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Posted on Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Michigan commit Drake Johnson is Washtenaw County football Player of the Year

By Pete Cunningham


Pioneer High School running back Drake Johnson is the 2011 Ann Washtenaw County Player of the Year. He'll play at Michigan next year.

Melanie Maxwell |

As a child, Pioneer High School senior running back Drake Johnson would roam the among giants at University of Michigan football games. The occasional sideline pass is one of the many benefits he has enjoyed as the son of the Wolverines cheerleading coach, Pam St. John.

Johnson remembers being 8 years old and having the same competitive desire he does now, though not the same sense of self-preservation.

He’d look up at the towering players in winged helmets and yell, “I’m going to be better than all you guys one day.”

The players were nice enough not to crush him. And soon, he’ll have the chance to prove himself.

After rushing for 2,800 yards and scoring 38 touchdowns while leading Pioneer to a 9-3 record, Johnson was a unanimous selection for the Associated Press Division 1-2 all-state team and earned a scholarship from Michigan.

The soon-to-be Wolverine is also the Washtenaw County Player of the Year.


Johnson plays football and runs track for Pioneer, but attends Community High School, a public magnet school that offers college prep courses, but not athletics.

If there’s one rule that puts into perspective how different Community is from a typical high school, it’s the hall pass rule. There are no hall passes at Community.

“If a student needs to step out of class, they can. They do what they have to do, then they come back,” says dean Jennifer Hein, as if that’s just the way it works everywhere.

Hein says one-third of Community’s students are athletes, but there are no articles boasting their athletic achievement taped up in the hallways. That would cover the vibrantly colored student-painted murals.

“The good artists are the ones who get the attention here. They’re the popular ones,” Johnson says as he points out his favorite paintings in the hall.

Johnson’s been to just one pep rally during his high school career. After a big Friday night when he rushed for more than 300 yards (he did it three times this year) or scored more than three touchdowns (eight times), Monday morning wouldn’t be filled with adulation or fanfare.

At Community, he wasn’t Drake Johnson the running back. He is just plain old Drake, and that’s OK by him.

“People here know that I play football, but they don’t necessarily care,” Johnson says. “It’s kind of an escape. It’s coming back to reality, it’s like football is kind of just…sports.”

“I don’t just have friends at Community because I play football. It’s because of my personality.”

When Johnson got into Community -- Ann Arbor Public School students must enter a random lottery to attend -- he didn’t want to go, but his father, Michael Johnson, made him.

“I told him as soon as Pioneer or Huron can say they graduate 100 percent of their black students, you can go there,” Michael says. “Until they can say that, you’re going to Community.”

After his freshman year, Michael gave Drake the choice, but he didn’t want to leave.

The anonymity Johnson now enjoys is all about to change. Have just one game for the Wolverines like the dozen he had for Pioneer this year, and he won’t be able to walk down State Street. Even before he ever plays a down, the team-issued sweat suit alone will turn heads in the Diag.

That’s OK by him, too.


After a minute with Johnson, it’s very clear that he’s a unique individual. Cookie-cutter answers to a reporter's questions -- the kind middle schoolers learn by watching too much ESPN -- aren’t his thing.

Ask Johnson what he's thinking and he’ll tell you exactly that, and might even act out his thought process with a few self-deprecating jokes in between.

It’s fitting that someone so outgoing took a less-traveled route to college football recruitment.

It’s not enough to send game film to coaches anymore. Nowadays, prospects traverse the country to camps put on by recruiting services hoping to get noticed by the right people. Prior to junior year is when most recruits get noticed.

Johnson -- a two-time MHSAA Division 1 state track champion in the 110-meter hurdles -- instead competed in elite track competitions before his junior year. This past summer he went to football camps, but got a common response.

“People were like, 'well, where were you last year?'” Michael said. “He was very frustrated after the summer.

“I was like, listen, there’s another way to this and it’s the hard way,” Michael said. “Rush for over 2,000 yards, 30 or 40 touchdowns, people are going to take notice. I told him, 'I don’t know if it’s going to be Michigan, but someone will.'”

Drake asked his father to help him train. To have the type of season he needed to get to his dream school, he knew he had to be bigger, stronger and faster. So they did two training sessions a day, working on all of the above.

Johnson entered his senior season 20 pounds heavier than his junior year, but faster and better conditioned.

The work paid off in the fall. Pioneer’s new coach, Paul Test, ran an offense where Johnson was the focal point of a downhill rushing attack. Johnson’s success running inside dispelled the notion that he was just a track guy who could outrun people in the open field.

He averaged 28.5 carries a game and 8.15 yards per carry this season, and after his work over the summer, says he never felt worn out after games.

