Jake Johnson — the Central Michigan star quarterback that never was
Jake Johnson looked down at his phone. The screen flashed a text message from Jesse Kroll.
Kroll’s message read: “I’m up at CMU for the next three days, and I need a real quarterback to throw me some routes.”
The former Central Michigan wide receiver was back in Mount Pleasant for a workout with the Green Bay Packers in 2017, and he was in dire need of a quarterback.
Johnson grabbed his cleats and went to the Indoor Athletic Complex. Five throws in, an impressed Kroll shook his head – staring down his quarterback, ready to speak his mind.
“What?” Johnson said.
“You’re one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever played with,” Kroll said. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’m sorry.”
Just a year prior, Johnson suffered a career-ending injury on the first play of his first game for Central Michigan. He was working in late relief of Cooper Rush against Presbyterian on Sept. 1 and endured a concussion.
It was a hit that kept him, and will continue to keep him, off the football field for the rest of his life.
Cooper Rush’s Backup
Johnson wasn’t just any quarterback for Central Michigan – he was the future. After sitting out his true freshman season for a redshirt, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound signal caller worked himself into a backup role behind Rush as a redshirt freshman. He was ahead of Tommy Lazzaro, Tony Poljan and Austin Hergott on the depth chart — all players that have struggled to lead the Chippewas in the 2018 season.
During the annual Spring Game before the 2016 season, Rush sat out with a minor shoulder injury, so it was Johnson and Lazzaro dueling in the scrimmage. Johnson’s final stat line put him on the map, going 13-of-15 passing for 120 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Johnson sat down with Central Michigan coach John Bonamego before fall camp to figure out where he stood amongst other quarterbacks.
“He came out of spring, going into 2016, as the backup to Cooper,” Bonamego said. “I think he could’ve been really good. He certainly had a lot of ability.”
One week before playing Presbyterian on Thursday, Sept. 1, Rush sat Johnson down to talk.
“Keep your head straight and stay out of trouble, and you’ll be the starter here for the next three years,” Rush said.
Johnson’s Only College Play
Ahead 49-3 in the season opener against Presbyterian, Johnson got his first shot as the backup to Rush. He entered the game with 4:45 left in the game, and his first play was his last. On a simple play-action pass, the redshirt freshman was sacked by Brien Washington for a loss of three yards.
Washington swung Johnson and forced his helmet into the turf. Johnson, who was removed from action, later learned he had a concussion, probably the seventh of his football career, he said.
“I’ve been hit harder in fifth-grade, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Johnson said. “It was so many concussions in the past that made me so susceptible.”
His past was filled with concussions, most notably near the end of his senior season for DeWitt High School. Johnson suffered a concussion on Sept. 26, 2014, which forced him to miss the last four games of the regular season. He returned five weeks later for the playoffs but suffered another concussion in DeWitt’s 30-14 Division 3 district final loss to Mason High School on Nov. 7.
Johnson ignored the minor headache and traveled up north to Lake City with his family for Labor Day weekend. He got on his grandfather’s jet ski, immediately got off, puked uncontrollably and nearly began crying.
The rest of the weekend, Johnson didn’t leave the bed. The vomiting, headaches and sound and light sensitivity continued at a rapid rate.
“I knew something was really, really wrong,” he said.
On Sept. 5, 2016, Johnson went to the team doctors from the CMU Athletic Department to take a concussion protocol test from Dr. Matthew Jackson. The results were not encouraging.
“Yeah, you 100 percent have a concussion,” the quarterback recalls the doctors telling him.
Johnson took the same test and got the same result every morning for months. He missed a countless amount of classes, homework, papers and exams. Once known as Central Michigan’s future at quarterback, Johnson was now unable to do a simple task without sustaining a migraine, throwing up and going dizzy.
He could have returned to the field, but the test results never improved. Two months of failed return to play protocol concussion tests later and Johnson was in a room with Dr. Jackson, Bonamego and his parents.
The quarterback knew what was coming.
“I hate to do this to you, and I know how much football means to you,” Johnson remembers Dr. Jackson telling him in November 2016, “but you’re done. I’m sorry.”
Since being removed from the football team’s roster, Johnson has never returned to Kelly/Shorts Stadium – not even as a fan.
How Johnson’s Exit Linked to Morris’ Entrance
The coaching staff and players began to worry upon hearing of Johnson’s career status. It was over, and Johnson remembers both Poljan and Lazzaro as “extremely young” and not ready to play at the time.
“After it was said I was done, I remember the coaches and team freaking out, like, ‘We don’t have a quarterback. What do we do?’
“Before I got hurt, (Bonamego) literally said, ‘You are the guy. You’re the future of this program.’”
As Rush’s eligibility was up after 2016, Bonamego was faced with a situation for the upcoming 2017 season – find a quarterback.
The call was made to University of Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris.
“They hold him, ‘Hey, Shane. You come here, you’re going to play,’" Johnson said. “The last thing he was going to do was sit the bench. It gave him the open door.”
Morris declined to comment for this story. While Morris was leading comeback victories, Johnson lost himself.
Football was a part of the quarterback’s lifestyle since he began playing in first grade. In a split second, everything was gone. Johnson went to a dark place with no plans for the future.
“I struggled with depression for a very long time and tried different medications to cope with it, but nothing worked,” Johnson explained.
Contributing to Johnson’s mental and emotional struggle was a lost relationship with Bonamego and the football team.
Johnson said Bonamego never reached out to him, which made for a tough recovery.
“I understand he’s a Division I coach, but he never reached out,” Johnson added. “When that happened, I became a nobody. We didn’t keep in contact at all.”
Dreams of Success
Lying in bed at night, Johnson sees himself doing the now-impossible – hoisting a Mid-American Conference title, throwing a game-winning touchdown against Western Michigan and leading the Chippewas to a bowl win.
“It goes through my mind every day,” Johnson said. “I can picture myself out there, but nobody’s going to remember my name. I didn’t do anything here.”
The athletic department allowed Johnson to keep his scholarship, but his severe concussion symptoms made it virtually impossible for him to attend classes. Johnson struggled to keep focus in the classroom for more than 10 minutes due to headaches and vomiting.
Johnson’s grades fell and never rose back up, forcing CMU to pull his scholarship following the conclusion of the spring semester in 2018.
Unable to pay for his schooling, Johnson is no longer enrolled in college. He’s halfway through his degree and hopes to return once the finances are available.