Storm Johnson takes to Twitter daily the way he carries a football out of the backfield: Fast and furious. But with Johnson, the tweets usually carry a serious tone that runs far deeper than some mindless chatter amongst friends.
Johnson’s messages often tell a story of struggle and of an acquired strength forged by perseverance. He usually alternates between tales of his difficult past and ones about his promising future as a dynamic tailback for UCF. It is an interesting way to weave a story, mixing in the darkness of tough times and the brightness of a seemingly unlimited time ahead.
There was a time in Johnson’s life not so long ago while growing up in Buford, Ga., that he had to sleep on the floor because there was no bed in the family. And there were a lot of days when he’d help his father, Wes Johnson, move furniture on the weekends just to help earn extra cash so the family could make ends meet.
Flash forward to 2011 and Johnson is in a much happier place in life, and he’s doing something he dearly loves by playing football at UCF. Easily the most talked about player at UCF this spring, Johnson showed flashes of why he was once considered the best prep running back in the nation. He’s hoping to use that talent to become a star next season at UCF and ultimately provide a better life for a family that helped him survive years ago when times seemed bleak.
“To me, it was about working to try to make things better for our family. I never had too much, never had a lot at all, but that made me who I am today,” Johnson said of his upbringing in North Georgia some 40 miles from Atlanta. “That’s why I’m working so hard now at something that I love to do. I’m working on my craft every day.'”
His craft is that of a dynamic running back, one that allowed him to run for 1,937 yards and 31 touchdowns as a high school senior and become an Under Armour All-American. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound back with blazing speed was heavily recruited and initially went to Miami for a season. He averaged a whopping 13.2 yards a carry and almost 22 yards a kickoff return.
Unhappy with his limited opportunities, Johnson left Miami for UCF and sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Now, following a solid spring in which he split first-string carries with Latavius Murray, Johnson could be in the verge of finally reaching his enormous potential.
“Storm’s an interesting player because he’s kind of small, but he’s big because of his strength and toughness,” said Storm’s father, Wes Johnson, who attended last week’s Spring Game wearing a black T-shirt with No. 8 on the back. “Once he gets his chance to carry that ball consistently people will see what he can do. He’s very fast and very strong. I really think he’s showing everybody at UCF what he can do this season.'”
If U aint never had it, U will do anything to get it. – Storm Johnson
By the time Wes and Dione Johnson had their third child, both parents were in their 40s and decidedly done with expanding the family. Dione wanted her last kid to be special in every kind of way, so she opted for a name that would stir emotions with people and make them remember the catchy moniker.
The choice for a name was “Storm,” and ultimately the kid grew to despise the name for a variety of reasons.
“As a kid, they teased him, calling him “Stormy” like a little girl’s name. He didn’t like it at all,” Wes Johnson remembered. “But he loves that name now. He’s trying to live up to that name.”
Added Storm: “My mom named me that because she wanted me to be an exciting person so she gave me something that was off the wall. I’m the only one (in the family) with a name like that. I used to hate my name when I was young, but now that I’m playing football the name is starting to work out for me.”
That name certainly fit in high school because Storm was an electrifying player. While playing for high schools in Buford and Loganville, Ga., Johnson was widely touted as one of the most dominant running backs in the nation. One recruiting service had him listed as the 22nd-best prospect in the country, while another ranked him as the fourth-best back in America.
That promise led him to Miami, where he entered with much fanfare, but he ultimately became disenchanted with the Hurricanes’ program because of his lack of opportunities. Even after averaging the 13.2 yards a carry and gashing USF for a 71-yard touchdown run, Johnson left spring practice in 2011 as Miami’s third-string tailback.
That led to him transferring to UCF, a school he had always admired from afar and took great notice of when the Knights beat Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. Sitting out the 2011 season was extremely difficult because it meant he would be without football for the first time in his life. But by comparison, Johnson has been through much harder times.
“To get through it, I had to focus every day on what I had to get better at doing. I was taking practice as if it was a game and trying to get better every day,” Johnson said. “Luckily, I had great guys and great teammates around me, which helped me because it was so hard. But I got through it.”
