Jake Johnson isn’t asking for much this season.
DeWitt’s senior quarterback would like to complete an injury-free season for once in his varsity career, and another trip to the Division 3 state championship game is definitely No. 1 on his wish list.
But also rather high is a plea to his teachers this semester: No Friday tests until after Thanksgiving.
You see, on game days each fall, Johnson is so geeked up he has to keep himself from showing up to school in his game uniform, pads and all. Concentrating on a test on game day may be asking a bit too much from the returning all-stater who has committed to play at Central Michigan.
“On game days,” he said, “I don’t like to say it, but during school I can’t focus on anything but the game. It’s tough.”
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Of course it is at DeWitt, a community just north of Lansing where it is safe to say football is much more than a game to the townsfolk.
“DeWitt football is just so big in the town,” Johnson said. “Everybody goes to the games. Everyone’s so serious about it. It’s awesome. I wouldn’t want to play for any other team in the state.”
The Panthers have been to the state playoffs in 13 of Rob Zimmerman’s 15 seasons as head coach (149-34) and they haven’t had a losing season since his first year.
Making the achievement more remarkable is that, in this era of schools of choice, the only way you can be a student at DeWitt is to live in DeWitt. That gives the community a genuine connection with the team, and it creates a lasting bond among the players, who began playing together as Junior Panthers.
“I’ve probably been playing with three-fourths of these guys since the fourth grade,” said Johnson.
It is easy for Johnson to flash back to the days when he and his buddies would wear their Junior Panthers mesh jerseys and make believe they were on the DeWitt varsity because they were so meaningful to him.
“We were glad to go to every single game,” he said. “A lot of times before the games we’d play some tackle football out in the front of the hill near the stadium, watching them warm up. We’d say we were wishing we were those guys out there, and now we are. It’s pretty cool.”
That point was driven home again this summer when Johnson and his teammates worked the school’s camp for local kids.
“Every year the players run all the drills at the little kids’ camp, and they’re all so happy we’re out there, and they can’t wait to be in our shoes,” he said. “We tell them time goes by so fast.”
Johnson heads into his senior year hoping to avoid injuries like the broken hand that forced him to miss six games as a sophomore and the lacerated spleen and bruised kidney that knocked him out of three games last season.
But each time Johnson has come back for the state playoffs, and last year he led the Panthers to Ford Field and the state championship game, which they lost, 34-27, to Zeeland West.
“The experience was awesome; there’s absolutely nothing like it,” he said. “We came up a little bit short. I think about it every single day.”
How can anyone expect him to take a test on a Friday?
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.
Meet the Panthers
Top players: QB Jake Johnson, 6-2, 206; RB Ben Heinritz, 5-10, 210; OT Jake Wozniewski, 6-5, 245; C Joe Villegas, 6-1, 260; junior slot Shonquise Trainor, 5-9, 170; WR Mike Roberson; LB Conner Groce, 5-9, 195; DB Ben Zamiara, 5-10, 175; DT Josh Hanna, 6-1, 265; LB/FB-TE Rayner Barrera, 6-2, 215.
Overall state playoff record: 41-20.
Coach: Rob Zimmerman, 156-54 overall, 149-34, 16th season at DeWitt.
Overview: The Division 3 runner-up could spend Thanksgiving weekend in Ford Field again. Johnson (Central Michigan) passed for almost 2,100 yards with 31 TDs and only three interceptions despite missing three games last season. Heinritz ran for an additional 1,500 yards and scored 20 TDs to give the Panthers a balanced attack. With Wozniewski and Villegas, DeWitt’s offense should be able to handle defensive lines. Only four starters return defensively, so that is a concern.