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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prayers answered: Steven Johnson’s strenuous journey leads to rewarding opportunity to start at linebacker for KU

Steven Johnson has benefited from his determination to work through various injuries. After tearing the ACL and LCL in his knee in high school, Johnson didn’t know whether he’d be able to play football again. His perseverance led him to being an invited walk-on at Kansas. He received a scholarship offer one year later in his sophomore year. This year, his junior year, Johnson will be starting at linebacker.

Steven Johnson has benefited from his determination to work through various injuries. After tearing the ACL and LCL in his knee in high school, Johnson didn’t know whether he’d be able to play football again. His perseverance led him to being an invited walk-on at Kansas. He received a scholarship offer one year later in his sophomore year. This year, his junior year, Johnson will be starting at linebacker.

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Steven Johnson

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Contributed photo

Steven Johnson

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Steven Johnson, right, with former Philadelphia Eagles running back Duce Staley.

This past Thursday, Harry Jones made his way down to the oceanview fitness center at the Marriott Harbor Beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was time for his early-morning ride on the stationary bike.

Jones, a pastor from Media, Pa., was celebrating his 30th anniversary with his wife, Dorrine, during a weeklong vacation.

When he arrived, a young man — blond hair, blue eyes — was making his way from machine to machine, sporting a heavy brace on his leg.

“What’s going on with you?” Jones asked him.

“I tore my ACL,” the young man replied.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson sits on the steps on the north side of the Kansas University football practice facility, his arms resting on his knees in front of him.

The junior linebacker — with brown eyes, curly black hair and a few scraggly hairs on his chin straining to form a goatee — wants to talk about the upcoming season.

“I kind of like to think of this whole team as like a quiet storm,” Steven says. “Nobody really knows about us.”

The same can be said about Steven. How did he get to KU? Where did he come from? And why, after three years in the program, has his playing time been limited to mostly meaningless snaps here and there?

The answers are all out there. To find them, you’ll have to talk to the father who supported him, the coach who admired him, the mentor who looked out for him.

They’ll tell you the story of Steven Johnson: a man who persevered when it would have been much easier not to.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Jean Wootson was always encouraged to keep her son in football.

Even when Steven Johnson was only 5 years old, others were telling his mother that he needed to keep playing the sport — that he was going to be somebody someday.

Steven didn’t need much convincing.

“Every high school paper, every high school report, every elementary whatever,” Wootson says, “he wrote about football.”

It still took Steven a long time to get his chance in his hometown of Media, Pa.

He didn’t make the Strath Haven High School varsity squad until his senior year. But when he did, he turned in one of the best seasons in school history.

He led the state in tackles with 123, earning first-team all-county and second-team All-State honors.

Because he’d thrived so late in his career, Steven’s options for college were limited to smaller schools.

But his mentor, pastor Harry Jones, wouldn’t let him settle.

Steven started attending Jones’ Bible study every Wednesday night during his senior year.

The pastor took a special interest in Steven; after watching him wreak havoc on offenses during his senior year, Jones knew the kid could play Div. I.

“I knew he had something,” Jones says, “so I just tried to give him some direction.”

Steven took recruiting visits to the small colleges, but Jones always told him the same thing: “Don’t commit there. You’re better than that.”

Jones helped send tape of Steven to Wyoming Seminary College Prep School in Kingston, Pa. The coach liked what he saw and agreed to accept Steven.

If Steven performed well in his one year there, surely he would have the chance to be re-recruited by Div. I schools.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson hated when the question came up during his year at prep school.

His classmates would talk about the Div. I schools they were going to attend: Connecticut, Colgate, Robert Morris.

Then they’d ask Steven what school he was going to.

“I don’t know,” was his only answer.

For the first few weeks, everything was working out at Wyoming Seminary College Prep School. Steven was playing well, and college coaches were taking note. Georgia Tech expressed interest. So did Temple.

But, during the fifth game of the season, everything changed. While playing as a receiver, Steven’s leg got stuck in some uneven turf during a simple flat route, and his knee hyperextended.

Steven tore the ACL and LCL in his knee, an injury that would require a full year of recovery time. Even then, nothing was guaranteed.

