Senior Feature: Princeton’s Own Johnny Football
The football traveled majestically through the Indiana night, destined for the hands of the greatest scoring receiver to ever wear the Orange and Black. It was only the second ball he had thrown in competition as the full-time starting quarterback, but he didn’t need a third to know what was happening.
“It’s go time,” thought John Lovett. “The season’s here.”
And Lovett, the former Bushnell Cup recipient and All-American, was back.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace sat in his office during the 2014 season and laughed about this freshman who had just dominated the previous J.V. game.
“We have our own Johnny Football,” he said. “They couldn’t stop him.”
This was high praise at the time. Two years after the original, Johnny Manziel, took home the Heisman Trophy after a dominant season as the do-everything quarterback at Texas A&M, Surace was seeing some of the same on-field traits in this freshman from Wantagh, N.Y.
It wasn’t a great surprise to either coach or player. Lovett didn’t lack athletic role models within his family; his father was a collegiate pitcher, and two of his three older sisters played lacrosse at Georgetown. Sports was his passion, and he played them all — football, basketball, and lacrosse. His parents sent him to DeMatha Catholic, a premier prep school that has produced professional athletes like Markelle Fultz, Victor Oladipo, Cameron Wake, and Lovett’s teammate and fellow DeMatha captain, Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Lovett led DeMatha Catholic to a state championship and a Top 20 national ranking, and there was a time when he pictured doing the same in front of 100,000 fans on a Saturday night.
“Like any athlete growing up, I dreamed of playing the biggest football I could possibly play,” he said. “I was a huge Notre Dame fan. I had some Division IA offers, but once I took into account academics and the totality of the college experience, there were only a select few schools that would supersede going to an Ivy League school, if any.”
The one he chose was Princeton, which was coming off a 2013 Ivy League championship season led by an offense that used as many as three different quarterbacks at the time. Quarterbacks Quinn Epperly, later a strong mentor for Lovett, and Connor Michelsen had to navigate the challenges of playing in a multi-quarterback system, but they did so to create a historic — and championship — offense.
That potential was once again there for Princeton once Lovett walked into a locker room where Chad Kanoff was poised to be the starter.
You can — and probably will — watch Lovett play for 30 seconds to appreciate his passion for the sport.
“I love the game of football, so I love all aspects of it,” he said. “Running the ball, throwing the ball, catching the ball, handing it off and looking to block, I love it all.”
More than that, he did it all. As a sophomore during the 2015 season, he was used as many ways as possible and helped Princeton go 5-2 before suffering a season-ending injury. With more confidence in this utility standout, the offense put even more in for Lovett. No game was more representative of his abilities than one in Ithaca, where he rushed for four touchdowns, threw for two (including a 95-yard strike) and caught one in a 56-7 road win.
That was the week Lovett knew he was part of something special, but it wasn’t necessarily because of that game. One week earlier, a Princeton comeback fell just short in overtime of a 23-20 heartbreaker loss to Harvard.
“The practice following the tough loss to Harvard was the best practice we had all year,” he remembered. “It really showed the mentality of the team. We were going to keep fighting. The next game was Cornell, and we pounded them. I knew after that practice, we wouldn’t lose another game.”
He was right. The week after the Cornell game, Princeton shut out previously unbeaten Penn 28-0 to stay in the Ivy race. Harvard dropped two games in November, and Princeton sprinted across the finish line as Ivy champions. Less than three weeks later, he was in New York City receiving the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, which ended a season in which he broke the Princeton record for rushing touchdowns (20) and he accounted for 31 touchdowns overall (20 rush, 10 pass, 1 receive), which was more than five Ivy League teams scored all season.
Oh, and he did it all with a broken shoulder.
The Princeton offense has been celebrated for its unpredictability over the last half decade, but there was nothing unpredictable when the Tigers got close to the goal line. Lovett — and, unbeknownst to most, his broken shoulder — would line up in the shotgun, take the snap and run over a smaller linebacker who had little chance to stop him in the first place.
“You just score,” Lovett said of his mindframe on those plays. “It’s a mentality. I knew that was a big role of mine for the team, to get the ball in the end zone from the goal line. As much as it hurt, it was more adrenaline. It hurt more Saturday night, but I wasn’t going to let that take me away from the game.”
Both he and Kanoff posted All-Ivy seasons in 2016, and neither ever begrudged the other for the attention or credit they received.
“As players, it was a very competitive environment at the time,” Lovett said. “Coach [James] Perry (the the Princeton offensive coordinator and now the head coach at Bryant) brought that out in us, and he always said the best 11 would play. I took that as, if you’re part of that group, you would have an opportunity to play. We both did a great job of bringing out the best in each other and getting ourselves ready to play. I knew I had the ability to make an impact, no matter what position I played. It didn’t mean I was necessarily settling or always happy with it, but it was what was best for the team. It made me a better player as a result.”
And it made Princeton a championship team.
That shoulder wasn’t finished impacting Princeton, however. Rehabilitation seemed to go well through the winter and most of the spring, though it popped out a couple times later in the offseason practices. It got worse later in lifting sessions, and it eventually got to the point that it would pop out on the subway while Lovett traveled to his summer job.
Surgery was the last resort for Lovett, who desperately wanted to join his rising senior classmates in an attempt to defend the title, but he knew the time had come. His shoulder had gotten bad enough that he would be severely limited in 2017, and that wouldn’t help either himself of his teammates. He made the painful decision to get the surgery and spend the season on the sideline, where he watched Kanoff put together one of the most historic passing seasons in league history and win his own Bushnell Cup.
“It was incredibly frustrating not to play senior year, but the blessing in disguise was a benefit to both Chad any myself,” he said. “It gave him an opportunity, which he capitalized on tremendously to be the guy. Everybody saw the season he had. Now for me to have the offense, it’s been a great experience so far.”
Kanoff ended up signing a contact with the Arizona Cardinals, where he made the practice squad for a team with only one other quarterback under the age of 28. And while Kanoff is doing all he can to build an NFL career, he has been thrilled that others have been able to see in Lovett what he always knew was there.
“It’s awesome, he’s really fun to watch, and I’m really happy for him and the whole team,” Kanoff said from Arizona. “I am not surprised at all at the success he’s having taking every snap at quarterback. He’s always been a really good passer in addition to being a freak athlete. That’s a pretty lethal combination.”
It certainly has been so far this season.
Princeton has put up scoring totals through four games unlike any for this program since 1888, and it set a single-game record when it put up 733 yards in a 66-7 victory over Lehigh last weekend. Lovett leads the FCS in points responsible for per game (27.5), ranks second in passing efficiency (187.5), and fourth in rushing yards per carry (8.98). He has been the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week more times (three) than he hasn’t been (two) this season.
Are NFL scouts noticing? Probably. They are around all the time.
Does Lovett want them to notice? Absolutely. His size, speed and football instincts seem to fit perfectly at the next level.
Is Lovett concerned right now? No chance. He’ll worry about that in a little over six weeks. After all, football was taken from him once. He’s appreciating every moment now.
“Coach Gleeson says, now we have six more games, if you’re lucky,” Lovett said. “You can’t take any games for granted. You’ve seen friends of mine that haven’t been as fortunate with their injuries. Take every single practice like a game. Every time I buckle up my chinstrap, it’s a blessing.”
And he isn’t about it waste this blessing.