Johnson’s work finally pays off


Vision, speed, quickness and power.

Qualities that LeShon Johnson utilized to perfection and in the process produced what could be argued as the greatest single season for a player in NIU history.

However, before we look at his accomplishments over a two-year career at NIU and his achievements in junior college and high school, there is another side to this potential All-American, Heisman Trophy candidate and Doak National Running Back award nominee.

It is a side that few people realize exists.

The accolades that have and will be bestowed upon this young man do not measure up to his presence and focused mind that is sure to lead him into a future full of success. Sure, he’s said and done some things that have made people wonder exactly where his priorities are, but he’s human and learning from those mistakes.

In the beginning, his road to a major university was not at all a bed of roses. While in Haskell, Oklahoma at Haskell High School in a senior class of 53 students and 280 in the entire school itself, college scouts and scholarships were not only rare—both were unheard of.

Even given the rarity of someone from Haskell making it into the major college scene, one man saw potential and was sure of Johnson’s abilities. If he could get LeShon to follow the right paths, things would eventually work out.

During the “Cowboy’s” senior year Jim Reece, LeShon’s head coach, and had a different routine set aside for a kid that screamed potential.

“After football season (is over) the seniors get to go home at two o’clock if they weren’t in another sport,” Johnson explained. “He made me lift with the juniors and underclassmen. I was mad because I didn’t know why he was just making me (stay). One day I asked him and he told me ‘I want to send you to college and I want you to walk on at this junior college.'”

Reece remembers his former tailback as the most dedicated player he has seen during his 17-year coaching career.

“I’ve never a person work like LeShon did,” Reece said. “He never took a day off a day from practice and he got stronger every day. I can’t tell he’s changed one bit. He still comes around every time he’s in town.”

The reason Johnson eventually made it to a major college stemmed from the relentless efforts of Reece sending film and calling junior colleges to promote this 170-pound sensation.

“It was all his work that got me this far,” Johnson said.

Even after all the film was sent nobody offered a scholarship to the “Cowboy.” Reece told LeShon he should walk on at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, which has produced several superstar runningbacks, including James Wilder, Marion Butts and Vaughn Dunbar. After all the film had been sent and the coaches saw the youngster in person, Johnson’s name was etched into the roster for two seasons.

He picked up 1,301 yards and 16 touchdowns with the Norsemen, and then the big schools came calling and LeShon began looking.

Johnson made a list of 28 Division I schools he wanted to play for, including Tennessee, Ole‘ Miss, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Arkansas. Eventually the school that impressed Johnson the most was Tennessee.

“I remember coming from the football locker room and there was like 90,000-something people standing in a line and I knew right then it was the place for me,” Johnson said. “I fell in love with it that same day.

“They took me in the locker room and I even got to sign a football. Some little kid thought I played for Tennessee. I remember signing the football and my host, he started laughing.”

Johnson’s dream of playing for the Volunteers came to an abrupt halt when the office of admissions discovered he was a couple credits short of being able to transfer. Out in the cold, Johnson looked to Reece for guidance.

“My high school coach talked me into flying up to Northern and I flew up here and signed that same day,” Johnson said.

The main reason for his signing came from the honesty of offensive coordinator Joe Dickinson.

“When he was recruiting me that day I felt like he was telling me the truth, even though it may have meant losing me. He told me, ‘It’s not a big time school here and you may not get the publicity that you want.”

While at NIU few people came out to see this phenomenon from Haskell run—even at his own stadium.

Less than 10,000 fans attended the final game of his storybook season to see the “Cowboy” off. The reception he was given sounded more like the national anthem had just ended instead of one that a Heisman Trophy candidate deserves. Even when LeShon had the most unbelievable day of his career at Iowa, there were less than 20,000 people left when the final gun sounded.

He now has an NFL future in his eyes and will finally get his wish of playing in front of a sea of fans cheering his touchdown runs, instead of throwing marshmallows the entire game.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing in front of a big crowd,” Johnson said.

It looks like he’ll get his wish soon enough.