Still in the game: After career-ending diagnosis, Roderick Johnson still helps Gators win
It hurts Roderick Johnson just to think about the moment. When he speaks about the collision that ended his football career, the volume behind his voice shrinks.
But the 6-foot-5 offensive lineman is used to pain. It brings back memories from his playing days, so he has a video of the play stored on his phone.
“I want to keep that video forever just because it’s the video that snatched my career away,” Johnson said. “Why not have it? I can probably show my kids this video a couple of years from now.”
It happened during an ordinary spring scrimmage on April 3 on a power running play. Johnson reached to block a slanting defensive lineman when one of his fellow offensive lineman ran into him with a lot of force, causing Johnson’s neck to snap awkwardly.
Johnson’s body immediately went numb.
“I thought it was just a little stinger and I would be back at practice on Monday ready to go,” he said. “I just needed some time to rest my neck a little bit.”
But after nearly two weeks of waiting for an official diagnosis, Johnson was called into a private meeting on April 15 with new Gators head coach Jim McElwain, offensive line coach Mike Summers and assistant athletics director George Wynn.
‘The worst news I’ve ever heard’
An emotional McElwain gave Johnson the news that would end his football career at the age of 21. The former American Heritage standout was diagnosed with congenital cervical spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that prevents enough fluid from gathering around the spinal cord to properly protect it.
One bad hit could leave Johnson paralyzed. Spinal stenosis also ended the career of New York Giants running back David Wilson last year.
“They just flat out just told me I couldn’t play anymore,” Johnson said. “That was the worst news I’ve ever heard in my life. I ain’t never had no deaths in the family, so them telling me that I wasn’t going to play football was like the worst news in my life.”
Johnson mourned the end of his football career by going back to his dorm in the Springs Residential Complex and crying himself to sleep. He shut out the outside world and didn’t use his phone for hours.
“I kind of felt isolated from the situation until he finally picked up the phone,” father Roderick Johnson Sr. said. “It took him about 24 hours for him to finally answer the phone.”
The news wasn’t easy to accept.
Johnson was expected to be the key piece of Florida’s offensive line this season as a redshirt sophomore after earning three starts at right tackle and playing in all 12 games last season.
“If he did what he was supposed to do on the field, he had an NFL future,” said cousin Jonathan King, who is the wide receivers coach at Oxbridge Academy.
However, Johnson didn’t allow his playing career to end without a fight. He researched his condition and looked for a second opinion on his situation.
Johnson visited another doctor less than two months ago to get another opinion, but the diagnosis was the same. After two opinions, Johnson and his family are ready to move forward.
“We’re done with that,” said Johnson Sr. when asked if they would visit other doctors. “I don’t want to get his hopes up high because his hopes were kind of high with the second opinion. But I always told him to look for the worst and hope for the best.”
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jarvis Jones’ situation gave Johnson even more hope. The Delray Beach native reached out and spoke to Jones, who was told his career was over after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis as a sophomore at Southern California.
Jones ended up transferring to Georgia and continuing his playing career before being selected by the Steelers with the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Has Johnson ever considered taking a similar route and transferring from Florida?
“It has never been a thought in my mind,” Johnson Sr. said. “If he would have gotten cleared to play [by another school], that might have been an option. Every school is different. Even if he did get cleared by another school, I really wouldn’t blame Florida for not clearing him to play because they actually saw firsthand what happened. No coach wants that on their conscious.”
Game still under his skin
Instead, Johnson will continue on the track that has him set to graduate from Florida in two years with a degree in sociology.
The sport is still in Johnson’s life, though. He has helped teach the Gators’ offensive line this season as a player-coach when school allows him to and he’s even considering coaching as an option after he graduates.
“I could see myself going to coach a high school team,” Johnson said. “But then again, I could see myself staying here and being with the coaching staff again. That’s just going to have to be a family decision.”
The only problem is that the pain often resurfaces when Johnson watches his former teammates on the field. The toughest day of the week for him is game day.
“I’m not used to waking up on a Saturday morning in my bed,” said Johnson, who pointed to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson as the teammate who has helped him the most through the ordeal. “I’m used to waking up in a hotel bed and getting ready to go to breakfast and get my mind right for a game. My whole itinerary is just kind of off right now. That’s the worst day for me every week.”
But Johnson doesn’t run away from the pain. In addition to the video he has stored on his phone of the play that ended his football career, he engraved a reminder of his playing days on his skin.
On Johnson’s left bicep, he has a tattoo of his No. 55 Gators jersey. He got it the week after learning his diagnosis.
Johnson even ran out of the tunnel with the Gators for the opener against New Mexico State on Sept. 5. He also traveled with the team to stand on the sideline for Florida’s road game against LSU on Oct. 17.
“He was able to walk away from football,” King said. “A lot of people don’t walk away from it. They’re still on that ground and from the ground, they’re in a wheelchair. He was able to walk away. That’s proof that he has a purpose.”
Johnson is determined to find that purpose.
“I’m still on that road,” Johnson said. “I have mixed emotions. I’ll feel good one day, and then the next day I just go to thinking.”
Thinking about what could have been.
“My body feels great,” he said. “I could go out there and play Saturday if they let me.”