Football and family are great motivators for James Johnson.
By Craig Sachson
The third of four brothers destined to play college football, competition was second nature in the Johnson household. It was “a healthy competition” as he called it, and it pushed them all to succeed in both the classroom and on the football field. Simply knowing a neighborhood football game awaited him daily motivated James to get his homework done immediately.
Parents Paul and Regina Johnson weren’t going to let their kids slack academically — and since their four kids went to either Amherst or Princeton, they clearly succeeded in that goal. Football was always there to push him, to motivate him, to provide the next goal.
So what happened when football was taken from James Johnson? He turned to his other great motivator, family — both immediate and the one he built at Princeton.
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Following in the footsteps of older brothers Paul (Amherst Class of 2017) and Tom (Princeton Class of 2019) could have been a burden, but James saw it in a different, and far healthier, light.
“It wasn’t a burden; it was a blessing,” he said. “I was able to see how they succeeded, how they failed. It was never a competition. I talk to Tom all the time, and he would tell me some of the mistakes he made.”
His mistakes were few and far between throughout his time at Princeton, which ended with Tom being a co-captain on the first undefeated Tiger team since 1964. Tom grew into one of the program’s great leaders and linebackers, and James — while being a standout player at St. Joe’s Prep in the Philadelphia area — took note of both his brother’s development and love for the program.
“I saw how well he was treated there,” James said. “Tom told me to pick the school I loved for me, not for him. Princeton was the dream for me, and I accepted the offer as soon as I could.”
Little did James know that he would be able to assist his big brother in the pursuit of that perfect 2018 season. Both Johnsons played inside linebacker, and James ended up making 24 tackles as a key member of the defensive rotation. As much as he enjoyed the success of that season, he also learned what leadership is all about, and how a culture is built.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” James said. “To see how [Tom] led — not just him, but guys like John [Lovett], Kurt [Holuba], Mark [Fossati] — and how they all leaned on each other, it was a great opportunity for me to learn as a young player. You wanted to play for them.”
That type of culture matters in football. But James was about to find out how much it mattered in life as well.
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Eight-win seasons aren’t easy to come by, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. For many Ivy League players who are limited to 10 games per season, a single eight-win season would be a career highlight.
And yet, the 2019 Princeton season left Johnson unsatisfied.
“We had a great culture that year, and we held ourselves to such a high standard,” he said about an All-Ivy season in which he led the team with 68 tackles. “We felt like we left some things on the table. That helped us decide that we needed to play one more season together. 8-2 is a very good year, but we have a very high standard.”
That feeling of needing to give it one more try was the decision he and his classmates faced when the COVID pandemic shut down football (and just about everything else) in the spring of 2020.
“It was scary, but it was comforting to get together as a group,” James said, remembering the first virtual meeting following the cancellation announcement. “That’s what carried me through the darkest times. We would watch video, get on FaceTime while lifting, trying to stay connected. Sometimes it would get dark or get stale, but our culture pushed us all.”
That culture pushed Johnson to a level of appreciation he probably wouldn’t have otherwise reached last Saturday, when Princeton shut down — and shut out — Lehigh 32-0 in the Tigers’ first game in 665 days.
“Not a lot of people get a second chance,” he said. “I am so appreciative to the coaches, administration, and everybody who sacrificed so that we could get back on the field. I will forever be grateful for all the sacrifices made for us.”
And while that gratitude will remain for quite some time, Johnson is also happy to focus now on the task at hand. He watched his older brother win an Ivy League title in his senior season. He knows how important it was to model good leadership, a responsibility he now assumes for younger brother Liam and the rest of a talented underclassman core.
One of six senior captains, Johnson knows it is his turn to lead both on and off the field. The off-the-field leadership has been going on for nearly two years. On the field, he is a relentless linebacker, going sideline to sideline to make plays. He’ll enter Saturday’s home opener with 114 career tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks.
“He is a high energy, smart and physical player,” said head coach Bob Surace. “He is loved and respected by his teammates and coaches. He’s the ultimate leader. If he has a bad day, and we all do, he never shows it. He is positive, focused and always thinking about the team first.”
Football and family. They have driven James Johnson for as long as he could remember, and now that he has another opportunity to play for both, you can be sure he will take full advantage.