Ex-Michigan cornerback Johnny Sears hopes to make most of chance at Eastern
Second chances are never guaranteed in life and Johnny Sears knew it.
He arrived in the Midwest in 2005, ready to start a promising college football career at Michigan. Two years later, he was home in Fresno, his scholarship gone, his future uncertain.
The talented defensive back with so much promise wondered how things had gone so wrong so quickly.
"It was almost over - down and out," Sears says. "I didn't know what was happening."
Sears never figured his questions would be answered by returning to the state where his football career nearly ended. But the football coach who pulled hiim out of Fresno in the first place granted him a fresh start.
Ron English had a plan for Sears.
Here was Sears, the prep standout cornerback English recruited four years earlier to bolster the Wolverines secondary - without having even seen him in a game or even in pads.
Sears was the first in his family to go off to a school like Michigan. He saw it as a way to help create better opportunities for his family. But Sears soon learned there were minefields to avoid.
That lesson had come from Tony Perry. Perry, who coached Sears in high school, knew Sears would be playing in front of large crowds, on national television. There would be fans waiting for him, looking for autographs. Perry warned his former star that he couldn't let the attention go to his head.
"It's just so different," said Perry, who now works as an assistant at College of the Sequoias in central California. "There is so much going on and if you're not ready for it, it can drown you."
Sears, then 18, quickly found himself getting wrapped up in the Michigan atmosphere. At the same time, Sears had lost two people close to him.
He was grieving over the loss of one of his cousin and another close friend, who were killed in a car accident in Fresno. Sears hung out with them the day before he left for Michigan. The three had made plans to reunite at one of Sears' games in Ann Arbor.
Sears had planned to show them there was life outside of Fresno. But when the accident cut their lives short, Sears returned to California to deliver the eulogies at their funerals.
Tattooed on the inside of each of Sears' arms are now the names of his two friends - a daily reminder to remember them and that life can be taken away at any time.
The losses started Sears on a road of hardship.
By the time he was a senior, Sears was slated to start for Michigan. But after one game, coach Lloyd Carr dismissed Sears from the team for violating team rules.
"I was just immature," Sears said. "I didn't realize what I had and wasn't paying attention. I wasn't where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. I basically wasn't helping the team."
With his career at Michigan over, Sears wanted to return to Fresno. But he was broke. Sears borrowed money and worked odd jobs until he could raise the $700 he needed.
But that was only the first step - what to do once he got back was the next. If he wasn't careful, Fresno was a place where bad decision-making could lead youngsters down Sears down the wrong road.
Stressed over his future, Sears sought counsel from those closest to him - his parents and Perry.
His parents were firm, but supportive, telling Sears only he could determine which way he would go. Perry delivered the same message.
"Man, it's like this - people make mistakes and this is going to show you what kind of man you are," Perry told him. "Either you take responsibility for this or you can let your life go in a different direction."
Determined to turn his life around, Sears traveled 75 miles up the freeway and took classes at College of the Sequoias. He began working out, running track and practicing with the junior college's football team.
"Going back, I had a lot of time to think and change my ways and to change my life," Sears said. "I just had to find myself - everybody makes mistakes in life, and from where I come from, there's a whole lot of people who have made mistakes.
"It was just a matter of how I was going to bounce back."
During his year in California, Sears maintained contact with his former Michigan teammates, including tailback Brandon Minor, defensive end Brandon Graham and receiver Greg Mathews, who all encouraged Sears to keep fighting.
Sears looked for chances to play his final year of eligibility. He was leaning toward playing at the Division II level, willing to do whatever he could to keep football in his life.
Perry called English, who had been hired at Eastern Michigan. He asked if there was any way English would give him a chance.
Initially, English was inclined to pass. But when Perry called again a few weeks later and told English that Sears had been working the scout team on both offense and defense. Perry convinced English that Sears was a different person.
English tended to believe him.
"I was disappointed in what he did and I was hurt by it," English said. "But these are kids and you get over it."
English offered Sears the chance to finish what he had started - this time in Ypsilanti. But there would be rules. Sears had to stay out of trouble and couldn't be a distraction to English's team. Sears was glad just to have another shot.
"Johnny's a totally different kid than he was three years ago," English said. 'We always loved Johnny - we liked him a lot and coach Carr liked him. We just couldn't condone what he was doing.
"But he's a good person and we did a lot of soul-searching and I think it was the right decision to bring him here."
Sears is now Eastern Michigan's starting cornerback and kick returner. He has become a mentor to his younger teammates, teaching them techniques he learned at Michigan, proving to English he's willing to make the Eagles better any way he can.
"We love having him on our team despite what's happened with him in the past," Eastern Michigan senior defensive end Brandon Downs said. "If he wasn't committed, it would be a little different, but he's not like that at all."
In two games with the Eagles, Sears has made eight tackles and had one pass break-up while also averaging 22.8 yards per kickoff. Saturday, he will return to Michigan Stadium in an atmosphere he likened to a family reunion.
He harbors no ill feelings about the way his career ended at Michigan, nor awkwardness about facing the Wolverines. Instead, it's just a chance for him to be back playing football again - something that a year ago, he wasn't sure he ever have a chance to do.
"Coach E. gave me a second chance and I'm just trying to take advantage of it," Sears said. "I'm just trying to make things better from the mistakes that I've made and try to help (English) out as much as I can for him for helping me out more than he will ever know that he did."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or firstname.lastname@example.org