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Johnson plans to take the roads less traveled

Choose? Choose? Doug Johnson doesn't want to choose. If he picked between baseball and football, it would be a signal that he couldn't do both.

That would be something, because there isn't much Johnson can't do. Never has been. Way he sees it, never will be.

So he has this plan.

Johnson is going to be playing third base in the major leagues by 1998, working his way up from the Devil Rays' rookie-level Gulf Coast League team in two short summers. And

he's going to play quarterback for the University of Florida, serving as a backup this fall as a freshman, then starting the next three seasons and moving on to the NFL.

Then?

"A lot of people say you can't play two sports professionally " Johnson said. "Hopefully, I won't have to pick between the two. I don't want to pick between the two. I want to be the white Bo Jackson. I want to be the white Deion Sanders. That's what me and my friends are always saying."

Johnson plans to play football each fall, attend classes and football practice each spring, then play part of each baseball season (May-July). He says there's nothing wrong with his double vision, and coaches in both sports say he has star quality.

Fixed on the future

"Say in '98 I'm playing for the Devil Rays. They decide I've matured enough to be in the big leagues. That's my goal. It may not happen, but that's what I'm hoping for. Then after '98 I'll have my (junior and) senior year, and say I get drafted in the NFL draft.

"If I can make it to the majors in '98 without getting in all my games, if I can make it playing college football in the fall, why can't I do it playing NFL football in the fall? "

Johnson, 18, is about to bring the first chapter in this ambitious script to a close. He will leave the Devil Rays' team next Saturday, take five days off and begin football workouts.

The Gators expect him to step right into the action. Eric Kresser's transfer left the Gators without an established backup, so Johnson will compete for the No. 2 job.

"Obviously we think he has the chance to be one of the best," UF coach Steve Spurrier said. "He's got a very strong arm, he's a good athlete and he can move around. I'm real anxious to start working with him."

The Devil Rays have been impressed with what they've seen. Even though Johnson is hitting .237 in 21 games, manager Bill Evers said the club likes the way he has adapted to the wood bat and made the transition from shortstop to third base.

"We think he's the major-league prospect we drafted in the second round," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "Like all young hitters we knew he'd struggle offensively, so the stats do not surprise us whatsoever. From our standpoint we're extremely pleased with his defense and with his potential offensively even though his stats are not glowing. We're very impressed with the way he carries himself and his attitude on the field."

Learning to handle failure

Johnson, who hit .407 with a school-record 12 home runs for Gainesville's Buchholz High, said the biggest adjustment to professional baseball has been mental.

"Learning how to handle failure," he said. "In high school, I really didn't ever fail. I never went more than one game without getting a hit. Here, I had a stretch where I was 1-for-16. I've got to learn to deal with it."

That

is something new. This is a kid whose first words were _ and his dad says they're not making this up _ "play ball." A kid who as a toddler loved to watch golf _ "No cartoons!" he claims _ and would cry when the station went to a commercial. A kid who always had a ball in his hand _ "No GI Joes" _ and, as an only child, would spend hours a day throwing the ball against the side of the house, developing a powerful arm. A kid who has starred at virtually every level of competition.

"He's always played on teams where his talent at the time was a little better than the others and I thought he had to back up a bit," said his father, Doug Sr.

Now Johnson, 6-2, 200 pounds, is facing opponents who are bigger, stronger, older, more experienced and, yes, even better. And that's in baseball. Wait until he steps on the football field.

"I'll be honest with you, I'm going to be a little nervous," Johnson said. "There's going to be 400-pound guys flying around. There's going to be tall guys in front of me so I'll have to find the passing lanes. (But) I'm not worried about learning the system."

Spurrier is not quite as optimistic. "As far as knowing our offense, it's going to be difficult for him to be ready to do in the early part," he said. "But after that we'll see what happens "

Johnson already has some ideas of his own _ explaining that while he respects incumbent QB Danny Wuerffel and his laid-back style, he is going to be a more aggressive quarterback. "I'm the type that's going to lower my head and take on a linebacker if that's what it takes." And, he says, grinning, "Watch for Florida to run the option this year."

Johnson has been working years for this opportunity. He was born and raised in Gainesville and got hooked on sports by a pair of athletic uncles _ Doug and Tim Hunter _ who made it their mission to taunt, torment and teach their nephew, instilling a strong competitiveness.

When Johnson first played football, at age 8, his father already was looking downfield, insisting he play only defense the first few years. "My motivation was that if he ran the defense, when he switches to the other side of the ball the conversion will be easier," Doug Sr. said. "He'll know what's going on over there and he can react to it."

Johnson bounced among the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams his first year at Buchholz, then took over as the starting quarterback as a sophomore and starred for three seasons. He threw for 2,234 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, highlighted by a stirring performance in a state playoff game against Milton where he led the Bobcats from a 34-13 deficit to a 35-34 victory.

Making the right moves

Johnson also started all four years on the varsity baseball team, graduated with a 3.06 grade-point average and showed a marked maturity and ability to stay out of trouble.

"Doug really knows the difference between right and wrong," his father said. "He is a level-headed young man. He scares me sometimes that he is so quick to understand situations."

Even though Johnson professes to bleed orange and blue, he considered a number of schools before committing to Florida, among them Florida State. But his flirtation with the Seminoles ended when he went to a game in Tallahassee.

"It's nothing like Florida," Johnson said. "The atmosphere is nothing like Ben Hill Griffin (Stadium). It doesn't get loud. And that chop gets on my nerves. It's the worst. Da-da-dadada. That's why I couldn't have been a Brave either."

Getting all the breaks

Actually, Johnson said, he really wanted to be a Devil Ray. Whereas some kids might have been reluctant to be part of a new organization, Johnson saw it as a chance to stay close to home and join a team with no players ahead of him.

It was just another reason he feels fortunate. "It seems like the ball has been bouncing my way every time," he said. "I keep telling myself I can't expect that to keep happening."

The Rays are banking on him sticking with baseball. "There's no question Doug Johnson is a major-league prospect," LaMar said. "How good he is in the other sport is yet to be seen."

Doug Sr. says the prospect of a long career may lead his son to stick with baseball. Buchholz baseball and assistant football coach Bob Smith says the repeated failures of playing baseball may drive him to football.

Johnson said he has dreams of playing both sports professionally and considers them equals. He would give one up only if he was struggling immensely. "I'd rather play great in one sport than play mediocre in two sports," he said.

A number of athletes have played minor-league baseball and college football. Jackson, Sanders and Brian Jordan played in the majors and the NFL, but they aren't quarterbacks.

The perfect solution for Johnson? How about being drafted by the Bucs, allowing him, perhaps, to play football and

baseball in Tampa Bay.

"I would not rule that out the way things are going," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me."

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