The school’s trainer told him flat out that not many players came back from such an injury.

“They didn’t know,” Steven says, “if I’d be able to play football again.”

Steven still wanted to play. And he knew there was someone he needed to talk to — the one who’d helped him get to prep school in the first place.

That night, over the phone, Steven and Harry Jones prayed together that Steven would be able to continue his career.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It wasn’t a surprise after the injury that the Div. I college coaches stopped calling. In fact, all the calls stopped.

Steven struggled to stay positive. He was depressed, letting himself get out of shape and overweight.

He became upset with the thought that he might not attend college. He prayed every night in his room, hoping that someone — anyone — would take a chance on him.

The answered prayer was delivered to Steven’s inbox.

Then-KU assistant coach Tim Beck sent an e-mail, asking Steven if he’d decided on a college yet. A few days later, Beck made an official offer. He told Steven that KU would love to have him as a walk-on.

When he received the note, Steven broke down.

KU was the only school that gave him an invitation. And it was a Div. I program in the Big 12 Conference.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson Sr. knew his back was against the wall.

After filling out all the student loan forms, his son still was not cleared to attend KU.

Steven Sr. was told that his son had to pay up front before enrolling for the next semester. The total out-of-state cost came to about $10,000 a semester, or $20,000 a year.

“I had to do something,” Steven Sr. says, “or I would be crying with him.”

When his son was in high school, Steven Sr. had bought an older hair salon in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Upper Darby, Pa. He paid for it himself, renovated it and opened it, calling it “Suburban Hair Company.” He’s been working at his own barbershop and salon ever since.

After asking a few friends for a personal loan, Steven Sr. decided on a different option: He mortgaged his own barbershop to the tune of $100,000.

It was a risk, sure. But the risk was worth it when Steven Sr. was able to send a check to KU for his son’s tuition.

“I had to do what I had to do,” Steven Sr. says. “I don’t think I could take looking at his face if he didn’t want to stay. Because if he went to a school he didn’t want to be at, he wouldn’t do well.

“If that’s where he wanted to be, that’s where I had to send him.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Back in the Marriott, Harry Jones introduced himself to the young man, who explained he was strengthening his knee for an operation next week.

Jones couldn’t end the conversation without asking a question he’d been thinking about.

“Do you mind if I pray for you?”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

From his first day at KU, Steven Johnson’s goal was to earn his scholarship.

Money was tight. At the beginning of each semester, Steven received money from his dad that would have to last for the rest of the term. Steven cut some of his teammates’ hair for extra funds.

Though walk-ons don’t receive the same benefits or opportunities from coaches as scholarship players, Steven was determined to stand out.

After his freshman year, he wanted to train with the team in the summer, but didn’t have a place to live. He ended up staying in teammates Drew Dudley and Justin Springer’s apartment, sleeping on a mattress shoved in the corner of the living room.

The next summer, Chris Harris and Darrell Stuckey allowed Steven to move in. His bed was in the movie room, an area filled with several couches, some propped up on bricks so that the back rows could still see the TV.

Steven’s bed was a dark brown couch.

“It was hard,” Steven says, “but hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Steven also was living in Lawrence without a car, meaning he was depending entirely on teammates.

One day, everyone left workouts early. With no other option, Steven walked from Memorial Stadium back to the apartment — a nearly two-mile walk in the summer heat.

On the way home, he thought one thing: “I’ve got to earn my scholarship, because this is not going to fly.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Immediately, Steven Johnson reminded former KU defensive coordinator Bill Miller of another player — one from back in the late 1970s at Texas-Arlington, a walk-on safety that worked his way up the depth chart to earn a scholarship.

Steven looked like he might be on his way to doing the same thing.

“He earned everything that he got,” Miller says. “He wasn’t given anything.”

Miller says he often saw Steven outworking his peers, whether it was spending extra minutes in the film room, getting in a few more reps in the weight room or conditioning a little bit more.

During one linebackers position meeting, Steven says Miller even called him “king of the walk-ons,” praising him for outworking many of the scholarship athletes.

