See ball, get ball … get drafted? IU’s Johnson awaits NFL opportunity

When Indiana safety Jamar Johnson decided to place his name in the NFL Draft, a memory surfaced.

It’s from seventh-grade history class at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, Fla., when he filled out a piece of paper asking the most common but inevitably weighty question children face.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Johnson never doubted his answer. He always scribbled down “NFL player” or “professional football player.” He wasn’t the only boy in the history of seventh grade to have the thought, but Johnson had just an extra level of belief in his dream. He actually worked for it.

In the years that followed, he’d be lounging around, and thoughts of football popped into his head, and he’d reflexively hit the floor for pushups. He’d be over at a friend’s house, and it was dark outside, but he’d want to go outside and throw a football around.

Johnson was a no-star recruit in high school because he didn’t have the ride or the money to attend scouting combines. But he never believed the five-star athletes were better than him. Or he couldn’t achieve greatness at a non-traditional football school like IU. Or he couldn’t make the NFL.

From a young age, he believed in it. He wrote it down.

“Jamar, come here,” said Torrey Grimes, Johnson’s seventh-grade history teacher at Booker. “I want you to sign this, man. This is going to be worth a lot of money one day when you go to the NFL.”

In the coming years, Johnson’s signature gained some value. He went to IU, helping the Hoosiers to back-to-back January bowl games, earning first-team All-Big Ten recognition in the process. Submitting himself for an evaluation from the NFL after the 2020 season, the committee returned a second- or third-round grade. That meant his long-held dreams could be a reality.

Johnson admits he forgot about Mr. Grimes’ paper while at IU. It’s been a while. But as he waits for the NFL Draft, which starts Thursday with the first round, those memories are flooding back. He believes Mr. Grimes still has that seventh-grade questionnaire, because he showed up to Johnson’s football games throughout the years, reminding him, “Still got that paper you signed.”

The ink on that page hadn’t faded. Neither did his dream.

“I’m that type of person. I set my standards and my goals as high as possible,” Johnson said. “My goal for (IU) was to win the national championship. If you’re not trying to win a national championship, why are you even playing?

“Oh, let’s just have a 50-50 record. Oh, let’s just beat more Big Ten opponents. Let’s just win the Big Ten. No, you might as well shoot for the stars, and whatever you get, you’re going to get.”

After three years, Johnson and his teammates did a lot to push IU to another level, which in turn elevated his profile with NFL teams. Pro scouts see the 6-foot, 205-pound safety as a versatile defender, someone who is physical enough to play in the box, as he did at IU’s “husky” position, but athletic enough to split out and cover a slot receiver. As a junior, Johnson moved back to free safety, demonstrating his ability to “See ball, get ball,” as he likes to say. He tied for the team lead with four picks.

It’s a simple saying, “See ball, get ball,” but its origins strongly link to Johnson’s chase for greatness. It still gnaws at him that as a sophomore at Booker High, he didn’t log an interception. On one play, Johnson broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth down, on a corner route by a tight end. An incompletion sealed the win.

But he could have had a pick. The ball from Port Charlotte’s quarterback hit both of Johnson’s hands.

“Just dropping an interception, it’s so heartbreaking to think about,” Johnson said. “We barely get that opportunity, and when you get it, and you drop it? Mmm — you never forget it.”

So after that sophomore season of high school, when he transferred from Booker High to Riverview — a bigger, more organized but below-.500 prep program — he gave himself a saying to focus his energies.

See ball, get ball.

“He’s very passionate about football,” his coach at Riverview, Josh Smithers, said. “He’s ultra, ultra competitive. I think that’s just the blood that’s inside of him. That’s his DNA.”

The stars Johnson didn’t have by his name, it didn’t matter once college coaches turned on his film. He logged six interceptions as a senior. A captain, he led Riverview to back-to-back district titles. College coaches took note.

IU just did what it does best, forging a bond with a player others overlooked. IU coaches traveled to Sarasota a half-dozen times. Eventually, some more tradition-rich schools tried to enter the fray, like Florida State and Willie Taggart. But Johnson turned down a meeting because he was determined to leave Florida. Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee called a week before signing day, but a week wasn’t enough to form a real relationship. So it was a no.

Loyalty was important to Johnson, as well as what he believed he could accomplish at IU. He helped spark a turnaround at Riverview. Why couldn’t he do it at IU?

“IU, man, they suck. They are bottom-feeders of the Big Ten, man. They are always losing every game, man,” Johnson recalled hearing, far too often. “I never listened. I always felt it could work out because I’m a good player. I’m going to shine wherever I go.

“And I wanted to do something more than just go to a team that was already souped-up and they got these five-star guys. I wanted to get it out of the mud.”

That is not to say there wasn’t a process that shaped an ambitious young man into an NFL draft prospect. Johnson readily admits he wasn’t all that mature when he first arrived at IU. He made “childish” mistakes, on and off the field. But IU coach Tom Allen stuck by him, sitting him down in weekly meetings, checking in, giving guidance.

