Merrillville youngster already feeling the draw to college football

2014-05-17T17:00:00Z 2014-05-18T22:58:05Z Merrillville youngster already feeling the draw to college footballSteve Hanlon, (219) 933-4198

Five years ago, Henry Johnson was playing some backyard football with his son, JoJo, a scene replicated in yards across America.

It was a postcard waiting to happen.

Then, something occurred. Henry Johnson saw something in his 5-year-old. Insane speed. A quick first step that was off the charts. An ability to juke like an adult.

"I saw something I'd never seen before," Henry Johnson said. "I knew I had to do something."

JoJo joined the Gary Steelers Pop Warner team at 5. In his first game in LaPorte and in his first touch of the football, the magic exploded like the sky at Disney World on the Fourth of July.

"I like the spark you feel when you score," said JoJo, now a 10-year-old living in Merrillville with his dad. "Scoring a touchdown makes you feel good, like you can save the whole world."

He has much of the football world already watching him. Through the marketing of his dad, JoJo already has attended football youth camps at different universities, including Michigan State, one at Purdue and the Core 6 camp at Northwestern, this spring.

Athletes just a few years older than JoJo have started committing to major colleges at a faster pace. Four years ago, David Sills, a 13-year-old quarterback, verbally committed to USC. 

Henry Johnson played football at Gary's Horace Mann High School, where he graduated in 1998. He played two years of football at Rockford College. He now runs a college recruiting company entitled, "Get U There." He used the marketing for his own son, putting videos on YouTube that brought college interest.

"I don't want this to be a Todd Marinovich story," said Henry, who has been a high school assistant coach in the area for 10 years, including six at West Side.

JoJo played for the Steelers for two years and has played in the Merrillville Pirates Pop Warner league for three years. He's scored 75 touchdowns in that time.

"People tell him all the time how good he is," Henry said. "I do everything I can to keep things in perspective. Be humble. But I believe he's been given this talent for a reason."

But is all this too much for a 10-year-old to handle? Does the fun of being recognized so young ever become a burden?

Schererville's Jerry Palm is a college recruiting analyst for He said college programs have always had camps for youngsters. But he's seen a shift in the trend in recent years.

"These camps are more of a recruiting tool now than then," Palm said. "If you build a relationship early, you can get the more talented guys later. But here is the truth: 99 percent of the kids at these camps are not D-I."

Johnson said most of the college football camps are $50. There are usually around 25 kids in JoJo's age group. But he will be writing a check for $500 for the Football University Combine in Chicago in June.

Big dreams don't come cheap.

Second-year Purdue football coach Darrell Hazell was in Merrillville on Thursday for the Boilermaker Coaches Caravan at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza. He spoke about the potential issue.

"Jeez!" Hazell responded when told of a 10-year-old football player being looked at by colleges. "I can't see us ever going there. First of all, I'm too busy looking at 20 or so high school players.

"We do hold camps for kids that age and younger, but it's mainly to teach football fundamentals, introduce ourselves, and give them a T-shirt at the end. If that turns them into Purdue fans to where they may think of us when they want to play college football, great. But we don't recruit anyone at these camps."

It's a gray area for many.

Palm spoke about how recruiting players before puberty first started in basketball and the AAU circles. Bobby Knight recruited Damon Bailey to Indiana when he was in eighth grade.

The number of basketball players yet to use a razor who've been offered by major programs has increased. Getting in early is much better than not getting in at all.

"This is a spillover from AAU basketball; I'm not surprised it's going into football now," said local physical trainer John Doherty, who also writes a weekly sports medicine column for The Times. "I just don't get it with kids this young."

There is very little contact at these camps, but a lot of men with clipboards who are writing down numbers that give them an idea of what the future might hold for the lads.

At the Core 6, JoJo's 40-yard dash time dropped jaws, 5.6 seconds. His broad jump was 8 feet, 6 inches. Henry said that one of the camp directors told him, "(JoJo) is athletic as hell."

"Things like this encourage kids to over-perform," Doherty said. "When that happens, kids get hurt. That is a lot of stress to put on a 10-year-old and a lot of pressure to meet those expectations."

JoJo is home-schooled. Henry said they do not work out every day. Perspective. But when they get out on a grassy patch, JoJo works hard. Very hard.

His highlight tapes are unreal. There is no question his talent level is in the upper percentage. His future looks very bright, which is why coaches want to take a look at him.

"I think about making it to the NFL or a big college every day," JoJo said. "I know if you do great, you'll succeed. But you have to work, work, work."

At one camp, he met Kevin Mack, the former NFL running back for the Cleveland Browns. His face lit up with a smile that could melt the polar caps when he talked about meeting Mack.

All the attention has been fun. It seems that Henry is doing everything he can to help his son reach his goal and also let days be regular, which isn't easy.

This slow dance won't stop until he signs his college letter of intent, probably in 2022. And the highlight recordings will only get bigger and longer.

"Wow," JoJo said when he watches his YouTube moves. "I think, 'I can really do that.' I love the talent that God gave me and I want to be the best player I can be."

Staff writer John Burbridge contributed to this report.

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