Miller says he couldn’t help but identify with Steven. Who could blame him? He’d seen a guy like Steven succeed before.

That safety back in the 1970s at Texas-Arlington — the one that worked his way up the depth chart and earned a scholarship and later became a two-year starter — was a young Bill Miller.

Thirty years later, Steven was walking the same path.

“He hung in there regardless of how bleak it looked,” Miller says. “I think he can be really proud. His family, his friends, they can all be very proud of what he did. Kansas should be really proud of him.

“He’s a great example of what college football is supposed to be about.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson wanted to stay at Kansas, but he knew that might not be possible.

After two years of paying out-of-state tuition without earning a scholarship, he knew the financial burdens of a third year might be too much. He might have to return home. His father had said he’d find a way to pay for him to stay at KU, but Steven wasn’t sure if that would be worth it.

There were times he’d break down while talking to his parents on the phone.

Late in the summer of 2009, Steven still was waiting.

One day, he received a text message from assistant coach Tommy Mangino, telling all scholarship players to report to pick up their checks.

Steven wondered why he received the message. He texted Mangino back, asking if he was on scholarship.

Mangino told him he wasn’t.

Then, two days before school started, KU director of football operations George Matsakis checked with Steven to make sure he had enrolled in 12 hours when he first arrived. Steven said he had.

“OK, that’s good,” Matsakis told him. “I might have some good news for you.”

The next day — the day before the fall semester — coach Mark Mangino pulled Steven to the side during warmups at practice.

A year later, Steven still remembers his coach’s exact words.

“I’m going to put you on scholarship tomorrow.”

Steven was overcome by his emotion and could hardly speak. His eyes started to water, and for a moment, he struggled to say anything.

“Thank you, sir,” was all he could muster before heading back to the warmup line.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson was close to playing last year. And he knew it.

He played through painful stingers in his shoulder, refusing to tell anyone about his ailment. He couldn’t; this was going to be his chance for significant playing time.

Steven was with the first-team linebackers until the week before the first game, when true freshman Huldon Tharp was placed in his starting position.

His opportunities outside of special teams were limited, though during mop-up time against Duke, he recorded a sack and two other tackles as a linebacker — his best performance as a Jayhawk.

Steven believed that might be the beginning of his playing time at linebacker. It turned out to be the end.

A couple weeks later, without warning, Steven was relegated from varsity to the scout team. Coach Mark Mangino’s orders.

What followed next, Steven says, was like a tug-of-war.

One time, the varsity and scout teams split up for separate drills. Steven started to head off with the scout team, but linebackers coach Bill Miller stopped him, telling him to stay and practice with the first unit.

A few minutes later, Miller came back to Steven, telling him he needed to go back with the scout team. Mangino wanted him down there.

“It was kind of hard for me to ask my coaches what I was doing wrong, because coach Miller would say, ‘Nothing,’” Steven says. “And I would be like, ‘Nothing? What do you mean?’ And then he’d be like, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Believe me, you’re doing nothing wrong.’”

Steven played only on special teams the rest of the season. He began to doubt that he’d ever get a chance to prove himself at linebacker.

His father asked Steven on the phone if he wanted to transfer. Steven told him no.

“Why not?” his dad asked.

“I’m here for a reason,” Steven said. “This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Every time Steven Sr. brought up transferring, his son would say the same thing: “I’m here for a reason.”

Steven Sr. always wanted to say more, but he bit his lip.

“I just always feel in my heart,” Steven Sr. says, “that he knew something I didn’t know.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Steven Johnson feels free.

His knee is the best it’s been since high school. Though he had minor surgery after the spring game to repair a tear in his lateral meniscus, he’s worked his way back into shape.

A new coaching staff has given him an opportunity, and a new coach has given him hope.

This is the reason he believed he belonged at Kansas: He will start at linebacker in this, his junior season. Now, it’s time to show what he can do.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

At around 6:30 a.m. in the fitness center of a Marriott, Harry Jones prayed aloud for the young man he’d just met. He prayed that his injury would not be career-threatening. He prayed that he would make it fine through his upcoming operation. He prayed that he would be able to continue his career.

