EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — At first, upon learning that his star player, Jordan Johnson, had chosen to attend BYU over Connecticut and other local college teams, then-Brooks School football coach Alex Konovalchik was surprised, and a little disappointed.
“He’s African-American, from the East Coast and a non-Mormon,” Konovalchik said of Johnson. “I knew that put him in a pretty small category of kids heading out there and I knew it would be an adjustment period for him. But I felt he had been prepared for it. We felt he was making a mature decision. But on the other hand, selfishly, we were thinking, ‘When will we ever get to see him play?’”
More than four years later, Konovalchik and other supporters from Brooks, a private boarding school outside of Boston, may — or may not — get their chance to see Johnson play in person.
The Cougars visit Connecticut Friday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN) in the season opener for both teams at Rentschler Field, only about 30 minutes away Johnson’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts.
“He couldn’t be more excited,” said John McVeigh, Johnson’s basketball coach at Brooks School. “The field is actually closer to Springfield than it is to Storrs, where UConn actually is. It really is a homecoming for him. He has so many friends and family in this area that are excited to see him and watch him and just be there.”
However, there’s speculation that Johnson won’t play Friday.
During fall camp, Johnson, who was sidelined for the entire 2013 season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, mostly ran with the second team during practices. But on Monday, when BYU unveiled its depth chart, Johnson was listed as the starter at cornerback, with Robertson Daniel, who also hasn’t been practicing much with the first-team defense, listed as the starter at the other cornerback spot.
Will Johnson and Daniel be the starters in the opener?
“I would love them both to be able to start,” Mendenhall said cryptically Monday. He added, “I’d be leery of the two-deep and say, that’s Monday’s depth chart. I’m not promising that will be Friday night’s depth chart. Anything that happens internally in the program, I don’t always share. That’s the way I plan to keep it.”
A couple of weeks ago, Johnson said he fully expected to play against UConn — an opponent with which he has a connection. When Johnson was in high school, he took a recruiting trip there and then-Huskies head coach Randy Edsall offered him a scholarship.
“I thought I was going to be a Husky,” Johnson said. “It’s cool that I get to play against them.”
His host on that recruiting visit was UConn cornerback Jasper Howard. Later in 2009, Howard was fatally stabbed after the Huskies’ victory over Louisville.
“That kind of played a part of the decision to come (to BYU),” Johnson said. “The rest is history. I’m a Cougar.”
Konovalchik believes one of the things that attracted Johnson to BYU was the school’s honor code because it would provide him structure in his life. “That’s a mature decision of a young man at 18 years old to realize that,” he said.
Konovalchik and McVeigh are among those that plan to attend Friday’s game to support Johnson. Konovalchik calls Johnson “the best athlete I’ve ever coached.”
Johnson arrived at Brooks School as a basketball-first athlete with impressive point guard skills. But it soon became evident that football was where he belonged.
“He was one of the best point guards in New England at that point at his age. That’s how he defined himself at that time,” McVeigh said. “Even as a basketball coach I watched him play football for the first time and said to myself, ‘This is what he’s supposed to be doing,’ as good as a basketball player he was. He had a knack for playing football.”
Ironically, it was BYU basketball legend Danny Ainge, the president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, that helped Johnson get to BYU. A meeting between Ainge and Johnson led to a conversation about possible college destinations, and Ainge suggested he check out BYU.
“Once Jordan went out there (to Provo) and saw it for himself, he was sold,” said McVeigh, who added that because of Johnson, he’s a big Cougar fan now. “Without that, I’m not sure BYU would have popped up on Jordan’s radar, and I’m not sure Jordan would have popped up BYU’s. But once the connection was made, it made a lot of sense.”
Brooks School prepared Johnson for the BYU lifestyle, Konovalchik said.
“He grew and blossomed so much at Brooks School. I suspect it had some similarities with the adjustments he has faced at BYU,” he said. “He’s a young man coming from urban Springfield, Massachusetts, to a very challenging boarding school for primarily white boys. He adjusted and grew to meet the challenges.”
While Johnson attended Brooks School, Konovalchik formed a strong bond with Johnson. Sometimes Johnson would get rides to school with him, or sleep at his house. Konovalchik’s two young sons were “star-struck” by him, he said, adding, “They were excited to watch him play college ball.”
Johnson started at 12 games at cornerback for the Cougars in 2012 before his season-ending knee injury, which cost him his junior campaign.
During that year away from the game, he relied heavily on support from his family and friends, including many within the Brooks School community.
While Johnson said he feels 100 percent healthy, there are doubts as to whether he will play Friday.
Mendenhall said Monday that Johnson “has taken a long road back” after his ACL surgery, explaining it takes time to regain trust in a knee after that type of injury.
“The good news is, we’ve had it tested and it’s beyond where it was before it was hurt,” Mendenhall said. “So now it’s just adjusting back to, ‘It’s really OK.’ A brace sometimes affects you either subliminally or physically and so getting used to playing in a brace is different. I think ultimately, by the end of the season, he’ll have a fantastic year. How fast? Hard to predict that part.”
McVeigh’s advice for Johnson is to trust his coaches.
“I know Jordan is excited to play Friday. For him, it’s a great chance to do what he can do, but they’re being smart about one of their best players and making sure he’s all the way back from a tough injury,” McVeigh said. “When you’re coming back from an injury, the worry all along has been, is he going to be ready? I know how much he wants to be ready to be able to do that. At the same time, he’s got to be smart about making sure that he is, and not just doing it because he’s close to home, but because his body is ready.”
Like the legion of Johnson’s family and friends that will attend Friday’s game, McVeigh is looking forward to having a reunion with the former Brooks School star.
“I’m excited,” McVeigh said, “to see him in person this week.”
BYU (0-0) at Connecticut (0-0)
Rentschler Field (40,000)
Friday, 5 p.m. MDT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company