Last Chance U
Jermaine Johnson stood on an open, dirt field in the heart of Independence, Kansas, alone with his own thoughts when he realized the weight of the emotion he carried.
Johnson had just graduated from high school in Minnesota and couldn’t chase the dreams of Division I football as many of his peers did.
In those moments, Johnson realized that any chance of a home-cooked meal by his mom was gone, and unseasoned food in the Independence Community College school cafeteria became a way of life.
Any chance of having a smooth day of conditioning was gone, and almost tapping out in an intense session became a way of life, too.
“The (emotional moments) were pretty frequent,” Johnson said. “I just arrived in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas and I didn’t know if I’d ever play football at the big stage. I was broken down, rebuilt and found out who I really am.”
After all, this was “Last Chance U,” the site of the highly-acclaimed Netflix series that documented the careers of athletes who faced troubles and had a collective goal to get out.
Johnson was one of them because academics became his downfall. He graduated from Eden Prairie with a 1.9 GPA. He didn’t have collegiate offers as a result and simply “didn’t handle business,” he said.
Over 18 months later, Johnson’s 1.9 GPA, which could have doomed him, turned into a 3.0 and an associate’s degree. Throughout the course of those 18 months, Johnson also transformed into the No. 1 JUCO prospect. With the help of Independence head coach Jason Brown, who may not have seem all-too-loving to the public eye, and a relentless determination by Johnson himself, it allowed the JUCO outside linebacker to enroll at Georgia as the nation’s best.
“He learned that life can get bad pretty quick if you don’t make the right decisions,” said Vadell Johnson, Jermaine’s brother who joined him on the journey to Independence. “It definitely shifted his paradigm and mindset at the jump. It has made him into an amazing person.”
Together for Mom
Vadell was enrolled in classes at Central Lakes Community College in Minnesota when he received a call from his mother, June Roose.
She was working outside and slipped on a patch of ice in the driveway. She fell, badly broke her ankle — an event that Johnson compared to former Louisville guard Kevin Ware, in which his bone penetrated through the skin — and suffered a significant spinal injury.
Roose couldn’t work, and in turn, Vadell had to drop out of junior college to help pay bills and get a full-time job.
“I came back home, helped with the bills and did older sibling stuff,” said Vadell, who had enrolled in junior college due to a lack of football offers. He will enroll at the Minnesota State University to play Division II football for one season of eligibility in the spring. “I put my dreams aside for the time being.”
At that time, Johnson was struggling with grades and trying to find a collegiate home. That’s when Brown came along to recruit him to Independence. He learned of Johnson’s family situation and made an offer to Vadell to come play with his younger brother.
“The rest is history,” Johnson said before arriving at Georgia. “Coach Brown changed my life in many ways. And not only for that, he expected my best in everything and knew when I was slacking — even if I seemed to do exceptionally well.”
Roose is back on her feet and working after the injury, so the Johnson brothers no longer feel a tug of persistent worry. Yet, that experience rests in their minds each day.
As Johnson took his final official visit to Georgia before enrolling, he knelt down to his mother for a photo and pointed at the camera with a smile of pure joy. Johnson and his brother knew then that the journey was completed for the right reason.
“We love our mom so much,” Vadell said. “Honestly, getting those degrees and out of junior college was all for her.”
Hope comes full circle
At the University of Kansas, it was a scorching 110-degree day in mid-July. David Beaty, the Jayhawks’ former head coach, was hosting a junior college camp day. Brown, being only 143 miles away in Independence, was going to bring his players.
“It was a horribly hot day,” Vadell recalled. “It was the worst possible day you could have for a camp.”
A few hours later, that July 2017 afternoon would be one that the Johnson brothers would never forget. After participating in the camp, Johnson was called by Beaty to sit down in his office and that’s when his moment came. He received his first Division I offer from the Jayhawks.
Johnson, who was once ranked as the 2,089th-overall prospect out of high school in the hustle-and-bustle of a Minneapolis suburb, found hope again in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas.