There was no way the young man could have known that four years earlier, Jones had said nearly the same prayer for another down-on-his-luck athlete.

When the prayer was finished, the blond-haired, blue-eyed 20-something returned to his workout as the sun began to rise over the city.

Kerry Meier had work to do.

Comments

KU_Alumn_2000 4 years ago

Great Story - I had no idea about Steven's journey. Will be rooting big time for this guy. Thanks for sticking it out here at KU Steven.

Sometimes when guys have adversity to work through in order to climb the ladder of success...they tend to surpass expectations. A great example of this was Kerry Meier. Will never forget his interview following the announcement that Reesing beat him out at QB. He sounded crushed...but he never complained about it. He picked himself up...dealt with the adversity...and unselfishly decided he wanted to help his team in any way that he could. Kerry was better for it...and someday when he's healthy again...he will play on Sundays because of his character and leadership.

4 days until kickoff...it's time to get fired up !!!

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Nutflush21 4 years ago

Nice work Jesse. That's one of the best stories Ive read on this website. Best of luck to Steven Johnson. I hope he has a terrific season.

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Ron Prichard 4 years ago

Fantastic story, Jesse! This is the kind of player and person that make me proud to be a Jayhawk and I'm thrilled he's going to have a chance to play this year. More than just playing football, it is clear that with his determination and perseverance he will succeed with whatever he chooses to do in life. I wish you all the best, Mr. Johnson.

...and heres hoping that Kerry Meier makes a swift and complete recovery.

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lv_jhwk 4 years ago

"Kansas should be really proud of him."

We are.

Best of luck this season, Steve. (And thanks for a great article, Jesse.)

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jaydee909 4 years ago

Outstanding story, Jesse! After watching Johnson on special teams, I have been asking the question why he has not earned more playing time at LB. And now he has the opportunity and I can't wait to watch him. Good luck Steven and love your determination.

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KU 4 years ago

This dude has been to hell and back. You think he's gonna let a fullback stand between him and the ball carrier? No way. B-E-L-I-E-V-E.

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Andy Tweedy 4 years ago

Thanks, Jesse! We shouldn't forget that while this story focuses on Steven, Jr. it also points out the sacrifices parents make for their kids every day. Don't know if dad will be there Saturday, but I'm sure he'll be watching the GT game and proud as can be...

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andreatom 4 years ago

Great job coming back from that injury Steven. I tore my ACL and LCL playing softball 5 years ago. I still feel instability in my knee from time to time. To play football at a competitive level after that injury is a testament to your work ethic.

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Ryan Gerstner 4 years ago

Thanks so much for the story. I always wondered where he came from. He definitely looks like a Big XII linebacker and I didn't remember him from one of our recruiting classes. Best of luck to him and I'll be cheering for him.

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Jim Baker 4 years ago

I think KU football should name Harry Jones as team chaplain. Powerful faith!

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Rivethead 4 years ago

Fantastic story! A story like this is the anti-Keegan and long overdue. Please keep them coming!

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Andrew Moore 4 years ago

That is a great story. Jesse, you did an outstanding job!

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stravinsky 4 years ago

Great feature on a quality guy.

I lived on the same floor as Steve two years ago (he was in Oliver Hall at the time), and he is absolutely a standup guy. It's good to see somebody with his strong character having things work out.

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jayhawk02 4 years ago

Jesse, this might have been the best story I've read on this site in a year. Very inspirational and informative. Thanks for the read.

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cwind 4 years ago

Just repeating everybody's sentiment here. AWESOME story! Maybe Steven Johnson will be a captain his senior season and lead the Jayhawks to a bowl game. In the meantime, congrats on a great recovery and Rock Chalk, Jayhawk in 2010!

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lovethosehawks 4 years ago

Outstanding story! I pray Steven has a excellent and injury free season.

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TaCityHawkFan 4 years ago

Great Story Jesse! Great work Steven, go out and show us all year long what a blue collar athlete can do! You have worked your way into a scholarship and a starting role! Well done!

Great inclusion of the story of Kerry Meier! Good luck to you on your recovery!

