For the past three seasons, Jordan Johnson played defensive back for the Malone University football team. Sometimes, he played in front of crowds of 500 people, and never more than 3,000 while the NCAA Division II Pioneers compiled a 2-27 record.
Many of the losses were in rough, blowout fashion.
It was certainly a culture shock for one of the more impressive three-sport athletes from Norwalk in recent memory.
“It was tough, because I really wanted to bring that here,” Johnson said on Saturday after playing his final game for the Pioneers (1-9). “We competed and could have won a few more games, but we just didn’t have enough pieces.”
For context, in three years of varsity football and basketball at Norwalk, Johnson played on teams that went a combined 98-11.
The Truckers made the playoffs for the first time in 39 years in 2013 during his senior season, when he had arguably the single-best year by a quarterback in program history.
In basketball, the Truckers lost just one game each season for three years while winning a Division II state championship and compiling one of the longest regular season win streaks in Ohio history.
I’ve followed Johnson’s Malone career closely, and often wondered how much of a toll the losing took on him. It’s little secret the young man’s competitive drive was the great equalizer for his short stature (6-foot, 190).
We’re talking about a kid who was offended when Norwalk basketball coach Steve Gray suggested perhaps the team’s top defensive stopper needed a break. He suggested switching Johnson to a different player prior to the 2014 regional championship game vs. Lima Bath.
Johnson was so bothered by it he didn’t even want to talk to his coach for the rest of the day, and attacked practice that day with an edgy, ‘I’ll show him’ attitude. So I often wondered what loss after loss did to that competitive drive.
“What I’ve told myself is it’s easy when it’s going good,” Johnson said. “But when it’s going bad, you still have to push through. It showed character, because I certainly got tested.
“I was able to play as a freshman and start for three years, so I felt like I was looked at to be to be a leader and not hang my head or get beat down,” he added. “I had to step up every game, and it tested my character.”
Mentally, Johnson had to turn games into an individual challenge. Knowing there were some games where it was probably going to take a miracle to win, to be able to say he guarded a top receiver well and won the individual battle to help the team was a victory.
Johnson leaves Malone with the three longest punt returns in program history, as well as the most punt returns for touchdowns in a season or career. He made 161 tackles, broke up 23 passes and intercepted six.
He was twice named the Great Midwest Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Week, was one of just seven players in Div. II with at least two punt returns for touchdowns this season — and his 88-yard TD return on Oct. 21 was the fifth longest in Div. II this year.
But if anything, Johnson is hoping his biggest accomplishment at Malone was passing on his competitive drive to younger defensive backs who will return.
“Just that competitiveness and mindset that you might be going up against someone great on paper,” he said. “But if you can win that individual battle and help the team somehow … I just hope that stays there, and just how hard I worked.
“Nothing was handed to me at Norwalk or here,” Johnson added. “My drive and passion for the game — I hope that is remembered the most.”
Still though, as losses piled up during the four years at Malone — it would have been hard not to regret the decision. With a tone reminiscent of possibly being pulled off the opponent’s best player four years ago — Johnson insists that was never the case.
“The No. 1 important thing no matter what, is getting your education,” said the triple major in business administration, sports management and marketing. “That was one of my big things, and maybe a very small part of me does think about other schools I had looked at on the winning part.
“But in my head I often wonder if I would have had the same individual success there as I did here,” Johnson added. “For me, I think is why I don’t regret going to Malone. Some schools that looked at me, we played them and lost, but the success individually was worth it — because it proved I could play at that level. I don’t have regrets in that regard.”