Checks bounced, but we bounced back. Mamma never showered me with gifts, but she showed me the world. The struggles taught me how to make it in life. – Storm Johnson
Johnson’s determination to get where he wants to go must be taken seriously because of where he’s been. His tweets from earlier in the year speak volumes about the struggles his family had to endure.
Because of hard times, the Johnson family often had to move around. His father was a hard-working type, but often had to scramble for jobs. Poverty was a reality that often hit Johnson in the face every day when he arose.
And many of those mornings when he got up, it was from a pallet of blankets on the floor because there were no beds for the three Johnson kids to sleep in. But Johnson thought nothing of it and tried to make the best of a rough situation.
“Shoot, I mean there were hard times for us. There were a lot of nights of sleeping on the floor and just trying to survive,” he said. `”I really think it taught me how to take every day of life as one day and figure out how to make it through.”
Wes Johnson said he would often try to hide from Storm the struggles he was having making the ends meet for the family, but the kid was quite perceptive even at a young age. That’s why Storm would usually tag along with his father on those blazing hot Saturdays when they moved furniture to get enough cash to pay the rent, keep the lights on or to simply have enough food to eat that night.
“We just had to make do with some things in tough times. Storm knows what it is to go through life without having things and knows what it is to struggle,” Wes Johnson said. “I impressed on him and his brother that families stick together and work hard together no matter what’s happening.
“He went through every bit of it and learned at an early age that life is hard. Nobody gives you anything and if he didn’t realize that at a young age he might have been lost,” Wes Johnson continued. “He knew he had to work for everything, but right away we saw flashes in him as a young kid. Now, he’s a blessed kid. I promised him that there would be a better day and now God has blessed him to play college football.”
Storm Johnson said that having to live without, having to work when others played and having to scrap just to make it through the day helped shape who he is as a person and a football player. Whereas some might complain about difficult practices, Storm has been through much worse. Whereas some might quit, Storm learned perseverance by fighting through a childhood filled with struggles.
“Everything that I had to go through, it made me more of a fighter,” he said. “All the lessons that my parents taught me, they are in my memory bank and I use them and roll with them now.”
Keep watching the sky. #stormwarning – Storm Johnson
UCF coach George O’Leary admitted last season that it was painful having a running back as talented as Johnson on the practice field and not being able to use him on Saturday afternoons. To O’Leary it was the equivalent of owning a souped-up sports car confined to stop-and-go traffic in the city.
But in those practices, when Johnson was running with the scout team and routinely ripping off big gains, O’Leary saw the tremendous promise that was ahead for UCF’s offense when Johnson became eligible. And again this spring, O’Leary liked what he saw from the back with the rare blend of power and speed.
“No. 8, Johnson, really started showing up and I was really pleased with him,” O’Leary said of Johnson’s work this spring. “He has a chance to take it all the way every time he touches the ball.”
Johnson was so good that O’Leary immediately had him splitting carries on the first string with Murray, who ran for the fourth-most yards in UCF history in last year’s finale against UTEP. The possibilities are so limitless with the two backs that O’Leary has talked of using them at the same time next season to get more playmakers on the field. That’s just fine with Murray, one of UCF’s unquestioned senior leaders.
“Storm is a great back, and he does some things that defenses can’t stop. I do some things that give defenses trouble, too,” said Murray, who could see some time at H-back because of his pass-catching skills. “And when we’re in there together, they aren’t going to know what to expect from us.”
For Johnson, next season at UCF represents a chance for him to put everything he’s learned in a hard-knock life to good use and to seize an opportunity. After all, he says, he isn’t just running for himself; he’s running for an entire family that stuck together in tough times.
“I’ve been raised to fight for everything and accept nothing other than greatness,” he said. “My momma always told me to do my best and don’t accept anything less than that. That’s what I strive to do every day. I’ve got to take this opportunity now and run with it.”
Started with nothing. About to get everything. – Storm Johnson