“I was excited and relieved,” Johnson said. “I had a concrete option to play Power 5 football, and that was my dream. I shed a tear in private. I usually make it pretty quick ... I’m going to be able to go anywhere I want when it’s all said and done.”
A few months later as his final junior-college season began, that notion came to fruition by the work of second-year Georgia outside linebackers coach Dan Lanning.
The two first interacted when Lanning was at Memphis as a position coach and recruiting coordinator. He was watching top-rated JUCO prospect in the 2018 class, Johnson’s teammate Emmit Gooden (now at Tennessee), play at Butler CC.
Johnson saw a quality in Lanning he liked, and has desired to play for him ever since. He even told Lanning so, saying that he knew he didn’t have many offers but would love to play for Lanning.
“That won’t be a problem,” Johnson recalled Lanning saying.
It was a promise Lanning kept. After Georgia offered Johnson, it didn’t take much time for a decision to be made as Johnson committed on Aug. 2. There was an option to play for PJ Fleck and return home to Minnesota but traveling 1,200 miles to play football felt comfortable, all because of Lanning.
“I’ve never seen a coach so invested in a player before in my life,” Vadell said. “He’s the only one who really wanted Jermaine for every single reason. You could see it in his eyes, honestly.”
In each moment since, Lanning has become as close as family for Johnson and his supporters. And the same goes for Johnson and Lanning’s family, too, as one of Lanning’s sons replicated Johnson’s “HAVE FAITH” tattoo across his chest for a photo.
“I know he can teach me to be a better man just as much as he can teach me to be a better football player,” Johnson said.
At the top
Johnson was in his first season at Independence when he displayed his capabilities as an edge rusher. The moment came when Garden City, a rival junior-college powerhouse, was 25 yards away from taking a lead in the fast-ticking moments of the fourth quarter.
Johnson came around the edge, forced a strip sack and allowed a teammate to recover the fumble. A host of Independence fans went into a craze as the first-year defensive end made his statement and sealed a milestone win for a small-town Kansas fan base.
“Everyone glorified Jermaine as the savior of the day,” Vadell said, who regards that memory as his favorite in two years playing together with his brother at Independence. “He got every bit of respect he deserved.”
Two seasons later, more plays like the one against Garden City have allowed Johnson to accrue a lengthy list of 22 offers and be ranked as the nation’s top-overall JUCO prospect, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
Johnson finished his last season at Independence with 38 total tackles in nine games played.
“He brings athleticism and a will to win,” Independence defensive line coach Keith Donerson said. “He’s increased his strength, speed and works on his technique to be the best.”
Johnson is already on campus at Georgia to participate in a week of bowl practices with the team, but was announced Wednesday in a recruiting haul that included 21 signees. He joins the No. 1 high school inside linebacker in Nakobe Dean and the top-rated defensive end Nolan Smith (the nation’s top-overall prospect) in this recruiting class.
“We definitely feel like we’ve dropped off with our speed on the edge after Lorenzo (Carter) and Davin (Bellamy),” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “With Jermaine and Nolan, I don’t know if there are two better rushers in a signing class anywhere in the country when it comes to speed. They have to help us disrupt quarterbacks.”
There’s plenty of excitement for Johnson’s two years of eligibility in Athens. His brother said he already knows what’s in store for Georgia next season: A national title and a season to go down in history for Johnson.
At the same time, there’s plenty of emotion. Johnson left Kansas last weekend, but said it was difficult because of the relationships built with his roommates, teammates and host family.
It was a farewell to the tribulations, the memories made and the maturity that flourished at Independence. Now, it’s hello to a dream: Playing in front of 93,000 fans at Sanford Stadium, a chance to compete nationally and finally being able to play for his favorite coach.
But first, one last reflection at those dirt fields where it all started.
“It’s just my home. It’s like I was planted like a piece of corn and now it’s time to harvest,” Johnson said. “I’m leaving all my roots behind.”