path he’d have to take to see the gridiron again for his senior season.
It took months for Johnson to get his “muscles and bones back to where they needed to be,” but he didn’t waiver on his journey back to football.
“From the day they wheeled him in, all the way through, his goal was to be back on the football field, and he was gonna accept nothing less,” Hicks said.
Johnson said he was “blessed” to be able to wake up after surgery and eventually walk away from the incident, also saying the process helped him develop in non-physical ways. Chief among the lessons learned was patience, he said. He itched to get back to the weight room, but had to take his time before easing back in. After being able to walk normally again, he wanted to start running shortly thereafter, but had to wait on that, as well.
Eventually, all those things came, and today, Johnson is back on the field as one of the senior leaders on a Nelson team that once again is playing a schedule that includes Dogwood District foes — after two years competing as an independent.
“It’s almost as if he’s not missed a beat,” Hicks said.
Johnson’s teammates, too, have been motivated by his resilience.
“It’s amazing,” fellow senior Brice Wilson said. “This guy, he pushes me every day. He pushes everyone on the team. To see him go through such a tragic injury and something that could’ve been career-ending, and to see him push his butt all summer and come back from that, he’s inspirational.”
For a team that has taken its knocks in the past, Hicks said Johnson’s attitude is the perfect example of players who are “hardworking and dedicated.”
“He lets us know … we can get back up,” Wilson added.
And Johnson, the guard/tight end and middle linebacker in his final high school campaign, can especially see now, following the accident, how doing the hard work pays off.
“I love being out here. Ever since I was little, I dreamed of playing college football. I have people all around me pushing me to be the best I could be, and I’ve been put in position to where I love being out here with the guys,” Johnson said.
“It’s another feeling. You can’t explain it. Doing things you don’t want to do to get to the place you need to be, it’s a certain feeling.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.