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MOHAWK91 4 years ago

These kind of stories remind me why I love college sports. Great story Jesse and Steven you have now become my favorite Jayhawk. Glad to see you will finally get your opportunity, you have certaintly earned it.

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psychoanalyst 4 years ago

AWESOME STORY! Great job Jesse telling the story of an great kid and the insppirational people in his life. Loved it!

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Mike Johns 4 years ago

well done - one of the best written stories i have seen on here.

Rooting for this guy - hardcore

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BigGuyDon 4 years ago

You alluded to some kind of problem with Mangino about Steve. Any follow up on what was going on there?

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STLJHawk86 4 years ago

Love to hear the 'back story' on these kids; and this one is very good. Steven Johnson, I too am a believer!

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mdfraz 4 years ago

Echoing the other comments, fantastic story Jesse. I hope you and Tait (among others) are getting the message that there are a lot of ardent KU football fans out here who absolutely love knowing anything and everything about the team.

I'm excited to see Steven get some playing time. I've noticed him on special teams and thought he looked the part of a linebacker, and then in the spring game he stood out more than anyone else on the defense IMO. I'm guessing after everything he's gone through just to stay at KU we won't ever have to worry about a lack of effort on his part. We say it from time to time but I think we take it for granted; college and football are often about much more than games and practices. It's learning about yourself, working hard to achieve goals, and becoming a better person because of it. Best of luck on the field and off the field, Steven.

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mondhawk 4 years ago

The best story i think i seen on this site Keep up the good work Jesse.

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quigley 4 years ago

Wow. That was really good.

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FSUJHAWK 4 years ago

Now this is great journalism!

Best of luck in life Mr. Johnson. Regardless of what happens henceforth, you will always be one of my all time favorite.

RCJHGKU!!!

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d_prowess 4 years ago

I hope the LJW sends a copy of this paper to the barber shop in Upper Darby, Pa so that it can be framed and hung for everyone to see.

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mdfraz 4 years ago

That's a really good idea. If Jesse talked to Mr. Jones in order to write the story, I wonder if it's something they normally do, especially if the subject lives outside of the Lawrence area.

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Nick Cole 4 years ago

Must agree with everyone here, fantastic read and a wonderful story. SJ will be getting some extra cheers from the bleachers in Memorial Stadium this season and next. Here's to a great year of Kansas and college athletics.

Cheers from Tampa, FL

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milehighhawk 4 years ago

Phenomenal work, Jesse.

Seriously one of the best articles I've read on this site, and one of the better ones I've read anywhere in the last year or so.

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KCHawk81 4 years ago

Great article. Even greater to see so many comments about a football story that lacks controversy. The fans are getting restless...

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gchawk 4 years ago

Fantastic story, Jesse, thanks so much for the insight. Steven, you are another shining example about what is "great" about college sports. Keep up the good work, I have a feeling your rewards for hard work and dedication are just beginning. God bless.

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gchawk 4 years ago

P.S. This young man definitely looks like a stud, don't think I'd want to be on the receiving end of one of his hits!

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hawk316 4 years ago

I loved this story! I loved this story! Uh...did I mention that I loved this story?!?!? And what a terrific punch at the end. What are the odds that Steven's pastor, the same man who prayed for him years ago, would end up offering a similar prayer for another jayhawk, Kerry Meier? The Lord does indeed work in incredible ways.

Steven, I pray that your faith, perseverance, determination and hard work pay off big time the next two years and that you have an awesome football career at KU.

I absolutely loved this story!

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NinjaJayhawk 4 years ago

Without a doubt the best story I have ever read on this website. Jesse, great job on this story. Steven, you make everyone in Jayhawk Nation proud.

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Carter Patterson 4 years ago

I have not cried that hard since they shot Old Yeller. Great story Jesse.

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bad_dog 4 years ago

Great story, well told Jesse. Very reminiscent of the pieces we used to see from Joe Poznaski in the KC Star or even Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story". Human interest with an ironic but positive twist.

Good luck to both Steven and Kerry.

Go Hawks!

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Carter Patterson 4 years ago

Jesse, would love to hear a follow up or comment on this story from Coach Miller.

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adammatter 4 years ago

Fantastic story and great transitions. This is the first story that made me care about KU football this season.
Thanks so much.

