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Oct. 19, 2006

by Peter Goergen, Jr., Student Assistant, UVa Athletics Media Relations

In the midst of a disappointing 5-7 year, the UVa football program and its new head coach Al Groh got a needed boost back in 2001 when dynamic five-star recruit Michael Johnson decided to join the Cavaliers. The lure of playing with the runner as one of the top all-around backs in the country helped trigger a slew of signings that included heralded linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham.

Michael Johnson had a lot of influence on that class,” fellow running back and class member Jason Snelling said. “With him, and a collection of guys throughout the state, I knew about them all, and I was just really excited to be coming to the program and develop with those guys.”

Johnson credits the history of the UVa football program, the opportunity to step in and contribute right away and the prospect of staying at running back with luring him to Virginia.

“I wasn’t really looking at who was coming here,” said Johnson, who rushed for over 2,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns his junior year at Heritage High School. “I think I had a little more impact on their [Kai’s and Ahmad’s] decision than they did on mine. I talked to them a week before signing day when they called me and asked me what I was going to do, and I said I was going to Virginia.”

Recruiting analysts ranked the class, which also included such players as Wali Lundy, Marcus Hamilton, and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, in the top 10 nationally and considered it the best in UVa history.

“I think we were the best class in the history of UVa,” said Johnson, a native of Newport News, Va. “You can tell how much most of us played immediately, and if we hadn’t had that class, we wouldn’t have won nine games that first year. It was a real good decision for all of us to come in as we did, that if it wasn’t the top class, then it was top five, top 10.”

The decorated class that came in with lofty hopes and expectations lived up to the hype, compiling 32 wins and playing in four consecutive bowl games from 2002-05. Johnson calls the team’s success the highlight of his collegiate career.

“From my first year, going to four bowl games in a row, that was a really good accomplishment,” Johnson said. “Prior to that, they came off that season [5-7 in 2001], and the first year we helped win nine games, and then the next year we won eight, and the next year we won another eight, so we’ve just won a lot of games.”

While Johnson and members of the recruiting class made an immediate impact between the sidelines, they also grew close outside of football.

“I was tight with Wali [Lundy],” said Johnson, who took a medical redshirt during his sophomore year. “I lived with him the whole time during his four years. Me and Wali and Tony Franklin were like the Three Stooges.”With Lundy’s departure to the Houston Texans of the NFL, Johnson was presented more opportunities to get involved with the offense.

“It’s a good combination to have,” said Virginia head coach Al Groh. “It really cuts down on the bulk of carries over a season for each one of them. It’s going to cut down on individual numbers, if that was an issue, which it really isn’t to us. But, it’ll hopefully help us keep the backs fresh and kind of lively throughout the course of the year.”

Despite their playing in a crowded backfield and engaging in a heated competition for playing time, Snelling and Johnson have grown close.”Jason’s like my brother,” Johnson said. “I would do anything for Jason, just like he would do anything for me, just like family would. We do play the same position, but it goes deeper than that. It’s beyond football honestly.”

“He’s a funny guy on the team,” Snelling said. “He’s a real close friend of mine, and he and I are together all the time. He brings a lot of energy and fun to the game, and that translates onto the field. He’s a good guy to play with and a great teammate.”

In practice and games, Johnson draws upon his experience to help him serve as a leader to young backs like redshirt freshman Mikell Simpson and sophomore Cedric Peerman.

“He motivates more by example,” Snelling said. “Mike is an explosive player, and he can make a big play that many people can’t do. The younger players, they see that, and it inspires them as runners.”

Snelling, who has also played in the same backfield as current NFL players Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman, believes Johnson can add to the list of UVa grads in the pros.

“He’s definitely a player that can play at the NFL level. He brings something to the game that most guys don’t have. He runs a 4.3, 4.2, and not many guys can do that. He definitely has that ability, and he has the drive,” Snelling said.

But if an NFL career isn’t in the cards for Johnson, the speedster has his degree in anthropology to fall back on. Now a graduate student in the Division of Continuing Education in UVa’s Curry School of Education, Johnson aspires to a career in commerce.

“I thought about a couple of things like investment banking and real estate,” Johnson said. “If football doesn’t work out, I want to get my real estate license, but that’s secondary.”

For now, Johnson can concentrate on continuing to provide a spark for the Cavaliers’ offense and team leadership both on and off the field.

1st and 10 With Michael Johnson
Most embarrassing song on my iPod:
The Waiting by Tom Petty
Favorite class at UVa: Anthropology 236- Castaneda and Don Juan
Most prized possession: My three-year-old son
Favorite place on the Corner: Tropical Smoothie
Best player of all time in a sports video game: Jerry Rice in Techmo Super Bowl
The extreme activity I would like to try: Sky diving
My favorite website:
Favorite junk food: Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Cookies
Best Christmas present as a kid: My first bike
The place I want to visit: Sydney, Australia

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