“That’s What Made It Worth It”

Many dream of achieving their goals. Some have enough grit to pursue them.

A handful have the tenacity to risk it all in order to live their dreams, if only for a day.

For Arkansas Tech University football student-athlete C.J. Johnson, that day was Oct. 27, 2018.

Prior to that fateful afternoon at Paul Laird Field in Durant, Okla., Johnson had appeared in 10 career games over two seasons at Arkansas Tech and had been credited with four tackles.

An injury to regular ATU starting linebacker K.J. Reid opened the door for Johnson to be among the starting 11 on defense when the Wonder Boys faced Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

With only three weeks remaining in his senior season, it was the opportunity Johnson had been pursuing since his dreams of gridiron glory were born on the flag football fields of his youth in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“I had inclinations (that I was going to start) on Monday of that week, but I don’t think it was really until Wednesday when I knew I was going to start,” said Johnson. “I knew I needed to prepare myself to play good like I did every week. That’s the way our coaches taught us to prepare.”

Johnson was integral in Arkansas Tech building and maintaining a 10-6 lead as the fourth-quarter clock approached double zero. He had made eight tackles, twice his career total coming into the day.

“It was a really exciting day and fun to be able to play at that level…to make that kind of impact on the game,” said Johnson. “I had a lot of anxiousness before the game and excitement during.”

Then came the final meaningful play of the game.

Southeastern Oklahoma State quarterback Rollin Kinsaul delivered a fourth-down pass across the middle in hopes of connecting with a receiver. Those hopes were dashed and the Wonder Boys’ first road victory over the Savage Storm since 1992 was secured when Johnson collided with the intended receiver and broke up the pass with 40 seconds remaining.

But there was very little celebrating on the Arkansas Tech sideline. Everyone close to the play knew something was terribly wrong.

“The first thing I remember is opening my eyes and not really being able to move anything,” said Johnson.

Brett “Duke” Waldon, head athletic trainer at ATU, raced onto the field to provide care to the fallen Wonder Boy.

“The first person I remember seeing is Mr. Duke, and he was just trying to get me to stay calm,” said Johnson. “It was scary. I never want to feel it again. It was very reassuring to have (Waldon) there because I knew he was going to do everything in his power to make sure I was okay.”

Soon after came local emergency medical technicians, an ambulance and a trip to nearby AllianceHealth Durant hospital.

Many times these procedures are precautionary in nature. This was not one of those times.

Within eight hours of the final play at Paul Laird Field, Johnson was flown to Little Rock to receive advanced care at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He had suffered an injury that doctors later stated can lead to paralysis.

The surgery performed at UAMS by Dr. David Bumpass restored Johnson’s ability to walk. Physical therapy and the support of his family in the months since has allowed him to regain his strength.

“I feel pretty good,” said Johnson when asked how he is doing five months later.

Persistence allowed Johnson to live his dream on Oct. 27, 2018. It was that same quality that allowed him to walk on a football field in his Wonder Boys’ uniform one last time.

Arkansas Tech celebrated its senior football players before the final home game of 2018 on Nov. 3 at Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field in Russellville. One-by-one, they walked to midfield and received congratulations for their efforts.

Johnson began his journey to midfield in a wheelchair. Then, with about 20 yards to go, he rose to his feet and walked the remaining distance…one week after he nearly lost the ability to ever do so again.

“It meant a lot to me,” said Johnson. “I really wanted to show everybody that God had worked a miracle with me.”

An electrical engineering major at ATU, Johnson is on pace to earn his bachelor’s degree in May 2020.

“It’s been a tough major, but my professors and the head of the department have worked with me, even before my injury, to make sure I understand things,” said Johnson.

He plans on pursuing a career in the energy industry with an eye toward becoming an entrepreneur.

It all poses one question: was it worth it?

For Johnson, the answer is yes.

“I feel like since I’ve been through this…one my coaches told me this is one of the worst things that could happen to somebody…so I feel like I should be able to get through anything else that happens to me,” said Johnson. “Gaining different experiences, different friendships, meeting different people who have made an impact on my life…that’s what made it worth it.”