Amid the delirium near the end of Washington’s heart-stopping 37-31 Sugar Bowl victory over Texas was one sobering moment with just under a minute to play. Huskies running back Dillon Johnson, a Greenville native, carried the ball into the line on a third down play. Johnson was swarmed and tackled for no gain.
Afterward, Johnson could not get up. When finally helped to his feet, he could not put any weight on his right foot.
Johnson, who scored the game’s first two touchdowns, has led the Huskies with nearly 1,200 yards rushing. He leads the team in touchdowns with 16. He protects wunderkind quarterback Michael Penix from blitzing pass rushers with bone-jarring regularity. Put it this way: The Huskies would not be 14-0 and headed to Monday night’s national championship game without Dillon Johnson, who was helped off the field and finally carted to the locker room.
It surely looked as if Washington would be forced to play No. 1 ranked Michigan without one of its key players. But, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend…”
Greenville dentist Gwen Moore, who treats inmates at the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman, knew better. She is Dillon Johnson’s mother and his biggest fan. “Dill has an amazing pain threshold,” she said by telephone Thursday. “If he’s in it, he’s in it to win it. When I talked to him yesterday, he said, ‘Don’t worry about me, Mama. I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to play. You just worry about getting to Houston.’ Dill has played through injuries all his life. He has played hurt for the last couple months. He focuses on the task and not the pain.”
Washington coach Kellen DeBoer has said he expects Johnson to play. Greenville St. Joseph coach John Baker, Johnson’s high school coach, would be shocked if Johnson did not play.
“Dillon’s just special, always has been,” Baker said. “He has all the intangibles, including a competitiveness I have rarely seen. I mean, you can see it in his eyes. The thing about Dillon is he demands everybody around him play with the same intensity and toughness that he plays with.”
When Johnson was home over the Christmas holidays, he visited the St. Joe football facility for workouts and ice baths for his injured shoulder and foot. Said Baker, “He actually has a fractured bone in that right foot. He hurt it in the Oregon State game (Nov. 18).”
But that didn’t keep him from running for 152 yards and two touchdowns in the Pac-12 Championship Game victory over Oregon two weeks later. Not bad — right? – 152 yards and two scores with a broken bone in his right foot.
Nothing Johnson achieves surprises Baker, who coached him from the seventh grade through his high school career. “I remember one game when he was in the eighth grade when he played every play at running back on offense and middle linebacker on defense,” Baker said. “He won the game by himself. I mean, he made every tackle on defense and scored every touchdown. We were out-manned everywhere else, but Dillon just took over and won it.”
Johnson moved to the varsity in the ninth grade and helped St. Joe to three straight state championships beginning his sophomore year. He played running back as a sophomore, quarterback as a junior and running back and quarterback as a senior.
“The thing a lot of people don’t realize about Dillon is he can really throw the ball, too,” Baker said. Indeed, Johnson completed both the passes he threw for Washington this season. One went for a touchdown.
Seems almost impossible to believe Baker had Dillon Johnson and Florida State star Trey Benson in the same backfield for two seasons at a tiny private school in the Mississippi Delta. He did. Joe Moorhead, then the head coach at Mississippi State, recruited both. He landed Johnson, but Benson went first to Oregon and then to FSU.
“None of what is happening with Dillon at Washington surprises me,” said Moorhead, now the head coach at Akron. “I’m incredibly happy for his success. It’s all well-deserved and the result of hard work, dedication and being a good person.”
There was nothing not to like about Johnson as a football player, Moorhead said before listing the superlatives. “Great size and length,” Moorhead said. “Tremendous speed and acceleration. Excellent change of direction. Very physical running the ball and in pass protection. Great basketball player, too.”
Moorhead went on: “As good as Dillon is as a player, he’s an equally good person, engaging and always had a smile on his face, incredibly positive. Very well respected by his coaches, teachers and classmates. He comes from a tremendous family. His mother Gwen was incredibly supportive throughout the recruiting process and you could tell she had a significant impact on Dillon as a young man.”
Moorhead never got to coach him at State. When he was fired, Mike Leach brought in his Air Raid offense, which ran the ball only as an occasional change of pace. In three seasons at State, Johnson ran for about as many yards as he did in one season at Washington. Yes, Johnson caught 149 passes over those three seasons, but what he really wanted was to run the football. So he entered the portal.
“Probably the hardest decision Dill ever made,” said his mother, Gwen Moore. “He had grown up wanting to be a Mississippi State Bulldog.”
Once in the portal, Johnson heard from many schools, Washington among them. “Washington probably recruited him hardest,” Moore said. “They had won 11 games and lost just two the year before and their pitch was that Dillon was the missing link, that he was what they needed to go win a national championship. He visited and really loved it.”
The rest is history. And now, he apparently will play for that national championship, broken foot or not, determined as ever.
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