Allen’s “love each other” motto, Johnson was hooked by it.

“LEO, love each other, that’s really important to me. Where I come from, man, we don’t get much love. We are in survivor mode,” Johnson said. “Just sticking with me through thick and thin, trying to help me, not trying to ‘Boom, get out of here,’ or something like that. He stuck with it. He helped me get through situations. He knew I would be better, he knew I would do better.”

Johnson did his part. That first summer at IU, he chose not to go back home and hang out with friends on the beach. Instead, he stayed in Bloomington. He settled into an apartment. He later found himself with feet in the sand, but that was in IU’s sandpit with fellow “husky” Marcelino Ball, doing drill work.

He got on the field as a freshman, but his breakout moment — which NFL teams have cited the most during the draft process — was his pick-6 versus Tennessee in the 2020 Gator Bowl. It was sweet, not only because it came against a team he could have played for, but because it came in Jacksonville, Fla., in front of loved ones. It capped a season where family was top of mind.

During fall camp of 2019, Johnson unexpectedly lost one of his uncles. He may have been short the money for recruiting combines, but Johnson never had to worry about fees for little league teams, because Uncle Pookie paid for them. Uncle Pookie came to every one of his high school games, even if it was a three-hour drive to Vero Beach.

“I was mad grieving for a few weeks,” said Johnson, who missed a few practices that fall to attend the funeral. “Got over it, and turned it into motivation and fuel.”

In a very emotional sophomore season, Johnson went into games with Uncle Pookie’s name written on his athletic tape. And then, ever so perfectly, Johnson’s star shined the brightest in Florida, with family in attendance.

Saw the ball, got the ball. Weaved through some Vols and up the sideline for a 63-yard touchdown, too.

“Man, just being able to do that in front of my family and let my family see that type of crowd reaction from a play, on that stage, nobody in my family has played on that stage,” Johnson said. “No one has gone D-I like that, playing in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium, playing against Tennessee, let alone a pick-6 in a bowl game. That was a special moment.”

After an appearance in the Outback Bowl in Tampa as a junior, taking part in IU’s historic ascent in top 25 polls, Johnson decided he had accomplished enough in college. He very much saw the ball and got the ball in 2020, tied for the team lead in interceptions.

Allen and safeties coach Jason Jones sat with Johnson after the bowl game in January to discuss his NFL opportunity. They understood, it was time to go.

“I knew I can’t go to IU for eight years. I’m going to have to leave someday,” Johnson said.

It’s a surreal time in Johnson’s life. But not completely. He believed this would happen. As a seventh-grader, Johnson wrote it down.

The 17-year-old who had never left Florida and wanted to get away for college, he’s now a 21-year-old man who has no idea what NFL team will draft him or where he will end up. Johnson has met with pretty much every organization. His game tape caught coaches’ attention, again.

And some of the same coaches are watching. In his Zoom calls with NFL teams, Johnson met with Pruitt, now a defensive assistant with the Giants. Derrick Ansley, once the Vols’ defensive coordinator, is the secondary coach for the Chargers. It’s a small world in football.

“They both said, ‘Hey, man, the last time I’ve seen you, you were taking a pick-6 back on us,’” Johnson said. They promised to show that play to their respective colleagues in New York and L.A., if they hadn’t seen it already.

Until draft day, it’s just waiting to see which organization likes Johnson’s film the most. Whether it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, Johnson will be with his family, watching each pick get announced. He’ll just let himself be surprised when his name is called, thinking about the journey and the people who brought him here.

That includes Mr. Grimes and Uncle Pookie. That definitely includes his coaches and teammates at IU.

“It’s kind of like I’m not really leaving. I’m just going to be representing them in the league, which has always been a dream of mine,” Johnson said.

“To me, I’m still a Hoosier for life.”

Indy Star’s Zach Osterman contributed to this report.

3 comments

  1. Two comments about this excellent story. First, the quote, “And I wanted to do something more than just go to a team that was already souped-up and they got these five-star guys” suggests that Jamar was wise beyond his years and courageous for a 17-year old. If IU keeps finding the Jamar Johnsons out there, we will have a very successful FB program for years to come.

    Secondly, the comment, “To me, I’m still a Hoosier for life” confirms that it was mission accomplished with this young man. He took the risk to leave home and play for a program that few respected, he stayed in Bloomington his first summer so he could adapt fully, he made major contributions to the program, he departs campus prepared to have successful career and with love for IU his coaches and teammates. What more could you ask?

    I’d love to see him drafted in the second or third rounds.

  2. Another great story Jon. Back in 1996 – 1997 & 1998 I visited Booker MS for career days. Before Jamar’s time there. Pretty sure the road he followed will be more lucrative than Health Care.

  3. Johnson will be missed but IU’s secondary will keep improving. I loved watching Johnson play waiting for another play on the ball by him.

    Jon thanks for this great story I just wish I would have read it a couple of years ago knowing the type of young man he was.

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