Somebody is wrong

Marvin WestFeature, westwords

I am nearly always right but sometimes I am wrong, no spinning to explain it away, just plain wrong.


Even with a lofty IQ, vast experience and world-class confidence, I have on occasion erred and fallen short. Two examples remain flaming vivid in my memory. Well, I suppose, there is now a third.

I’ll tell you about the first two some other time. You can ask if you are really interested.

My latest mistake involves Jakob Johnson, former Tennessee football player, mislabeled as a tight end. He caught three passes in his career. Three. He snagged two in the second half against Tennessee Tech in 2016 for 10 total yards. Highlights in 2017 were a spring award as most improved and one catch against Indiana State for 13 yards.

No matter what was said on the public-address system and in the printed program, I knew he wasn’t a tight end.

I saw Jakob when he arrived at the university four years ago and said, quietly (I am uncomfortable when people hear me talking to myself), “My, my, there goes a real, live linebacker.”

I didn’t know Jakob from Adam but I could foresee all-star honors, at least all-Southeastern Conference. He had the look, 6-3 and maybe 225, light, gliding stride, different from the plod-plod-plodding of some left guards and right tackles I have known. They shook the concrete.

When I learned Jakob had grown up in Germany and only recently relocated to the United States to enhance his chances of playing college football, his stock went up. The young man had courage. He sought no shortcuts.

Jakob (pronounced YAH-kob) didn’t learn all that much football in Germany. He absorbed the basics from video games, Madden and NCAA Football on PlayStation. He gained some perspective while playing around with the Stuttgart junior Scorpions.

Because he was told he had talent, Johnson began to think “what if?” He compiled information about major college programs, coast to coast, north to south in the United States. He invested many hours. He searched websites and sent many emails to head coaches and defensive coordinators.

He received three responses. Two suggested he make a move.

Jakob’s dad, Calvin Johnson, a football player while growing up in Florida and again while on military duty in Germany, made arrangements for his son to move in with relatives in Jacksonville. Jakob rushed through paperwork and arrived in time for the 2013 season at Jean Ribault High School, became captain of the defense, made 112 tackles and earned three and four stars from recruiting services.

OK, if you really must know, he slept on an air mattress in his aunt’s apartment.

The school got his attention. It was infamous for gang violence. His new community had an alarming murder rate. Survive was the first order of business. Excel was second, maybe third after finding food.

Jakob surprised himself with how much he was willing to do to have a chance at college football. He chased his dream into a really big game, made some loud hits in crucial moments and caused a couple of fumbles. The phone rang the next day. Tennessee offered him a scholarship.

“It was surreal,” said Johnson. He knows the definition of such words.

“That was everything I had worked for.”

Tennessee beat Central Florida, Wisconsin, Tulane and Idaho for his services. Jakob enrolled early, January 2014. He came with a 27 on his ACT.

That first spring, Jakob looked like a winner. He was swift for his size. He was a thumper. Alas, coaches did not see immediate stardom. They tinkered with him. They reminded all who would listen about how much this lad had to learn.

Butch said, “We have to find the best fit, the best position. He does bring value because he can do different things. One of the strengths is his ability to run – to run and hit.”

The exalted brain trust eventually decided what I knew all along. He was a linebacker-in-waiting, learning time to be served on special teams.

The suspension of A.J. Johnson forced freshman Jakob Johnson into a starting role against Missouri.

“He did good, man,” said Tommy Thigpen, coach of linebackers. “For his first start, I thought he was spot-on.”

Jakob started against Vanderbilt. He had a couple of hits in the bowl game. He had a future.

It seemed strange that not much happened in his sophomore season. He was on special teams.

He got a surprise as a junior. He became a tight end. Because he was tough, he again played on special teams.

Strange, part 3: An NFL scout I sometimes question turned the tables and questioned me. What happened to Jakob Johnson? I said, because of his versatility, coaches were plugging him in to fill voids. The scout said “Hmmmm.”

Interesting things happened off the field. Jakob got more tattoos than haircuts. His English improved. He learned about American slang from Family Guy on TV.

He liked cheesesteak at Gus’s Deli and sometimes bought Krystal cheeseburgers by the 12-pack. Later, he gained faith in what UT called a proper diet and gained 20 pounds.

He was a regular on the academic honor roll. He earned a degree in kinesiology. He did well in an internship at East Tennessee’s Children’s Hospital. He firmed up his goal to become an orthopedic surgeon.

He has come far from Stuttgart. Last month he appeared at Tennessee’s pro day. Could be NFL scouts recognized what I thought I saw four years ago.

Where football leads, if it does, remains to be seen. Jacob is an athlete. As a youth, he was into wrestling, soccer and swimming. He can run. He will strike a blow. Tight end? I don’t think so.

This story of Jakob Johnson creates an eerie similarity to a past Volunteer, Mike Stratton of Tellico Plains. UT coaches in 1959 had trouble finding him a position. They made him an end. In three years, he caught 11 passes.

The Buffalo Bills turned Mike into a linebacker. He was seven times all-pro.

I still think Jakob Johnson is a linebacker. I suppose I am wrong. Somebody is.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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