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August 17, 2012

The One That Didn't Get Away



It takes a special breed of man to be an offensive lineman. Hours, weeks and years of work often go unnoticed as the other players get the glory and the highlight films, while the toiling lineman gets the wonderful experience of getting his face smashed and his body pummeled 60 times every Saturday.

It helps to have an outlet, something to get away from the hell that is the practice field, a pleasing and stress-relieving activity that is as relaxing as the simple resting a lineman does the day after the game. It's why with every chance he gets during the summer and season, South Carolina's T.J. Johnson trades the trenches of the SEC gridirons for the valleys and glens of his hometown, or more specifically, the calming swells of the nearest body of water.

"We do a lot of catfishing on Little Pee Dee," the Gamecocks' fifth-year senior center recently said. "So close to Myrtle Beach, we'll go out to Murrells Inlet and Cherry Grove, catch fish and flounder.

"Mama's cooking, and fishing. That's about all I did this summer, other than working out."

Pictures of Johnson's catches have been a popular sideshow to the shots of him in action, one catfish that he reeled in this summer "going from T.J.'s chest almost to his ankles," laughed his mother, and helps to cement the reputation. Mean, angry, fundamentally sound but also ready to lay down anything to protect his teammates on the field; laid-back and an all-around nice guy off it.

But a leader. The leader. Not only has Johnson proved his worth as an SEC-caliber center, he's been one of the most solid members of the team on and off the field since he arrived. Respected and befriended by his teammates, Johnson is the figurative rock for the line, and one of the literal stones in the entire team's foundation.

How could a guy whose given name is Anthony Eugene ("T.J." is short for "Tony Jr.," as dad Anthony is Tony Sr.) and who burns up the asphalt between Columbia and Aynor for home cooking and fishing not be liked? How could a player who redshirted his first year but has started every one of 40 games over the past three seasons not be a player to follow into battle?

"Wouldn't you want that guy leading your line?," position coach Shawn Elliott asked. "If we don't consider him our leader, we got problems."

The size helps, as anybody standing 6-foot-6 and tipping the scale at 319 pounds isn't going to have to ask twice for attention. The experience helps, as Johnson is the only player on USC's two-deep offensive line depth chart that has more than two years of games under his belt.

The teaching really helps, as Johnson has been the mainstay while the rest of the line has revolved around him. He's the guy teaching the younger and inexperienced players what to do, and not through a smack on the helmet and a menacing glare.

"We always talk to each other," right guard Ronald Patrick said. "It defeats the purpose if you're out here yelling. If it's the same play you keep messing up on, yeah, but it works much better when you talk.

"Him being a leader, whenever I step wrong or have my hands in the wrong place, he'll kind of talk to me and set me up."



Most of all, the camaraderie helps. During Thursdays, the Gamecocks' light evening of the week during the regular season, Johnson doesn't go out for a crazy night before shutting it down for the day before the game. No, it's a simple affair - a few friends, a grill and whatever his refrigerator has to offer.

"I got a lot of wild game meat in the freezer," said Johnson, also an avid hunter. "Every Thursday, we have a cookout. A friend cooks it, and we watch the Thursday night games."

Already graduated from USC with a degree in sport and entertainment management, the Gamecocks' resident good ol' boy is preparing for his final season. Johnson has become a mainstay in what's been an inconsistent group, and has kept the same good-natured demeanor throughout, even when he's so sore after a game that he can barely make his customary phone call to his dad for a critique.

"I like coaching him. I like being around him," said Elliott, a master of motivation through intense approach that's never had to challenge Johnson to be the best he can be. "It's his fourth year starting. Unbelievable leader. He's very consistent. He's a guy that we've never had any problems with. He does everything you ask of him. He's a focused individual and he's got a good head on his shoulders. He's a guy that every coach wants to be the center of their line."

Even when Johnson's line is in the water.

"He's always hunted and fished," said Johnson's mother, Allison Johnson. "He's gotten into it even more since he's been away at college. His dad and grandmother took him to ponds when he was real little. He fished with friends growing up, too."

Fishing split time with football, Johnson always bigger and stronger than the other children his age and earmarked to play O-line. Although dad Anthony was a basketball player at Goose Creek High School, Johnson took to football.

"In Little League, I had parents telling me they did not want their child going up against him," Allison said. "He's always been bigger, and he's always loved South Carolina. So many fans in Aynor love Carolina. Whenever he comes home, it's almost a celebrity sighting."

He's popular at home, hitting Bagnall's pharmacy/grill for lunch before heading to the fishing hole, and he's popular in Columbia. Coach Steve Spurrier loves to tell the story of quarterback Connor Shaw going out after dark to practice snapping with Johnson, his former roommate and close friend.

The beating he takes every gameday doesn't deter him from playing through the pain or talking with Anthony after every game. "The first thing he does is he asks my husband, 'Daddy, what did you see?,'" Allison said. "He values his father's opinion. He knows he'll give it to him straight up."

"Every day," Johnson said of the hurt his body carries. "Being an offensive lineman, there's going to be nicks and cuts and bruises and whatnot, but you've got to deal with it."

Thinking of the next trip to the lake or river helps the healing, as does the vision of seeing himself and his teammates alone at the top of the college football world. Johnson will be known as being part of one of the greatest stretches of USC football (if not the greatest) and he wants it to end on the brightest note possible - although it will be tough for it to end.

"I was sitting back, I was talking with one of the guys the other day, seems like it's flown by so fast. But it's been a great time," he said. "Now, camp's camp, but I'm almost looking at it like it's the last time I'm going to see some of these guys. Kind of bittersweet, I guess."

Johnson can be serious or gregarious when talking about football; fishing has him all smiles. He has put as many large marine residents on the deck as he has opposing defensive linemen, if not more, and will depart USC as a great player who was also a great person.

"I do consider myself a leader," he said. "I'm not a super vocal guy. When somebody needs talking to, I get on them and we'll talk. I'm a big believer in leading by example. That's what I try to do on and off the field."

Johnson wasn't telling any fish story.

The Gamecocks are glad he didn't get away.



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