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University of Tampa's Matt Johnson making most of a second chance

Senior point guard Matt Johnson averages 5.9 assists per game and is on pace to rank third all-time for the Spartans.
Senior point guard Matt Johnson averages 5.9 assists per game and is on pace to rank third all-time for the Spartans.
Published Jan. 24, 2017

TAMPA — Matt Johnson, senior point guard for the University of Tampa men's basketball team, wears a gold angel necklace.

"I do believe somebody was watching over me," he said. "I'm lucky. I could've been gone."

Nearly seven years ago, at the end of his junior year in high school, Johnson was practicing with his AAU team in his native New Jersey. He suddenly felt dizzy and tried to steady himself before passing out for nearly a minute.

At the hospital, doctors discovered an enlarged heart. They originally diagnosed it as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes. The chilling words still ring in Johnson's ears.

You'll never be able to play basketball again.

"I think I used up all my tears right there," said Johnson, who was 15 at the time. "I never cried so much in my life."

But the search for answers led him to specialists at the Minneapolis Heart Institute. After a battery of tests, which included monitoring of his heart during six months of inactivity, doctors concluded it wasn't HCM. He was cleared to play.

The schools that had originally recruited him were scared away, unwilling to take any semblance of a medical risk. So Johnson, essentially getting a referral from another New Jersey native, former UT great Rashad Callaway, wound up as a walk-on with the Spartans.

Now on scholarship, Johnson has enjoyed a productive career. He's averaging 5.9 assists per game and projects as UT's third all-time career assist man. He knows his role. Johnson has just 36 field-goal attempts in 18 games.

"He's very knowledgable about the game, very heady, a good distributor, a true leader," UT associate head coach Justin Pecka said. "We're glad he's with us."

Johnson, a 5-foot-9, 160-pounder from Columbus, N.J., is glad, too.

Basketball was his life. The son of a high school coach, Johnson spent his first two prep seasons playing at St. Anthony's for legendary coach Bob Hurley before transferring closer to home. At the time of his medical incident, he was considered one of the state's top players. Like any kid, even one who is 5-9, he dreamed of playing in the NBA.

But when the game was yanked away from him — nearly for good — Johnson's priorities changed.

"I still work very hard — I'm not a slacker by any means — but I approach everything differently," Johnson said.

Previously, Johnson said he was obsessed with basketball. Now he strives for a well-balanced life, placing more value on his relationships with family and friends.

Academics, meanwhile, have become a huge priority, not just a means to stay eligible for basketball. He's scheduled to graduate May 6 with his accounting degree.

"I'm sure that will be emotional," Johnson said. "It was emotional for me to graduate from high school. I had tears in my eyes, just thinking about everything I had been through.

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"Every time I hit a different life milestone — whether it was turning 18 or turning 21 — it's very meaningful. I could've easily not had any of those experiences. I'm not sure why I had this incident with my heart, but it has certainly made me more appreciative of everything I have. Maybe that's the benefit."

There's also some irony.

At the height of Johnson's prep career, he said there was a common description for his game.

"People said I played with such a big heart," he said. "Diving for loose balls. Taking charges. Defending anybody, even if they were 6-8 or 6-9. I was always known for playing very hard."

When Johnson returned to basketball, his parents were nervous, constantly asking if he was okay. Sometimes he wondered, too, trying to get back in shape and hoping he wasn't crossing the line with his effort.

Now the incident hardly enters his mind. It's merely something that once happened. When he mentors young players during camps in his home state, he uses it to make a point about never giving up.

Johnson wants to remain in basketball after leaving UT. He will pursue graduate assistant opportunities. One day, he hopes to become a head coach in college.

His life has turned out differently. It's better.

"The benefit of a fresh outlook on life, to me, is a benefit that trumps all, even more than basketball," Johnson said. "I got a second shot at life. I got a second shot to live it to the fullest.

"In the past, I always thought about playing pro basketball. That's not my dream any more. I think I'm destined for something bigger. I enjoy every day and I'm determined to make a difference in other people's lives. I think that's why I'm still here."

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