ATLANTA -- It has been nearly two years since Georgia Tech’s Isaiah Johnson suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the 2012 Sun Bowl and the entire 2013 season.
That seems like an eternity to Johnson, who became a contributor the minute he joined the Yellow Jackets program out of high school at Sandy Creek.
Those long hours in physical therapy and the lonely hours running steps and getting back into football condition will all be worth it Saturday. Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 213-pound strong safety, will suit up once again and be among the leaders who run on to the field for the season opener against Wofford.
“It’s been more than enough time,” Johnson said. “Sitting out was a learning situation for me. You can’t take any play off. You don’t know which play will be your last. You have to get better every play.”
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The rehabilitation process was not easy for Johnson. He was cleared by doctors to play midway through the 2013 season but never felt comfortable enough to get back on the field. He opted to take a redshirt season and come back completely healthy for his final year.
Game days were particularly tough on Johnson, who had been on the field since he showed up with Georgia Tech. He took on a role as assistant coach and was fully involved with helping the other members of the secondary when he saw things happening.
“I had to pump myself up like I was going to play,” Johnson said. “I had to stay focused on the game. The coaches told me to look at the safeties and let them know how they could improve.
“I wasn’t at the game as an audience member or a fan. I was there helping my team out, helping the defense get better. I was relaying the messages that needed to be said.”
Head coach Paul Johnson was always supportive of Isaiah Johnson’s decisions and never publicly tried to pressure him to return too soon. The coach would always defer to the player.
Isaiah Johnson admitted the rehabilitation process was difficult, more than he thought. But he doggedly stayed with the physical therapy and can remember when he finally got over the hump enough to trust his own body.
“After you push yourself with the physical therapists and doctors around, you’ve still got to push yourself to another level,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let it defeat me. One time I was in physical therapy and pushed it and had a setback. But that setback didn’t break me. The next time when I was doing better, I tested that level again. That’s when I knew I was going to be OK.”
Johnson’s return gives the Yellow Jackets a deep group of secondary players. He has played 39 games and started 29. Johnson was the team’s leading tackler (87 total tackles) in 2012, including eight that year against Virginia Tech and a career-high 14 against Clemson.
He ranks 14th on the school’s all-time list for tackles by a defensive back and enters the season with five career interceptions.
“He’s played a lot of football,” Paul Johnson said. “He’s probably going to be rusty a little bit early in the year because he’s missed a year of playing. But you can’t substitute all the things he’s seen and all the experience he’s had back there.”
For Isaiah Johnson, the waiting is over.