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Inside Strength

This feature originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2009 edition of Army Football Game Day versus Rutgers

By Dallas Miller

It's been said that if you wait for everything to be perfect, you could be waiting forever.

Conventional wisdom then, would tell you to worry only about what you can control, deal with obstacles as they come along, and use your effort and attitude to the best of your ability.

From the beginning, it seems that Jason Johnson's track to West Point was never a seamless match between his own life and the storied tapestry of U.S. Military Academy history. Like almost every story, things could have been somehow better. Johnson has had to make tough decisions, endure disappointments, coaching changes, and injury. But through it all, he has thrived both on and off the gridiron at West Point by giving maximum effort and embracing the good with the bad.

"That's what we do offensively and defensively," says first-year Army head football coach Rich Ellerson on his team's willingness to adapt. "If you can only be happy when you have the ball, or you can only be happy when you're the guy that's supposed to make the play, then you're not going to have fun at this game. You have to embrace the whole thing.

"If you like to run around and knock people down, we've got a place for you. If you have to be playing left tackle or right end to be happy then you probably shouldn't bother because we don't care. We are going to do whatever we think gives us a chance to be successful and we assume that you're on board with that."

Although his various football experiences could have been very different, Johnson has been on board from the beginning.

"I played football in high school, starting with my freshman year," says Johnson, who enjoyed hockey for nine years before beginning his football career. Catching on quickly though, Johnson was a three-year starter at left offensive tackle who garnered all-state honors at Tesoro High while helping guide his team to consecutive league championships in his final two seasons.

Following his junior campaign, Johnson was offered football scholarships from UC-San Diego and UNLV, both of which would have been within easy driving distance from home for the Las Flores, Calif. native.

Instead, Johnson entertained an offer from West Point, a school nearly 3,000 miles away on paper, but worlds away in lifestyle. From the sunny beaches of the Pacific coast, Johnson chose the scenic campus of the Academy - February chill and all.

"I came out here and I loved it," adds Johnson, who, save for a grandfather who spent a short time in the Navy has no military history in his family. "But my parents weren't too happy because it was so far away and because of all the military stuff.

"I came here and I just felt comfortable in the surroundings. Something about this place just clicked and made me say 'Alright, I can do this.'"

Once the cross-country decision was made, Johnson figured he could rely on a high school teammate who had already spent two football seasons at the Academy for support. What a nice feeling it would be to go through Cadet Basic Training with a familiar face, someone from the same part of the country, someone he already had something in common with.

He left the Academy the day Johnson arrived on post.

"It was kind of disheartening, especially after going through (Cadet Basic Training) and expecting to play with him," says Johnson. "But I knew coming into it that I couldn't come to a college because someone else was here, or because another coach was here."

That theory would be tested however, as Bobby Ross stepped down as the Army head coach following Johnson's freshman season.

Once again, Johnson drew from the strength within himself to steer through an uncertain time. He also drew from the experience of then-senior offensive lineman Pete Bier, who Johnson says gave him his will to play football and encouraged him to stay at the Academy after the installation of coach Stan Brock, a former offensive lineman who played with the National Football League's New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers.

"It was pretty cool to be around them. They had the same mindset I had coming out of high school which was to hit everyone as hard as you can every play."

Johnson took his hard-hitting attitude and all-out play on to the field as a sophomore, where he earned five starts and played in seven games at left tackle. Despite gaining the first valuable experience of his collegiate playing career, a shoulder injury forced him to sit out the final two games of the season, including a matchup opposite service academy rival Navy.

Headed into his junior season, Johnson made the swap from the left side to the right side of the offensive line.  Although considered undersized in some offensive schemes, the 6-foot, 3-inch, 257 pounder settled nicely into his role on the right side of the Black Knights' triple-option attack.

As a junior on an offensive line comprised mostly of seniors, Johnson learned valuable lessons from his more experienced teammates that he still carries with him - the types of lessons that have helped him make the best of imperfect situations by remembering to control what he can with his attitude and effort.  

From guard Mike Lemming, he learned to have fun playing football and to not take anything too seriously.

As a result, Johnson has taken to singing during practice - a habit he thinks can break up the monotony and lighten the mood.

 "If we can be reminded sometimes to have fun, I think it's worth it," says Johnson of his comical renditions of the Beach Boys and Lion King. "You can tell in the huddle when someone is kind of dragging. My thing is that I'll just start singing and everyone will start laughing and having a good time."

Brandon Cox, another senior during Johnson's junior year, passed on his physical determination and desire to play the game with reckless abandon, while center Trey Miranne took Johnson under his wing and helped to relieve some of the pressures of West Point. Although he learned a great deal from that senior trio, perhaps no lesson stuck more than his experience with Ray Zelenak.

 "He played through so many injuries," says Johnson. "He hurt his ankle and went in for surgery, and the doctors dropped a soldering iron on his calf. He was out a lot longer than he was supposed to be."

"When he came back, he played hard through the pain, and sometimes when he couldn't play, I would go in for him. He was a really hard-nosed guy. I try to play through pain as much as possible. I think to myself that if Ray had a soldering iron dropped on his calf, then I can play through this next play."

Along with playing through pain, a topic Johnson is familiar with after enduring three shoulder surgeries, Johnson is also a veteran of three different coaching staffs across his time in the Black, Gold, and Gray. Most recently, the addition of head coach Rich Ellerson has posed a new set of challenges.

"It's been a challenge dealing with three different coaching staffs, but I think it's helped me to adjust and be flexible with everything going on," adds Johnson. "I've learned to be a lot more patient and a lot more coachable, especially with a new coaching staff and a younger team."

Johnson now boasts 23 career starts, including a string of 17 in a row.  The lone senior starter on a young offensive line, it's been up to him to set the tempo.

 "What I expect from this Army team is that we're going to come out every day and practice and play as hard as we can every game. Coach Ellerson's big thing is 100 percent effort all the time, and as an offensive line we expect that from each other."

Reaching for perfect effort can be a tall task according to Johnson. "We're never there, but we can always improve every week."

Dallas Miller is the Athletic Communications Assistant at West Point.

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