STATE COLLEGE — They were driving through another steamy, breathless Penn State summer day of football workouts.
And the senior co-captain didn’t particularly like what he was seeing.
Jan Johnson knew because no one gave more in these workouts than him. That was his unspoken guide as soon as he committed to the football program he adored growing up.
He knew because walk-ons, like him, have to prove themselves differently. Especially linebackers at the place that became famous for them.
Even more so, ones who rip up their knee before they can make a name for themselves.
All of that struggle is what made Johnson who he is: A respected starter, a defensive leader, a guardian of team standards.
Which takes us back to that Penn State day of running hills in the summer heat.
Johnson, surprisingly enough, was catching Micah Parsons, the future All-American — maybe the fastest player on the entire team, pound for pound.
And that didn’t sit well. Johnson didn’t hesitate to confront him.
“I shouldn’t be getting close to him up those hills. So I say, ‘Micah, what are you doing? You should be beating me by enough.’
“He had so much success in high school and then college, sometimes people like him can start to relax and think they’re good enough. I just continued to try and push Micah.”
And so he did, away from most anyone who could notice.
Six months later, Parsons has grown into the best linebacker in the Big Ten and beyond.
And Johnson will now put a finishing touch on a career lauded for its perseverance and belief beyond any numbers. He will wear a Penn State uniform for the final time in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl against Memphis.
Swimming to wrestling to Penn State football
For perspective, consider this: As Johnson grew into a Governor Mifflin High School legend in Berks County, Pennsylvania, football was probably his third-best sport.
Johnson could have locked in on a dominating swim career in the 100 meter breaststroke and the 50 and 100 meter freestyle events. But he figured he was an even better wrestler.
Sure enough, he won back-to-back PIAA titles in arguably the best high school wrestling state in the nation. He celebrated that second state championship by doing an impromptu backflip on the mat in front of thousands in Hershey’s Giant Center.
So many wrestling schools wanted him, from Stanford to N.C. State.
Then again, football programs such as Akron and Fordham were offering scholarship money, too.
He just didn’t feel right with either path. He believed he belonged at Penn State.
His father and uncle wrestled for the Nittany Lions. His mother and an aunt swam for them.
His family took him to Penn State football games as a kid and he was mesmerized by the tailgating, the nameless uniforms, the stadium-rocking white out games.
“This is always where I wanted to play. I just wanted to be here so badly. When I was little and got older, all I wanted to do was play football at Penn State,” Johnson said.
“It was everything. The atmosphere, my parents went here, I grew up following Penn State football my whole life. Whenever I went somewhere else I always compared it to Penn State and nothing could compare to Penn State.”
The making of a team leader
Johnson formed himself into a captain one experience at a time.
During his first year on campus the Penn State wrestling team was stunningly short at heavyweight — and actually called on him.
He would give up much of his redshirt football season to help coach Cael Sanderson earn another national title in wrestling. After winning his first college match Johnson was routinely thrown against the best Big Ten wrestlers and Olympic hopefuls.
“I was just kind of a practice dummy,” he said with a smile.
But, “it was just good to learn how they approach the day-to-day things and what their mindset is going into big matches,” Johnson said. “How you approach the competitions and visualize yourself with success.”
He learned from injury, too.
After making two tackles in an unplanned college debut at Michigan in 2016, he abruptly tore his ACL. His season was over just as it was beginning.
“I was heartbroken because you don’t know how that recovery could be. I wondered if I could play again …”
That helped him learn from patience and positivity.
Though healthy a year later, he was stuck running practice plays as a scout team tight end.
Still, he embraced the long-range plan. He swears it didn’t matter that it seemed a world away from starting at linebacker.
“I was just trying to beat the crap out of whoever was next to me (in practice), which was pretty hard blocking Shareef (Miller) or Kevin (Givens). I was going as hard as I could on scout team. I always wanted to be better than the guys they played against.”
He finally returned to defense and surprised by winning a starting spot last year.
He was a sudden success story, earning his scholarship and joining the ranks of fellow former walk-on linebackers like Josh Hull and Brandon Smith.
And he was just as important off the field.
Johnson earned his undergraduate degree in psychology in just three years. A master’s in management and organizational leadership came last May. He studied health policy and administration this past fall.
Putting the team first
He also became a leader and mentor to any players who paid attention. He devoted particular time to the young linebackers like Parsons, drilling them in film study and practice habits.
Parsons routinely offers praise in return, calling Johnson the smartest linebacker he’s been around.
“I come in and … first year I’m silent, don’t really know what to do, just playing off talent,” Parsons said. “And I’m watching Jan and everything he does.
“When you have such a leader and someone who’s always doing the right thing, someone who knows the system in and out … I’m just watching him every day. I’m learning off him.
“It just made me improve my game so much.”
To that point, Johnson’s father talked about his son’s greatest impact.
“His persistence, his resiliency, his determination,” said Jan Johnson, Sr. “But it’s funny, we always knew he had this. We believed he had this ability. He believed he had this ability.
“It’s no different than the way it was supposed to be. Really, not any difference at all.”
Who knows what is beyond football? It could be coaching. He could become a business executive. Those who know him well are confident he can do most anything.
“I think we can all learn from Jan,” Franklin said after giving him that scholarship last year.
“When you, time after time … put the organization’s objectives ahead of your own, and you put the people around you, their objectives and goals ahead of your own, that’s a recipe for success in life.
“Jan’s that guy.”