Daniel Johnson said the decision was an easy one. His coach said turning down a once-in-a-lifetime offer says all anyone needs to know about Johnson -- and his team.
The Ridgeland High School senior linebacker is a national finalist for the Wendy's High School Heisman Award and was scheduled to fly Friday to New York to be part of the ceremony. With the trip comes the chance to meet past collegiate Heisman winners and see Saturday's awarding of this year's trophy.
But Johnson's Panthers will be playing in the GHSA Class AAAA semifinals Friday night at Bowers and Painter Field against Atlanta school Marist, and while the 4.0 student has dreamed of the trip since he was named a finalist last month, he had no problem turning it down to be with his teammates.
"It was really a no-brainer," said Johnson, whose uncle and grandfather will represent him in New York. "I mean, I have a chance to play for a state championship, lead my team and play in front of my community one more time. It's a great honor to be invited to New York, but this is a bigger one."
Coach Mark Mariakis wasn't surprised by Johnson's choice. The senior captain and three-year starter represents why, Mariakis said, this Ridgeland team is comfortable venturing into new playoff territory.
"They're confident and they're focused -- focus being the main word," said Mariakis, whose team had never gotten beyond the second round until this year. "They just go to work every day. You can't tell if it's week three or the third round."
"Guys like Daniel Johnson and Vonn Bell and Darrell Bridges are all business, and they put the team first. I've never coached a group like this before that's so grounded together. They don't care who gets the credit or gets the stats. That's easier said than done."
That take-care-of-business attitude was on display in last week's quarterfinal blowout win over Mary Persons. Despite just finishing what is for now the most important win in school history, the Panthers did very little celebrating.
"They haven't gotten too high or too low," Mariakis said. "Everyone was excited about the win Friday, but their goal is not to win the third round. They always have a goal in mind, and from day one it's to win a state championship."
For Johnson, Friday could still turn out to be the best day of his life.
"Oh my, that would be something else," said Johnson, who has asked that no one let him know about the High School Heisman announcement until after the game. "I'm trying not to think too much about it, and I don't want it to be a distraction in any way. Right now I'm just concentrating on Marist."
Contact Lindsey Young at email@example.com or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...