Navy linebacker Johnson overcomes serious injury, tough upbringing
The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Outside linebacker Chris Johnson jumps out as one of the more uplifting Navy football stories. After missing all of last season with a knee injury, Johnson has regained his starting spot and is one of Navy’s top defensive players.
However, that’s just the story of Johnson’s collegiate football career.
Dig a little deeper and you will find that Johnson’s life story is even more inspirational. With a father who was never in the picture and a mother whose troubles left her unable to care for two young children, Chris and his older brother were raised by their grandparents.
Johnson was just 8 when he made the sudden move from Cleveland to Cape Coral, Fla. It proved a blessing as his grandparents, Arthur Speights and Susan Ziccardi-Speights, emphasized schoolwork, preached character, demanded discipline and encouraged participation in athletics.
“My grandparents really instilled a disciplinary lifestyle and really stressed education. I definitely would not be where I am right now without their guidance and support. I really owe everything to them,” Johnson said.
Johnson became a top student and two-sport athlete at Cape Coral High, excelling so well in the classroom and on the football field to receive an appointment to the Naval Academy. Now Johnson is the third-leading tackler on the Navy football team and well on his way to earning a degree in oceanography.
“I am so very, very proud of Chris. He had some difficult circumstances to overcome, but he was determined to make something of himself,” Arthur Speights said of his grandson. “I use Chris as an example to the neighborhood kids that if you’re dedicated to something and work hard toward a goal you can really achieve great things in life.”
Speights said his grandsons had to adjust to a stricter lifestyle.
“When we first got Chris and his brother they were typical kids who wanted to be on the video games all day,” he said. “We told them they would have one hour to play videos and the rest of time would be dedicated to homework.”
Jordan Speights joined the military out of high school and is currently stationed at Malmstron Air Force Base in Cascade County, Mont. Johnson initially wasn’t interested in attending a service academy, but was encouraged to do so by his grandfather.
“I’m happy that Chris is getting a chance to play big-time college football, but the fact he’s going to get a degree from such a great school is really what counts,” Speights said.
Johnson was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Cape Coral High and was a member of the National Honor Society. He volunteered at a local hospital and with the Challenger special needs baseball program.
Arthur Speights played high school football and was a fan of the college and professional game. He was responsible for getting Chris into football, signing him up for the Cape Coral Hurricanes recreation program.
“Chris has always had exceptional ability, even at a young age. My wife and I knew he would become a good athlete. He’s very competitive in everything he does,” Speights said.
Johnson was thrown for another loop as a junior in high school when Susan Ziccardi-Speights died of complications from gall bladder surgery. In addition, Arthur Speights went through a housing transition that required Chris to live with another relative for a while.
“That was a tough time for Chris. He had always looked up to Susan as a mother figure and her loss hurt him pretty bad,” Speights said.
Navy assistant coach Chris Culton was shocked that no other schools were recruiting Johnson as a junior.
“When I first saw Chris I was like ‘Wow, this is a good-looking kid.’ Then I popped on his highlight tape and it was very impressive,” Culton said.
Culton had to work equally hard to build a relationship with Johnson, who was naturally shy and unwilling to talk about his background.
“Chris was a very guarded guy. It literally took about two months before he actually opened up and explained what was going on with his life and why it was so hard to get in touch with him. I think he was a little embarrassed by the situation,” Culton said.
Johnson earned All-Region honors as a senior linebacker and drew the interest of Furman and Charleston Southern. No other school offered a scholarship and no one was more relieved than Culton when the youngster arrived in Annapolis for plebe summer.
“When Chris showed up here, he literally had everything in his possession. I had a suitcase filled with everything he owned sitting in my office until Thanksgiving,” Culton said.
Johnson immediately impressed defensive coordinator Buddy Green and outside linebackers coach Tony Grantham because he picked up the intricacies of the defense as a freshman.
“Chris is a very smart kid. He came out of nowhere as a plebe because he understood the defense so well,” Grantham said. “He really grasps concepts and understands what we want out of each call, how we want to attack certain offensive formations.”
Johnson may have been Navy’s best outside linebacker during August camp in 2012 and was slated to start at the “striker” position when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and underwent season-ending surgery.
“I was down for a while. It was devastating to have something you dreamed about for so long get taken away so fast,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to see the team go on the road without you. My family and teammates helped me keep my head up. It was tough at first, but I eventually got over it.”
Johnson suffered swelling following the surgery that required getting fluid drained several times. He tested the reconstructed knee during spring practice and said he felt “kind of wobbly.” He participated in some seven-on-seven drills and didn’t feel as fast or explosive. However, additional rehabilitation along with work in the weight room and conditioning drills helped Johnson regain confidence in the knee.
Although sporting a bulky brace, Johnson was making plays during training camp. The rangy, athletic 6-foot-1, 207-pound junior regained his starting spot at striker, pushing Jordan Drake — his 2012 replacement — to the “raider” spot.
Johnson has recorded 26 tackles, three interceptions and a pass breakup. He was one of the heroes of the Air Force win, picking off two passes in the second half. Grantham said Johnson is the ideal fit for striker, a hybrid position that combines run-stopping and pass-coverage responsibilities.
“Chris worked very hard to overcome the injury and now we’re seeing the results of those efforts,” Grantham said. “Chris is a longer guy than what we’ve had at that position in the past. He’s got some defensive back skills and does a really good job in underneath coverage — playing tight on guys, getting his hands on receivers and re-routing them. He’s also physical enough to play the run. Every team we’ve played has challenged Chris by running the ball right at him and he’s responded real well so far. Chris has a bit more pop than what you would think. We have a lot of bag drills in which he has to strike me or Coach Davis and he packs a pretty good punch.”
Johnson never knew his biological father and said he currently has no relationship with his mother. Arthur Speights took on the role of father figure and vowed to do everything right in a repeat stint of raising children.
“I knew better the second time around how to really do it. I raised Chris and his brother to show respect and carry themselves with pride and character,” he said.
Culton, Grantham and head coach Ken Niumatalolo marvel at the transformation they’ve seen in Johnson since he came to the Naval Academy.
“I’ve never, ever heard Chris complain about anything. Never once has he complained about circumstances, which shows the inner strength he has,” Culton said. “When Chris graduates from here and becomes a commissioned officer, his life will change. As a coach, it’s really, really rewarding to see a kid like Chris Johnson succeed.”