Football: QB brings morale despite injury

Football: QB brings morale despite injury

When Neil Johnson talks about football, his lips curl into a gentle half-smile, as though he were talking about a beautiful girl or a fond memory.

“I don’t even know what I would be without it,” he said. “It’s probably going to be the biggest void in my life as soon as it’s over.”

Johnson, a senior quarterback for the Huskies, has never wavered in his love for the game, even after three knee surgeries forced him to sit out two seasons and watch younger quarterbacks like Anthony Orio and John Sperrazza take the field.

After redshirting the 2002 season, Johnson appeared in four games in his freshman campaign. His first career appearance came in the 2003 season-opener, a 78-6 blowout of Stonehill. He rushed eight times for 73 yards, including a career-long 36-yard carry.

This season, Johnson has played in five games for the Huskies on special teams. He took his first snap at quarterback since his freshman season at Richmond Sept. 30.

But Johnson hasn’t merely stuck by the team. Head coach Rocky Hager said Johnson has been a morale-booster for his team, remaining positive through his injuries and rehabilitation until he’s strong enough to train for the next season.

“He’s a positive force,” Hager said. “He doesn’t let little things drag him down. For that matter I don’t think he lets big things drag him down.”

And there have been plenty of things that could have. Johnson’s first knee surgery was during his sophomore year of high school, when he tore his right ACL. He then began a laborious recovery process, which became familiar to him in the years to come.

Johnson said after the ligament tore and stiffened, he had to spend a few weeks strengthening his whole leg so it could support the ACL after surgery. Then after the surgery, he spent about three weeks on crutches before he could walk again. During that time, doctors assigned him gradual exercises like squats and balances to regain the strength in his leg.

He repeated this same process in the spring of 2004 and then spring 2005 for his left ACL. It caused him to miss both seasons, which he said put a strain on him since football is so central to his life.

“I was part of the team off the field, but on the field, it’s almost like you have to remove yourself from the mentality,” Johnson said. “You’re still rehabbing, so it wasn’t the same mentality of preparing each week for the game. The guys would be on different pages in that aspect. It’s almost like you’re doing your rehab on your own.”

Johnson said his entire social circle revolves around the team, which is what made rehab so difficult and sometimes lonely.

“It’s my fifth year here, and I probably only have like two other associates that I actually hang out with other than guys on the football team,” he said. “You gain friendship through hardship. Everybody’s going through the same thing.”

The graphic design major has always found camaraderie in sports, and has played football since he was in eighth grade. A native of New Britain, Conn., he explored several colleges his senior year of high school and chose Northeastern when he was offered a scholarship.

Although statistically that scholarship might have been a bad investment, Hager said Johnson’s contributions to the team more than compensate for his lack of time on the field. He described a game against James Madison earlier this season, when Johnson gave a halftime speech to his teammates that inspired them to play much better in the second half.

“Neil is going to be extraordinary when he gets his degree and is in the working world,” Hager said. “Because of the energy he brings to the table and how he has a positive attitude.”

Sophomore quarterback Anthony Orio said as a teammate, Johnson is an asset to the field and to the locker room.

“He plays a fair deal of special teams and he’s out there throwing his body around,” Orio said. “You look at him and you just want to play harder … It makes you feel glad to be his teammate.”

Orio said Johnson also adds an element of fun before the games that gets everyone ready to play.

“I think definitely he’s a guy who tries to keep the atmosphere loose. He keeps me loose as a quarterback,” Orio said. “When we’re stretching in the locker room before a game, he’s always hootin’ and hollerin’ and getting us ready to play.”

Hager said the senior’s ability to psyche up the team would make him good material for coaching someday, if he decided on such a path.

“If Neil were a coach, I’d be proud to have my child play for him,” Hager said. “He’s a champion, he’s a keeper. He’s won my heart.”

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