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KU_FanSince75 4 years ago

What a great story! Unbelievable but inspiring! When you look at the picture above, he is almost daring a fullback or tailback to run past him under the bowls of Memorial Stadium---kind of like a gauntlet. Cool story with a cool picture! Keep 'em coming. This quiet storm will hopefully explode on Sept. 4th. RCJH!

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slowplay 4 years ago

I sincerely hope Mr. Newell receives many accolades for such an inspiring and well documented story. Outstanding.

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Kenneth Hillman 4 years ago

Kerry - best of luck in the recovery process. You've met adversity before (a number of times) and have overcome it, you can do it again. You are my all-time favorite Jayhawk and I'm sure you have plenty of people praying for you, one more right here.

Steven - real proud of your dedication and commitment. You are starting to see the fruits of your labor. I hope you have an incredible season this year and the next, one that is made for longer articles than this...how bout a book or a movie! And I hope you continue to learn from life's lessons and grow from them as you have in the past. It takes a strong person to make it where you have made it today, keep it up!!

I am so fired up for football!

C'mon HAWKS!

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captku 4 years ago

Sounds like this guy's quality falls into the Jacque V / Simien / Stuckey type of a mode, i.e., very high. Steven, I am hoping for the best for you and the new situation there. Your story is a great story and more should know what some sacrifice to press on in this life. And God does have a crazy way at times of making "appointments" for us with folks in need, a la the Pastor Jones - Kerry Meier encounter. (Hawk316, I am with you - I love these types of stories!) So, Steven, bring the wood on Saturdays with your new knee; Kerry, live that prayer so we can see #80 come back to our TVs; Pastor Jones keep praying for folks in need, and JNewell keep putting these thoughts to print. Awesome. p.s., how come my shirts don't fit like that?

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truefan 4 years ago

I hope Steven dominates this year and keeps his starting spot. Not only does he have 2 more seasons to prove he can play in the NFL, but he deserves it.

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yovoy 4 years ago

I didn't know this place could have such a great story. Excellent work.

I'm just waiting for 'that special someone' to come along and urinate all over the great story and the great feeling the story has given us.

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waywardJay 4 years ago

If you speak of her, she will come yovoy.

There are 3 people I could see littering on this, and so far not a peep from them.

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troutsee 4 years ago

Agree. Best story I have ever read on this site.

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grandpa 4 years ago

troutsee, I am glad to see your post. You have been so silent, I thought maybe you had jumped over the river. It's Hot down here in Texas. Getting anxious for Saturday.

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Max Ledom 4 years ago

Jesse,

You once again prove you are in fact the most in depth, hard working, incredible writer on KUsports, and easily the best. This is the best story I have read on this site. Unbelievable! Good luck Steven! you can do it!

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waywardJay 4 years ago

Concur, Newell.... Excellent post. It's not only informative, It's artistic. You run two stories crossing here and divurging at a point. Not the same point, parse, but pretty close. These are indeed the stories that make college Athletics possible, and like Stuckey, Talib, ET AL. Underrated kid, fell under the radar of the big programs, and ended up at Kansas because we saw something.

Mangino had great eyes for Linebackers and hamburgers. Coach Gill has a history of Motivating players who come from hard circumstances. Steven Johnson has the blueprint, and apparently the physique.... Let's hope he has the acumen.

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KU_FanSince75 4 years ago

@captku--- Very funny---I got a chuckle out of your last sentence. My shirts fit like that when I was in high school (Lawrence High School). Not any more.

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Sparko 4 years ago

Reminds me of JoPo. Great work. Anti-Keegan is right. This is just what I needed prior to the season.

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Randy Bombardier 4 years ago

Award-winning story, Jesse. Love the ending. Looking forward to the Johnson Effect, especially in the Tech game.

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IBRONNIEB 4 years ago

I agree with every positive statement made about this story. One of, if not the best, I've read here. How can you not root for this young man? I hope he can take to the field, what he has shown, through all the adversity. Because that type of grit, will lead to very positive outcomes in the near future, for this football team. More people like Steven, on this team, please!

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