As Brad Johnson prepared for his senior season of high school, the most important year of his life from a football standpoint, the Pendleton defensive end reflected back to 2005, the hardest year of his life from a personal standpoint.
Johnson was 6 years old in October of 2005 when his dad, John Johnson, drowned in Lake Hartwell.
Eleven years later, as Brad was 17 and getting ready to play for scholarship offers and an opportunity to make his dreams come true, he traded in his No. 44 jersey for No. 5 so he could honor his dad by wearing the jersey number of the year he passed away.
“The first game that he played with the No. 5 on, I didn’t know why he was wearing it. I was in the stands like, ‘Why does he have on a different number?’ ” recalled Brad’s mom, Wendy. “And then later on, when he told me what it meant, I thought that was the most beautiful thing that he could have thought of doing. I was very proud of him.”
Brad’s senior season was magical. He ended the year with scholarship offers from South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Wisconsin and several other Division I schools before signing with the Gamecocks on National Signing Day in February.
Along the way, he was named the Defensive MVP of the Shrine Bowl and the (Anderson) Independent Mail Player of the Year. He rushed for 693 yards and five touchdowns, while averaging nine yards per carry and accounted for 43 tackles and 13 sacks defensively.
“I wanted to do something in remembrance of my dad for my senior year, kind of devote the season to him,” Brad said. “Every offer I got and every coach that came by and talked to me and every award I got for that season, that was a big blessing. Being selected for the Shrine Bowl and winning the MVP there, it was all for him. Every time I got an award, I definitely thought about him.”
Brad told Wendy when he was 8 years old that one day he would graduate high school, earn a Division I scholarship to play football and reach the NFL.
Even though Wendy considered those aspirations to be far-fetched, Brad credits her for allowing him to stay on track to reaching his dreams thus far.
Wendy had two sons and another one on the way when she returned home from Bible study almost 12 years ago and was given the devastating news that her husband had died.
“When it happened, it was a shock. We got together as a family, his family and mine, and we went through it with help from God. … We just think of the good times we had and we just keep going on,” Wendy said. “When this first happened, I had no idea what I was going to do with two boys and an unborn child. The first thing I thought of was, ‘How am I going to raise three kids by myself?’ ”
Through hard work and sacrifices, Wendy raised three children who are constantly praised for their attitude and work ethic throughout the community.
“If Wendy were to write a book on how to be a parent, it would be a best-seller,” Pendleton football coach Paul Sutherland said.
Brad thinks back to all of the times his mom went without what she needed to make sure her boys were taken care of.
Wendy worked long hours before coming home to cook and clean. She was committed to providing the best life she could for her children.
“I remember countless nights that she brought food home and I wouldn’t see her eat, times she bought us clothes and wouldn’t buy herself clothes, times she bought us shoes to make sure we had shoes, and she would be going to work with holes in one of hers,” Brad said. “It was countless sacrifices that she made.”
At 6 years old, Brad was too young to grasp what it would mean to grow up without a father. The older he got, the more he appreciated everything his mom did.
“It didn’t really hit me until my freshman year of high school, seeing kids with both parents in the stands and you only have one,” Brad said. “You see your mom struggling, and why’s she struggling? Because she’s a single parent with three boys. I just prayed to God a lot and stayed strong in my faith and relied on my mom, and we got through it together. She helped us out.”
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
While Wendy was making sure her children had their needs met, others helped mold Brad and his older brother, John, into strong football players.
John was a three-year starter at Pendleton on the offensive line before Brad came along and was a star for the Bulldogs.
Brad credits his coaches in recreation league, middle school and high school for making sure he reached his potential, in addition to the natural ability he received from his dad, who was also a standout defensive lineman at Pendleton.
“He was athletic from all of the stories I get. … They would tell me, ‘You were out there that one play, you looked just like your dad out there,’ ” Brad said. “It definitely made me happy that he was remembered in that way and he had the same interests as me with playing ball and stuff like that. To be able to get those abilities from him was always a good thing, too.”
Pendleton secondary coach Jason Rhodes was a teammate of John and said the similarities between Brad and his father are obvious.
“Probably one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen, especially at that age. He was benching in high school close to 400 pounds, and back then weightlifting wasn’t as common as it is now. He was just naturally strong. It was unbelievable,” Rhodes said. “He wasn’t as athletic as Brad, but he demanded a lot of double-team blocks similar to how Brad was in high school. You couldn’t block him with one person. He played defensive tackle as opposed to end, but both had great motors.”
Wendy never saw her husband play football, but has heard similar stories.
“I’ve had coaches and some of my husband’s friends tell me Brad plays just like him, acts just like him,” she said. “Me being his wife and watching Brad grow up the way he has, he does act like him a lot as far as having the will power to do something. When he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.”
RETURNING THE FAVOR
From an early age, Brad has insisted he will play in the NFL. While Wendy doubted him as an elementary school kid, she doesn’t anymore.
Brad enters his freshman season at South Carolina with high expectations after being rated as the fifth-best recruit in the Gamecocks’ 2017 class by the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Brad is motivated not only to prove himself right, but to give back to his mom for all of the sacrifices she has made.
“My mom is my backbone. I can talk with her about anything. She’s a hard-worker. She puts everybody else before herself on a daily basis. She’s just a great person, really, all-around. Without her I couldn’t say that me or my brothers could be where we are. She kept us out of trouble and kept us on the right path,” Brad said. “That’s part of what drives me every day. … She’s going to get repaid.”
Brad Johnson bio
Position: Defensive line
High school: Pendleton
Rating: Four-star prospect, the No. 22 weakside defensive end and the No. 311 overall prospect in the country, according to the 247Sports
How USC will use him: As a Buck, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker
Of note: The Gamecocks landed the top three players in the state for the class of 2017 in OrTre Smith, Shi Smith and Johnson
Quote: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this. This is the biggest accomplishment of my life so far, and I can’t wait to see what God has in store for me.”