Javarie Johnson (Bob Lichtenfels/Scout.com)
The game of football often means different things to different people. For those who play, it can be a stress reliever. For those who watch, it can be a distraction from the daily grind.
Neither purpose is trivial, but both pale in comparison to the sport's significance in the lives of many of our nation's youth. Washington (D.C.) Dunbar linebacker Javarie Johnson is a shining example. For him, football is an escape vehicle from circumstances that unfortunately hold far too many others back.
"He lives in a tough neighborhood," Dunbar coach Craig Jeffries said. "Like a lot of kids, he is the first one in his family to go to college. He is going to move out of a neighborhood where most of the kids in the area have babies, do drugs, and drop out of school. He loves football so much that he's going to do everything that he needs to do to play. One of them is (to do well) academically. He had (football) taken away from him at an early age. I think he couldn't play middle school football because of his grades. He just vowed at that time to always be eligible to play."
Keeping that promise has positioned Johnson to be a mid-year graduate next year. Achieving that goal will require attending summer school, but that's a sacrifice that he is very willing to make. Furthermore, when not in the classroom, he will continue his tireless work in the weight room and on the track. To Jeffries, such dedication is a pleasant reminder of a few other talented prospects that he has helped mold over the years.
"(Johnson) has seen the success of guys from our program like (San Francisco 49ers tight end) Vernon Davis, (Illinois wide receiver) Arrelious Benn, and (Miami Dolphins first-round draft pick) Vontae Davis," Jeffries said. "He's always smiling. It's always, 'Yes, coach.' He comes from a real tough environment, like a lot of kids do, but he is able to translate that to being a great kid."
As is the case for many players, those niceties go out the window when Johnson straps on the shoulder pads.
"On the field he wants to win," Jeffries said. "He wants to knock your head off. He has a lot of athletic ability. He can change direction, he is real fast, he's tough, and he's really rangy. He is going to be the next Vernon Davis (athletically) because of his height (6-foot-3) and his potential to get bigger. He doesn't have the best hands in the world so we flipped him on defense. He might not admit that (laughing). He wants to be good. That is what drives him.
"A lot of people look at him as possibly being a defensive end, but he runs a 4.5. He is actually almost like a safety. He is more of a safety coming down to linebacker. I don't think he is a linebacker to come down to D-end. He could probably play anywhere on the defense except for maybe D-tackle."
Johnson, who is rated a three-star prospect (at the moment) by Scout.com, currently has 12 scholarship offers. That tally includes tenders from Maryland, West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. Late last month, he made his way to the Great Lakes state to check in on the Spartans and Wolverines.
For Michigan, the visit was an opportunity to gain ground on schools that had entered the race for Johnson's services much sooner.
"(The visit) went great," Johnson said, referring to his time in Ann Arbor. "Everything went great with the coaches and everybody. I met Coach Rodriguez and Coach Dews (receivers coach Tony Dews). They're good people. They offered me right before I left. The thing that stood out there was definitely the stadium. That's bigger than NFL stadiums."
Rumors of a commitment to the Wolverines swirled after a Dunbar assistant mistook Johnson's positive remarks about Michigan for news of a pledge. That report proved to be premature since Johnson also was impressed with Michigan State.
"They had me take a tour of campus and I got to see all of the football facilities," Johnson said of his time in East Lansing. "Michigan State is a good school. I could see myself playing there for four years. I like the coaches, the environment -- everything is good at Michigan State. The thing that stood out was the weight room because that's the biggest weight room I've ever seen."
While it's clear that both the Spartans and Wolverines presented themselves very well, Miami and Maryland also appear to be formidable programs in his recruitment. At the moment Johnson is keeping his cards close to the vest and publicly claims no leaders. That said, it won't be long before the public knows exactly where he is leaning. The only thing that currently stands between him and a decision are a few more possible visits.
"I'm supposed to go to Miami, maybe in the middle of June," he said. "I'm going to make my decision before next season. I gotta be able to trust my coaches. If I'm going through a hard time, I want a coach that is there for me. But the most important thing is the education."
And it's that kind of attitude that will make Johnson a success whether he stars on a football field or not.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine magazine and GoBlueWolverine.com, and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His column appears every Thursday.