GARY — It would have been easy for George Johnson III to be discouraged, unstrap his helmet and leave it behind forever.
He could have quit, taken the bus to a new school and tried his luck elsewhere.
That, however, wouldn’t be the best way to learn. Like so many freshmen will have to discover in the coming months at myriad high schools in the nation, resilience and perseverance usually mean more than natural talent and circumstance in the long run.
The junior quarterback has been playing backyard football with friends since first grade but didn’t pick it up as an organized sport until late in middle school.
By freshman year, he led the Eagles in receiving while a motivated young core of players endured winless 2016 season. For the National Honor Society student with a 3.8 grade-point average, the experience was highly educational.
“Varsity game speed is quick,” Johnson said. “In middle school I could just juke everybody or truck everybody or outrun everybody. High school of course everyone is more competitive. That was a big adjustment.”
Adding insult to injury, the entire school was banned from the IHSAA postseason for two years starting in January 2017 due to multiple rules violations. The sentence was later reduced. The Eagles’ 2017 season ended with the final game of the regular season. It just so happened to be the best regular season in program history with a program-best 4-0 start and the six wins matching the team’s all-time high. All of that was with Johnson II playing quarterback and learning on the run, often quite literally.
“We knew what we wanted and knew what we wanted to be,” Johnson said. “We knew we couldn’t go 0-10 again, and we had to step it up and perform. We had that edge on us going into the games, knowing we had to win.”
The Eagles will participate in the postseason this October.
“We actually want it more now that we’re going back into sectionals,” Johnson said. “We know we need to make a run for the school and for the city.”
Sixth-year coach David Nelson was impressed with Johnson’s maturity even in eighth grade. After the 2016 season Nelson saw Johnson’s impressive physical growth and one day noticed him throwing the ball, and he had an epiphany and gave him a run at quarterback.
Last season Johnson threw for 1,263 yards and ran for 354 with nine aerial touchdowns and two on the ground.
“He’s probably one of the most level-headed kids I’ve coached,” Nelson said. “We’ve been trying to push him to take those next steps as far as his development. We need him making good decisions with the ball and being more consistent.”
Johnson III was a leader in offseason workouts and had players over to his house for workouts. The team traveled to Northern Illinois for a 7-on-7 camp, sent players to a college showcase in Michigan City, and Johnson received several invitations to work out at combines for USA Football’s Under-19 national team.
“Keeping those guys motivated knowing that we weren’t going to sectionals was a difficult task, but we were able to come up with other goals to keep the momentum going, and George was a big part of that,” Nelson said.
Although there is a Florida prep quarterback named George Johnson III heading to Michigan, the Bowman Academy junior is driven daily by scholarship aspirations and the idea of getting better at the little things every single day.
“Hopefully we make some noise,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the team to do it. Everyone’s playing together, playing confident.”
Johnson III isn’t the only signal-caller in Gary coming over from the receiver corps.
At Roosevelt, Davorius Hyde played wideout and defensive back last season. He showed he can throw but didn’t yet have the precision. The junior is doing everything right so far this year.
“He can chuck it, but he also came into camp and really impressed the coaches and picked up the offense well,” Roosevelt coach Craig Buckingham said.