Seated beneath a plaque honoring the achievements of his uncle and former North Central and then, Super Bowl champion cornerback Tyronne Drakeford, Omar Johnson smiled as he signed a National Letter of Intent to play football at Methodist College.
Sitting to the North Central senior’s left was his father and former Camden High basketball standout James “Bo” Johnson. Having a father who starred on the hardwood and an uncle who went on to play for the Sand Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and the Washington Redskins, Omar Johnson could have been pulled in two different directions. Instead, he split it down the middle.
An outside linebacker for Louis Clyburn’s Knights in the fall, Johnson traded his cleats for sneakers; starting at guard for Andy Johnson’s basketball squad in the winter months. The decision to play football, though, was one which took hold of Johnson while he was still in grammar school.
“Playing football started when I was about eight and playing in the recreation league,” he said with a smile. “I just wanted to try it and see how it felt. I liked it and then, I decided to keep going with it.”
As he asked his dad’s permission to play football, Bo Johnson never stopped his son. Instead, he encouraged Omar to see if he liked the sport. If he did great if not, there was always basketball.
“He was like, ‘You can try it if you want to and see if you like it or not,’” Johnson said of his father’s reaction to playing football. “That’s how it went. I’m going to miss basketball, but football is where my heart is.”
At 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, Johnson might not be the most imposing figure on the football field. But this past season, his first varsity campaign which was not hindered by his missing games due to a sprained ankle, the three-year starter piled up 55 tackles while picking off three passes and returning two for touchdowns in a win over Whitmire. He also had a 24-yard fumble recovery to go along with 13 tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback sacks.
Being healthy for an entire season played a pivotal role in Johnson’s senior year said Clyburn.
“I told all the college recruiters who came through here that this was the first time in three years that Omar went through the whole year without having a sprained ankle. That was the difference,” Clyburn said. “He went through our off-season conditioning program and the speed and agility work we did paid off tremendously.
“Those pick sixes and the behind the line tackles were because of that suddenness and that instinct for the ball. At the same time, I thought he had it the prior two years but he was hindered at one point or another with those sprained ankles.”
More than one school inquired as to Johnson’s services, some of those bigger than Methodist, an NCAA Division III entry located in Fayetteville, N.C. In the end, however, Johnson and his parents came to the conclusion that bigger did not necessarily mean better, especially when it came to academics.
“I think things happen for a reason,” said Clyburn who was a basketball teammate of Bo Johnson’s at Camden High. “Methodist is a great fit for him academically. He had a couple other options at bigger schools, but they did not have engineering and weren’t the right fit, academically. He and his parents were mature enough to say, ‘Let’s not make this choice strictly based on football. We want this to be an academic decision, as well.’ That’s why Methodist is getting such a fine football player and person in Omar.”
When asked his reasons for signing with Methodist, Johnson said football was not the sole reason for his decision to sign with the Monarchs.
“I chose Methodist because they have the best qualities that I’m looking for, school-wise, and football-wise. You get the best of both worlds by going there,” he said. “I’m very excited about going there.”
Off the field, Johnson said the biggest challenge for him will be the same as for any freshmen who is leaving home for the first time and being on their own. He also said the academic side will present as many, if not more, challenges than will the football end of the deal. “You have to really bear down both on the football field and academically,” he said.
Slated to remain at outside linebacker in college, Clyburn said he feels Johnson can see the field early, which will help with his making the adjustment to college life as a whole.
“I think Methodist is getting a heck of a linebacker,” said the NC boss. “Omar’s a little undersized with his height which kept some of the bigger schools away, but I let them know that with his instincts, his football knowledge and the whole package, they were missing the boat.
“I think he will be an immediate impact player. I think he’s going to have a chance to play outside linebacker for them as a freshman and really contribute early. That will make for a better overall college experience for him.”
Like his uncle Tyronne, Johnson has a nose for the football as evidenced by his interceptions and fumble returns. He credits studying film of opponents and learning the tendencies of the offense for his being in the right place at the right time.
Saying he knows the competition will be better and the demands on his time greater in college, Johnson said he will take the advice given to him by his uncle and put his own work ethic to use at Methodist.
“He told me not to expect people to hold your hand. You’re going to have to work in college,” Johnson said of the advice he gleaned from his uncle. “It’s going to be more talent and better competition on the field. I just have to keep working hard and when I think that I want to quit, keep going and not quitting at all.”
Clyburn said Methodist is getting the entire package in the person and student-athlete which is Omar Johnson.
“It doesn’t get any better as far as his foundation of integrity and work ethic are concerned,” he said. “When you watch Omar and the way he carries himself around school you could tell that he is an outstanding young man.”