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His life changed in an instant.
Josh Johnson went from being the fastest guy in town, to the guy in a cast, to the guy making a comeback.
It was not how the only Trojan who went to last year’s track and field state championships would have scripted it.
But Johnson broke the tibia on his left leg in a flag football game in Shallotte Park during Christmas vacation. On the first kickoff, he caught the ball and tried to cut between two defenders.
“When I juked one person, another person stepped on the side of my ankle, and when the other dude hit me, it kind of twisted around and I heard it snap,” Johnson said.
“I said, ‘It’s broke! It’s broke.’”
Friends rushed Johnson to the hospital emergency room. He wore an ace bandage and a plaster cast for the next two weeks until he had surgery.
“Doctors put in a plate and six screws and a seventh screw for the ligaments in the left ankle,” Johnson said.
He spent the month of January hobbling on crutches.
West Brunswick track coach Yogi Hickman said, “Josh played real football his whole life and never hurt his legs. It was just one of those freakish things.”
Finally, Johnson put away his crutches.
“Just to be able to walk again felt great,” he said.
In mid-February, he started jogging again.
On March 13, Johnson ran in his first race this season. He finished runner-up in the 100-yard dash.
It was an amazing comeback but off his normal pace.
“He’s half a second slower in the 100-yard dash,” Hickman said. “I would guess he’s 80 percent. He’s still recovering from his surgery.
“I’m sorry he’s hurt. Certainly, the biggest part of that is he lost those months of training. He’s a world behind where he could have been, but he’s worked incredibly hard to get back.”
Credit a canine for Johnson’s self-revelation
that his natural pace was lickity-split.
“The first time I knew I was fast was Halloween in the sixth grade,” Johnson said. “A bunch of us were getting treats, and a doberman pincher came after us. We just took off running. My friend Ferquan Williams and I left everybody by about 200 yards.”
After that, the word stroll was never in Johnson’s vocabulary. “Run, Forrest, run” became his mantra.
“Ferquan and I always raced everywhere we went,” Johnson said.
He challenged all speedsters, including his older, across-the-street neighbor Mike Scarabino, now an assistant track coach at West Brunswick.
“Mike was my neighbor when I was 9 years old,” Johnson said. “After I found out he was real fast, I challenged him at least 20 times a day. We just lined up on a dirt road and raced. Finally, my sophomore year, I started beating him.”
Johnson’s freshman year, the family moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where Johnson’s father works on a dredge. But Josh, 17, liked West Brunswick better and asked to move in with former neighbors Mike and Keela Scarabino for the rest of his high school years. They readily agreed.
“I love Josh like he’s my own son,” Keela Scarabino said.
Mike Scarabino said he’s proud to be Johnson’s legal guardian.
Johnson came in 13th at the state championships last year at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
“Josh loves track, and it’s evident in the way he approaches it,” Hickman said. “The fact that he enjoys working at it gives him a leg up on just about everybody else. Every day he’s out there, he tries to get better.”
Even though the 200 was Johnson’s best event last year, the coaches are slowly letting him work his way back.
“We’ve got four or five track meets before regionals,” Hickman said. “I hope he gets a chance to run the 200 before then.
“Three weeks ago, it was all we could do to get him to trot down the football field. He still limps when he walks. But Josh is a very likeable young man, and he’s very well respected because of his work ethic. His coaches respect him, his teammates respect him and his competitors respect him.”
Johnson has two heroes: now-retired Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back Jerome Bettis and USA star sprinter Tyson Gay, who won gold medals in the 100 and 200.
“I’m a big Steelers fan, and my room is covered with Steelers’ stuff,” Johnson said. “I’ve got a picture on my wall of Tyson’s form, and I try to copy that.”
Johnson, at first glance, doesn’t fit the old stereotype of long-and-lean sprinters.
He’s 5-foot-8 and weighs a muscular 158 pounds.
“I was...the only sophomore in my events last year,” he said of states.
Still, he blazed his way to a personal best 21.97 in the 200 last year.
He called making states in the 200 a great accomplishment.
“As soon as I got there, I walked in there and stood in the middle of the field and looked around and thought how great it was,” Johnson said. “I love running. It’s one thing I love.”