SENIOR FEATURE: TOM JOHNSON
If you missed last week’s episode of Beyond The Stripes, which featured the Johnson brothers, check it out here.
The following story is from the Dartmouth game program.
Today may be the biggest game in the 20+ year history of Princeton Stadium, but don’t expect to see nerves from Princeton captain Tom Johnson. This is nothing new to him.
Competition was the centerpiece of Johnson’s life growing up in nearby Moorestown, N.J. He was the guy who chose to challenge a wrestling teammate who outweighed him by 100 pounds, or had to tackle a football teammate through a tree to save a backyard touchdown … and if it cost that tree yet another branch, so be it.
Johnson didn’t have to look far for those challengers either, because they were more than just teammates.
They were his brothers.
Paul and Regina Johnson met at Holy Cross, where Paul was a walk-on linebacker for the football team. The two married and had four kids, each about two years apart from each other: Paul, Tom, James, and Liam. Boys, and lots of them, but save your sympathy for Regina about not having a daughter.
“I’m not sure she could do girls, and she admits that,” said Tom. “She loves the chaos. You’d never catch us inside. We always had three other guys to wreak havoc with.”
Don’t bother asking any of the boys about TV shows from their childhood, because they weren’t watching. They spent the majority of their waking hours outside, playing one sport or another, even if football was the favorite of all.
“My dad is still trying to fix the lower branches on the trees in our backyard from the number of times we threw each other into them,” Tom remembers. “The grass is still all chewed up. We were out there every day. It’s the benefit of having three brothers, and then a neighborhood full of kids the same age as you. We never stepped foot inside.”
There were the occasional fights — Paul once punched Tom in the face, dropped him off at home, apologized to his mom about his bloodied younger brother and left, all of which Tom admits he probably deserved — but the four are as close as you get. They are brothers by nature but best friends by choice, and Tom believes their presence played a major role in who he is today.
Who exactly is Tom Johnson today? He is the reigning first-team All-Ivy middle linebacker for a Princeton squad that ranks in the Top 10 in both total and scoring defense. He is a captain, as voted by his teammates, and a tireless worker on the field.
Johnson is second on the team with 41 tackles this year, which is a far cry from the team-best 95 he posted last year, but that has far more to do with the talent around him. He is still a central force in one of the nation’s best run defenses, and when his team needed him most, Johnson came through. During the 29-21 win at Harvard two weeks ago, when the Crimson offensive line played to a virtual draw against Princeton’s defensive front, Johnson responded with a 10-tackle game, which included a sack during a critical third-quarter Harvard drive.
His leadership and talent have helped Princeton to its best start since 1995, and to today’s Top 20 showdown with Dartmouth. He’ll play with the same boyish enthusiasm that he did in those backyard games with Moorestown, and if he could take out another tree branch, he’d be happy to do so.
None of this is a surprise to head coach Bob Surace, whose staff recruited Johnson while he was helping revive a now-dominant St.Joseph’s Prep program in Philadelphia. His impact was immediate enough that he earned Princeton’s Top Defensive Freshman Award in 2015, and he moved into the strongside linebacker position during the 2016 championship season.
Johnson was more of a role player that season, but he’ll accept that term with his head held high.
“We had a guy named Dorian Williams playing nickel back that season, so when he went in, he didn’t come out,” Johnson said. “It was good for me to learn to play a role, to make the most of the reps I got and be part of that great defense. It was a special thing to be a part of. When you see guys working that hard, it’s about doing your best, because you don’t want to let that guy down. When you have guys thinking that way, it’s a good thing for your team.”
That team won a championship, and two of biggest contributors were inside linebackers Luke Catariusand Rohan Hylton, both of whom graduated after the season. Johnson was a natural fit on the inside, and after a slow start in the first couple weeks of his junior season, he found his footing. He ended the season with 95 tackles, including 7.5 for losses, and was the lone Princeton defensive player on the 2017 All-Ivy League First Team.
How did he react? He apologized.
“That was a tough time for me, to be truthful,” Johnson said after a 5-5 season, when an injury-ravaged defense struggled over the final month. “I’ve never been about individual recognition. If you look at where the team ended up statistically, I think that reflects more on the player than an individual award. For me, it was about apologies to the guys on our offense who had such a spectacular year.”
Johnson won two state titles at St. Joseph’s Prep, so winning two Ivy League titles at Princeton seems like it would be a perfect way to cap his story. It drove him in the offseason and through a season-opening 50-7 win at Butler, when Johnson was one of the leading tacklers for Princeton.
It wasn’t Tom, though. It was his sophomore brother, James, the backup middle linebacker who is also having an impactful season.
James has the same drive as his brother, so he is competing for as much playing time as possible. But he also calls his brother a mentor, and knows that he can learn plenty from watching Tom.
“Tom is a high-motor guy,” James said. “He’s a high-motor guy who’s intelligent, so he knows where he needs to be at all times. Maybe he’s not the biggest or the fastest, but he’s always in the right place. He’s always running from sideline to sideline.”
The competitive apple didn’t fall from the Johnson tree and only hit Tom. The family makes each other better, and James has picked the right standard to measure his own growth.
“I always look to try to better Tom, I always try to one-up Tom,” James said. “I’ve been doing that forever. I will continue to do that forever. He sets a pristine example for being great in everything. Being great on the football field, being great in the classrom, he has set the example, and I’m trying to better that.”
The concept of brotherhood clearly means something to the Johnson family, but it also doesn’t just get limited to the Johnson family. Accountability to each other has played a massive role in the success of Princeton throughout the 2018 season, and the closeness of the group — strengthened by losses and injuries and offseason workouts over four years — has been evident every Saturday this fall.
Something else has been evident, and it likely runs together with the close bond of this team. Watch the joy they celebrate each other — far more than themselves — and you get a sense of what fuels them.
“I think that’s why we all do it at the end of the day,” said Tom Johnson, who will graduate next year with an economics degree. “There’s some guys here who have a chance to do this at the next level, but for the majority of us, that’s not the case. It’s about the love I have for the game, the love my teammates, my brothers have for the game. You understand that you’re out there to play well and have fun with it. It’s not just when you’re winning, but when you’re flying around and making plays.”
Johnson has spent a lifetime making plays. A precious few have come in front of a Princeton crowd that has taken to this particular squad like few before them. The majority came away from the TV cameras, and in backyards or living rooms, practice fields or neighborhood common areas. It didn’t matter to Johnson.
He was there with his brothers — those by birth and those by choice — and he was living the life the way his family taught him.