Justin Johnson’s dream was to be a linebacker at Ohio State. He grew up admiring the play of A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and others who starred in the middle of the Buckeyes’ defense.
Instead of donning the scarlet and gray and playing in the Horseshoe on autumn Saturdays, Johnson’s athletic prowess led him to E.A. Diddle Arena and Western Kentucky. It is in Bowling Green where he has been living a dream as one of Conference USA’s top forwards and one of the conference’s most accomplished student-athletes.
“If I could play football right now it would be my best sport,” he said, laughing at the thought.
Indeed, the native of the Blue Grass State had Kentucky and Louisville expressing interest in his services as a tight end, which he played two seasons in high school. However, as Johnson grew to his current 6-7 and 240 pounds, his focus was solely on a basketball.
He was an all-state performer at the high school with which he spent his final two years before becoming an early signee at WKU. He remained in his home state instead of accepting an offer from Boston College or any of the other schools that knocked on his door.
After leading WKU in scoring (14.9) and rebounds (7.9) last season as a sophomore, Johnson is third in scoring (12.9) and first in rebounds (8.0, seventh in C-USA). He is shooting 50.6% from the field and, though he averages only a couple of attempts per game, an impressive 48.4 from 3-point land.
“That’s one of the things I wanted to work on coming into this season,” said Johnson, whose Hilltoppers (9-10, 3-3 Conference USA) play at Marshall Saturday on ASN.
“I wanted to expand my game, move out from the post and shoot the three. I also wanted to work on switching off defensively. Coach (Rick) Stansbury has confidence in me to do all those things now. The biggest difference in my game from last year to this year is shooting the ball and my defense.”
As diligent as Johnson is on the court his work away from the arena is notable. So much so that he was named an Allstate Good Works Team nominee in large part for his community service in Bowling Green and parts far beyond.
Through a Kentucky-based Christian ministry program that utilizes sports as a platform Johnson has taken mission trips to Belize and China. The time he spent in Belize, which included visiting children’s homes, was particularly rewarding as many of the youths he encountered came from very little.
“It was a great experience seeing some of the conditions that people are living in over there,” he said. “Giving those kids peace of mind for 10 minutes or two hours, to see them smile is something I got a lot of pleasure out of.”
It is all a part of the student-athlete experience Johnson has enjoyed at WKU and the Good Works Team recognition is something he does not take lightly.
“That means a lot to me because it acknowledges not just basketball, but the stuff I do off the court within the community and out in the world, you can say,” he said. “My parents raised me with good morals and everything and it shows that life goes further than basketball.”
A sport management major with a minor in business management, Johnson will complete his undergrad studies in May, a full year ahead of schedule. Balancing the demands of basketball and what at times were 18-hour semesters can be grueling, but ultimately worth it.
“Graduating a year early, in three years has been a lot of work,” he said. “It’s having to balance everything and taking care of business on and off the court. It’s making sure that you are getting things done on time and doing the right things with your time. It’s been tough, I am not going to lie, but I have managed to do it.”
A good chunk of Johnson’s final semester, which begins later this month, will be interning at a Bowling Green retirement village. He will help people with their motor skills through such activities as swimming and dribbling a basketball.
It will be a familiar environment as Johnson previously lent his time to the village, helping spruce up its appearance to, most importantly, lending an ear to its residents.
“At the end of the day most people just want somebody to talk to, somebody to spend a little bit of time with and listen to them,” he said. “That’s kind of what I do. When I meet with them I don’t say much. I just kind of listen to them and what they have to say because I learn a lot from them. They also may not have anybody else to listen to them.”
Such consideration goes back to parents. Johnson said his mother instilled the morals and keeps him humbled and grounded while his father, a retired coal miner, spent countless hours helping him with his game.
“My whole life my father was like a coach in the stands and now he gets to kick back and enjoy watching me play in college,” he said. “My mom has kept me motivated and provides positive energy.”
Johnson has brought plenty of positive energy to Western Kentucky.
Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @TomLay810.