Nick Johnson has 12 catches for 155 yards and one touchdown thus far this season.
Whenever classmates inquire about the size of his high school graduating class at Shiloh Christian (Md.) Academy, Lehigh senior wide receiver Nick Johnson holds up three fingers.
“The person then usually looks at me and asks, ‘So, there were 300 kids in your graduating class?” says Johnson. “And then I’ll say, ‘Nope, just three kids.’ One, two, three.
“There were twice as many kids each night at our dinner table (Johnson is one of seven boys in his family), but coming from such a small school has its plusses. The graduation ceremony was nice and short. And you are guaranteed to finish in the top-three of your class.”
Being a big fish in such a small pond has its challenges too. Shiloh Christian Academy—which Johnson’s parents founded back in 2000 (his dad Mike is the school’s principal and his mom Toni is one of the school’s chief administrators)—had between 85-100 students total during Johnson’s time there, so it was too tiny in size to field a football team.
However, Riverdale Baptist School in Prince George’s County, Md., a school about an hour away from his house, had a co-op sports program—which accepted athletes who were either home-schooled or from really small high schools.
“Fortunately, a couple kids from my school also played for Riverdale, so we set up a carpool system,” says Johnson. “It made for a long day, though. I’d get done school at 2:30 p.m. and then would head straight there and would arrive as practice was starting. When football practice was over, we’d ride back and wouldn’t get home until 9-9:30 at night.”
"This is where I wanted to be"
The demanding regimen paid off. Football coaches at D-I schools UConn and East Carolina showed passing interest. In-state Division III schools such as Salisbury and Frostburg were extremely interested. Pretty certain her son wasn’t a major D-I player, Johnson’s mom Toni heard about the perfect blend of athletics and academics in the Patriot League and started sending packets to schools in the league, including Lehigh. Shortly after the mailings, Lehigh assistant coach Gerard Wilcher called Johnson.
“I had never heard of Lehigh when Coach Wilcher called,” says Johnson. “But I came up for a visit and knew immediately this is where I wanted to be. I’m lucky to be here.”
After some culture shock from being one of three high school seniors at Shiloh to being one of over 1,200 Lehigh freshmen, Johnson eventually adjusted and has performed quite well in the classroom as an environmental science major. On the field, Johnson has fought through injuries to become a valued part of Lehigh’s receiving corps.
After sitting as a freshman and playing sparingly as a sophomore, Johnson started last season off with a bang—catching four passes in the opener against Villanova and then enjoying a career day against VMI with three receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns. But, then a series of nagging injuries slowed Johnson and he finished the 2007 campaign with 13 receptions for 269 yards and two scores.
This season, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Johnson—who is blessed with soft hands and blazing speed (he runs a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash)—is 10) percent healthy and has caught 12 balls for 155 yards and two TDs through the first five games for the Mountain Hawks.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” says Lehigh coach Andy Coen. “He’s persevered through a bunch of nagging injuries. He’s quick, he has very good hands and great leaping ability. I’m excited that he’s healthy and playing.”
Johnson wears No.7 for the Mountain Hawks, an unusual number for a receiver, in part because he’s one of seven boys in his family. That meant the 21-year-old Johnson always had someone to play sports with—including his 19-year-old brother Chris, who plays point guard for Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.
“With seven boys, there’s always a game at my house,” says Johnson. “That helped build my competitive nature.”
While he competes hard on the gridiron, Johnson always has time for others off it. A member of Lehigh’s C.O.A.C.H. (Community of Athletes who Care about Helping) program since his sophomore year, Johnson is now on the organization’s board.
“Nick is always willing to go the extra mile to help others,” says Roseann Corsi, the community relations coordinator for Lehigh’s athletics department. “Nick has a big heart and you can just see by his smile when he is talking to children that he cares so much. He wants to make a difference in children's lives.”