Four days before Pioneer’s season-ending loss to Detroit Catholic Central in a Division 1 regional championship game, Johnson finally got a call from longtime Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson offering him a scholarship.

It was just the second scholarship offer Johnson had received. The other, from Eastern Michigan, came before the season began. It didn’t take long for the lifelong Wolverines fan to accept.

"I'm very excited for him, very proud for him," says Test. "He’s going to make a difference over there (at Michigan). He’s a special athlete."

While the uncertainty of having to wait so long for an offer frustrated Johnson, he takes pride in the path he chose to college football.

“I didn’t go around to these camps and have to show out. I kind of just did it. I proved that I was the best on the field. Not at these camps that are like ‘Oh, he can go through cones quickly, he can jump high.’ It was on the field,” Johnson says. “I didn’t have to go buy stars.”

Johnson will soon face the challenge of proving he’s worthy of that scholarship. A new round of critics are already saying he runs too high, is too tall to be a running back, or point out he’s just a three-star on the main recruiting sites.

Johnson has heard it all and he’s OK with that, too.

“Having to earn that scholarship, it brought me a respect for what I’m going to have to do at the next level," Johnson says. "Things aren’t going to be given to you.”

Pete Cunningham covers sports for He can be reached at or by phone at 734-623-2561. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.


say it plain

Tue, Dec 6, 2011 : 4:21 a.m.

Oh goodness, not *another* kid who takes advantage of all that Community has to offer *AND* lives the hypocrisy by also taking advantage of all that Pioneer has to offer... I'd read all the other stories about this lovely-seeming kid, that's great, happy he's heading to UM and has had such great success with the football thing. But in all of those he was mentioned, as I recall anyhow, as "Pioneer senior" Johnson. Funny, though, how he somehow was actually a student at Community! Nice deal for the lucky kids who get in, too bad for everyone else... Because Community couldn't be the same kind of place as it is and also do the sports thing like the big-school Pioneer does. Lottery is lottery, but why somehow the lottery for Community means you get to benefit from the small *and* the large doesn't make any sense at all to me...


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 11:57 p.m.

Sounds like community is a great school. A school and parents who emphasize academics over sports- great. I love football but think sports are way over emphasized in most schools. Good kid. Smart father.

Sandy Castle

Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 9:08 p.m.

@Tesla - is a local news source. In a local paper there isn't very much in the way of news that is more important than stories about the success of local kids. Especially as we see so many stories that are just the opposite. Your comment comes across as sour grapes and it's too bad that you felt compelled to make a comment like this and mar the joy this article must bring to this kid and his supporters. I'm sure you're smart enough to choose not to read stories that aren't of interest to you. Next time make better choices., I hope we continue to see more coverage like this. I really enjoy reading of our local success stories.


Mon, Dec 5, 2011 : 1:35 a.m.

No I think it's great the kid is good at the game, it's just that there are always so many sports articles on the front page. Right now there are no less than five on the front page including one about some basketball players hairdo. I know this town is all about the U of M and sports. Just pointing out that it gets a lot old to those who come here for other sorts of news.


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 9:40 p.m.

Good perspective. Drake will work as hard as ever for earn as high a spot on the depth chart as he can. I'd take 100 more of his kind to play for the Wolverines.

Dayne White Bull The Terrible.

Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 8:08 p.m.

He earned it. I mean go look at the MHSAA record books! He's obviously showed that he's one of the best running backs to ever play HS ball in Michigan. And he got those yards in an offensive scheme that screamed "I'm about to run the ball on you, okay defense?!?" I'm still amazed at how well he did.


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 4:07 p.m.

Congrats to Drake Johnson and to his dad for encouraging and supporting him through what I know is a difficult life as a high school athlete. If Coach Fred Jackson thinks he's worth a scholarship, then there's no question Drake has a chance to succeed with the Wolverines. As one of the parents of a Community High grad who also won a scholarship to U of M: I can imagine the thrill for Drake and his family.


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 3:44 p.m.

No offense but is this going to be another story we get to re read every couple weeks? This is already the third or fourth article about the young man in the last month since he got one phone call with a verbal offer.


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 5:54 p.m.

And his first day at camp will be news, his first game will be news, first run, td, broken shoelace etc etc. I get it. Just saying you guys have a propensity to over do these stories to death.

Pete Cunningham

Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 4:16 p.m.

When Drake received a verbal offer from Michigan it was news (on the local high school and Michigan football beats), when he was named first team All-State it was news and now that he is the area's Player of the Year, it is news.


Sun, Dec 4, 2011 : 11:33 a.m.

Sounds like a wonderful kid. I wish him well.