GRIDIRON: The journey back: After 2 potentially career-ending injuries, Shontrelle Johnson completes his journey back

Dylan Montz

Shontrelle Johnson hadn’t missed a game before coming to college.

Throughout his time at Crescent City and DeLand high schools in Florida and his first year at Iowa State, the senior running back for the Cyclones maintained a good level of health and performance on the field.

But as Johnson has learned after undergoing a cervical fusion surgery in his neck and rehabilitation to a torn ACL in his right knee, things can change in a second, and all he could do was falter because of it or accept what he was dealt and adapt.

‘I remember a very limp body being helped off the field’

After rushing for 218 yards as a freshman in 2010 and beginning the 2011 season with 247 yards, including a 108-yard performance against Iowa, Johnson was feeling great to begin his sophomore season.

When the 3-0 ISU football team took the field at Jack Trice Stadium against Texas on Oct. 1, 2011, though, Johnson took a shot in the fourth quarter of the Cyclones’ loss and stayed down on the field before he was helped off by the training staff.

“I remember a very limp body being helped off the field,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “Any time the body reacts to that in that way, you’re concerned for a young man. We had nervous, anxious moments that night, and when we found out the news, [we were] just hopeful for the best.”

Johnson had been dealing with stinging and numbing sensations since the end of the previous year, but it was against Texas that it finally caused him to not be able to continue playing. The diagnosis was that he had a disk in his neck pinching against his cervical cord.

It required a cervical fusion, similar to the surgery that NFL quarterback Peyton Manning underwent.

“I was heartbroken. I’ve been playing football all my life. That injury, you know it’s pretty rare,” Johnson said. “It’s a cervical fusion and not many guys come back from it, and it’s just a blessing to even be able to play again. They told me I was a couple hits away from being paralyzed, so to even think about playing the game again, let alone having your life, health, kids and life after football.

“It’s a lot to think about and a lot to have on the table at a

young age.”

On the mend and on to junior year with another setback

The rehabilitation from the neck injury was a slow one. Being patient and going through the constant checkups with the doctors was the most important thing Johnson could focus on while he was recovering.

After he was cleared to begin physical activity again, something that is not guaranteed to everyone who goes through a cervical fusion, the plan was to begin moving his neck little by little and get his strength back.

Even though he missed the nine remaining games of his sophomore season, Johnson diligently worked on restoring his health to get ready for his junior year. Johnson played the entire 2012 regular season, finishing with 504 rushing yards and two touchdowns including a 120-yard, one touchdown performance in the season-opener against Tulsa.

In preparation for Iowa State’s trip to the Liberty Bowl, however, Johnson once again fell to injury, this time a torn ACL in his right knee after he planted his foot to cut in a regular practice.

It would mean more surgery, more rehab and missing a second-straight bowl game with no guarantees of playing the same way he once had.

“It was kind of like I made it through the season after I had just gotten back from my injury and then for that to happen again; it was heartbreaking again,” Johnson said. “It was another potentially career-ending injury.

“Some guys don’t come back from ACL injuries, let alone the next season.”

More rehab with new perspectives

Once again, Johnson underwent surgery to repair the damage and then work with the rehabilitation staff. And just like he did with his neck injury, Johnson responded well to treatments and worked hard with the athletic training staff, including Mark Coberley, ISU director of athletic training.

With Coberley overseeing Johnson’s rehabilitation, he likened the recovery time to that of NFL running back Adrian Peterson. Something that allowed Johnson to come back in such a quick amount of time was his willingness to work hard and a positive attitude in the weight and rehab rooms.

“That’s one of the reasons that he’s been able to do what he’s done. Everybody has bad days, but his are few and far between,” Coberley said of Johnson. “He comes in with a great attitude and he’s going to work hard. He’s got a great work ethic and a positive guy. That’s a huge reason why he’s been able to overcome these two [injuries].”

ISU linebacker Jeremiah George, Johnson’s roommate during their freshman year, always put himself in his friend’s corner through each of his injuries and was one of the people to keep Johnson’s head in the right place. George felt the neck injury Johnson suffered better prepared him to deal with something like an ACL tear.

“I just told him to continue to be himself,” George said of Johnson. “He’s a very vocal guy, and whenever I wouldn’t hear him talk as much, I would let him know that’s not who he is, that he needed to continue to be who he is. … I think that’s what helped him the most.”

Back on the field for the final season

Johnson made his recovery from his ACL tear and was suited up for the Cyclones and fall camp and has seen action in Iowa State’s first three games this season. Since coming back, Rhoads has seen Johnson perform with a full-speed-ahead mentality.

Throughout the past two years, Johnson has embraced an idea that whatever happens was meant to be. Living with enthusiasm every day and doing what you love is what has carried him onward.

Johnson has fought adversity and won — twice.

“You always think about [being injured], but you’ve just got to be thankful and approach everything as if it could be your last down,”  Johnson said. “Just don’t take anything for granted and just to embrace everything.”

“It was eye-opening.”