Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pasco's Josh Johnson a likely NFL draft pick

DADE CITY — Josh Johnson watched the seconds tick away from his father's sweaty arms.

Josh was an outgoing 2-year-old, and his dad, Issac, was Pasco High's freewheeling quarterback — famous but not yet infamous. Issac had just conducted a three-touchdown masterpiece in a 37-0 playoff win over Bushnell South Sumter, and Josh was gushing.

"My daddy," Josh said, "plays good football."

Soon enough, Josh would, too.

He starred as a do-it-all playmaker for Pasco, became an all-Big Ten cornerback at Purdue and likely will be selected Saturday in the final four rounds of the NFL draft.

But in a country community where family roots run deep and Friday nights are for Pirates football, his father's shadow lingers, from a jail cell in Land O'Lakes to a trophy won at Florida Field.

The past didn't scare Josh straight or overwhelm him or fuel his march to the NFL. It just hung in the background, another name under the stadium on the sign commemorating the only state championship in Pasco County history.

"He had his legacy; I have my own legacy," Josh, 22, said. "His got cut short; mine is still going. … "

• • •

Josh's love of football started when he watched Pasco practices and games as a toddler, but his path isn't as simple as a son following his father.

Josh grew up in a big, football-loving family loaded with future athletes — a Minnesota Twins farmhand (Deshawn Southward), a cornerback at UMass (Trey Dudley-Giles) and a receiver who landed two offers after his freshman year at Pasco (Nate Craig). A friend, Wesley Chapel High alum Greg Jenkins, could be drafted at receiver this weekend.

"They were so determined," said his mother, Nicki Craig. "They just loved football."

When Josh dominated peewee ball, his mother made sure he studied and went to church. But by high school, the outside focus shifted to his other parent.

The day before Pasco faced Jesuit in the 1992 state title game, Issac was arrested for a parole violation dating to a robbery the year before. He was released after a night in jail and threw a game-sealing 72-yard touchdown in a 28-16 victory in Gainesville.

So when Josh suited up as a freewheeling quarterback for his dad's old school on his old field in his old jersey number (9) where a billboard memorializes the North Suncoast's only state title, Issac watched from the shadows of W.F. Edwards Stadium, neither absent nor involved.

"You know how the past comes back to haunt you?" Issac said. "I didn't want my past to affect him."

But Josh always has been more worried about his family's future than its past.

He has two younger relatives — Dudley-Giles and Nate Craig — who idolize him and wore No. 9, too. He fields their 2 a.m. phone calls, preaches academics and showers them with gifts. Josh regrets losing in the 2008 state semifinals, not because he couldn't equal his dad's legacy but because he failed to win a state championship ring for Dudley-Giles, a freshman on that team.

"That's my idol," Dudley-Giles said.

In 2009 Josh turned down a potential pro baseball career to play cornerback at Purdue. The two-star recruit became a 5-foot-9, 199-pound ball hawk who earned all-conference honors in academics and football.

"I used to say to them, 'We'll be seeing this kid on Saturday, and then we'll be seeing him on Sunday,' " said Tom McHugh, who faced Josh for two years at Wesley Chapel before becoming Pasco's coach. "It's just a matter of time."

• • •

Josh's past four months have been a blur: a bowl game in Dallas, the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field, the NFL combine, pro days and workouts and phone calls and a text message from Ravens coach John Harbaugh showing off a box full of Super Bowl rings.

He has spent most days training in Dade City, backpedaling on his old field as roosters crow in the distance. He has slept in his mom's house, spoiled Dudley-Giles and Nate Craig with new Nikes and reconnected with family — including his dad.

Josh and Issac had always stayed in each others' lives mostly through short chats and chalk talk. But that changed a few years ago, when conversations grew deeper and longer.

Before the Shrine game in January, Josh swung by Issac's home to celebrate his 39th birthday and play his dad's favorite video game, Call of Duty.

"I just want him to be there, supporting me," Josh said. "That's all I've asked of him, and that's all he's been doing."

On Saturday, if draft projections are right, Josh will likely hear his name called from a stage in New York. A seven-figure contract could follow.

And when the phone finally rings at Josh's watch party, Issac plans to be there, out of the shadows, not to honor the biggest day in his family's legacy but to celebrate the accomplished dream of his son.

"To me," Issac said, "he's my hero."

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