Sept. 30, 2011
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, turns its attention to freshman guard Ty Johnson in this entry.
In a modern athletic enterprise where footwear is also fashion, the color and style of an individual's "kicks" are seldom ignored by the aspiring student. The dusty old white pair of sneakers that sat tucked in a duffel bag until it came time for gym class is as about as relevant in today's HD world as a kinescope reel.
This is especially true for young men and women who take their basketball seriously. There are statements to be made through choice of shoes, both on and off the court. The more bold can choose flashy colors while those who prefer understatement have a wide range of options too.
Sneakers long ago moved beyond gymnasium floors.
In this age of sporting chic, there is no starker contrast to the fresh new look of a Nike shoe product than the utilitarian walking boot. What it fosters in healing, it surrenders to aesthetics. It is a clunky reminder that all is not right in an athlete's world.
During the summer of 2011, for the first time in his short but decorated athletic career, Villanova guard Ty Johnson learned firsthand about the value and limitations of a boot. In his case, it protected the left foot in the wake of injuries sustained in a June pickup game. It was part of his wardrobe each time he ventured out in public on campus or with his new teammates in Europe.
For all of its effectiveness as an alternative to a cast, the boot was something of an early anchor to his dreams.
"I had never suffered a major injury before," says the native of Plainfield, N.J., "so this was tough for me."
The fateful moment came when Johnson was on the court a few weeks after his arrival from Montrose Christian School, where he helped his team claim the ESPN Rise championship among other achievements. He limped off the court that day with what appeared to be a severe ankle sprain. But as Johnson began using the walking boot following the injury, there was continued pain in the foot unrelated to the ankle injury. He reported this to head athletic trainer Jeff Pierce and a consultation with team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Rob Good was quickly arranged.
X-rays revealed that in addition to the ankle sprain, Johnson had a stress fracture that would require surgery in his left foot. The surgery was performed by Good in July.
The rehabilitation was no breeze.
"Jeff and coach Lon (Record) pushed me through it," says Johnson. "They helped me get where I needed to be."
But the psychology of watching his future unfold from a chair along the sidelines ran counter to everything Johnson, a former dual sport standout as a point guard and quarterback in his native Plainfield, N.J., knew. He had been in the middle of all the action on every team he had ever been a part of. Now he was left to merely observe as his teammates went through their paces with the coaching staff for ten practices ahead of the exhibition trip to Europe in August.
"It was really hard not to participate but it was still a great experience to see Europe like that," Johnson states. "This was my first time overseas and a lot of kids aren't blessed to be able to go to Europe and see the kinds of things we did.
"It wasn't easy. I just tried to be positive and be there for my teammates because I knew that once I got back out on the court, they would show me the same respect."
The coaching staff encouraged Johnson to watch everything closely, in practice, games and in film sessions. Johnson concentrated as though he were getting set to play.
"I learned our offense," says Johnson of that period. "I feel I have a good handle on all the things we are doing now. Sometimes it's good to watch something before you do it for the first time."
The boot was cast aside weeks ago. Johnson has since gradually expanded his basketball workload and is now applying those lessons as he scrapes the accumulated rust off of his game.
"I'm getting used to being back on two feet," he says. "My foot is still weak now but this is a process of building up because I hadn't done anything on it for three months.
"If just feels great to do a crossover move again, pass to a teammate, or really anything. For someone who loves basketball as much as I do, it just feels great to be able to do those things again."
Johnson's affinity for the sport is nearly as old as he is.
"Basketball is my first love," he explains. "I started at the age of three. My brother (Perone) and sister (Shannon) played and I just continued that process. When I was in second and third grade I was blessed with the talent to play with my sister, who is three years older than me, and older guys. It came to the point where I was maybe eight years old playing against guys who were 14 or 15."
Those gifts also opened up other doors as well. Johnson had dabbled in football and as he approached his ninth grade year, there were those who suggested he focus solely on hoops. In the end, though, Johnson decided that he would pursue both sports at Plainfield High School in no small part due to his bonds with a group of youngsters he had grown up alongside.
"I decided to stay loyal to my friends and be a two-sport athlete," Johnson recalls.
Although he sensed basketball would ultimately be the sport of choice, he balanced both through his first three years of high school. There were offers from Division I colleges that thought he would make a fine football player but by the end of his junior year of 2009-10, Johnson decided the time had come to pour his energy into a single endeavor.
"It was hard to give up football," he says. "The toughest part was leaving my friends. I am an unselfish person and I had a lot of loyalty to those guys. We grew up playing mostly basketball but football too. It came time that those guys understood that I was a two-sport athlete with a chance to play college basketball at a high level. I needed to focus on what I loved and that is basketball."
Johnson remains close with his old friends, many of whom were on hand when the 6-3 guard announced his intention to attend Villanova at a fourth of July celebration in his hometown in 2010. As part of his quest to be fully prepared for the college challenge, Johnson later elected to spend his final year of high school at Montrose Christian School in Maryland.
"Leaving Plainfield was hard," he says. "That was my comfort zone with my friends and family. Montrose was nothing like home but I wanted to take my game to another level. It was a sacrifice leaving my friends but it has helped me make the transition to college. The decision to leave Plainfield for Montrose was about becoming a man and being on my own. I have no regrets whatsoever."
Johnson didn't leave the lessons of the gridiron in Plainfield.
"Being a quarterback, I took a lot of hits and avoided some others," he says. "It definitely toughened me up for basketball. At this level you take a lot of contact, and I think I'm used to being strong. Football is a physical sport and it helped me for basketball."
At Montrose, Johnson was a key performer on one of the nation's top teams. His performance in the final game of the ESPN Rise Championship earned him the game's most valuable player award and the attention that accompanies a starring role in a game played before the cameras of national television.
"Even practices at Montrose," notes Johnson, "were very intense. You always had a player at your position challenging you. You had to play hard every practice and every game."
That attitude has served him well at Villanova. The program earned his trust as a prospect in large part because of the people who were already a part of it and the university it represents.
"When you look at schools in recruiting," says Johnson, "you want to know that there is a good group of players there. You want to come in and learn from them and know that they are good people. I think Coach (Jay) Wright and the staff did a great job recruiting me. Villanova had a style of play I liked and everything just kind of fell into place."
Now, after an unexpected delay, it's nearly time for Johnson to bring his leadership, toughness and gifts as a scoring point guard into the Wildcats' mix.
"I feel like I have to step my game up to another level," he states. "The only thing I want to do is to play hard and do whatever I need to do to get a W."
"I think what I bring to this team is leadership, playing hard and unselfishness. I try to make the right plays at the right time."
For most of his first three months at Villanova, Johnson was more detached observer than playmaker. Now, with his clunky boot cast aside, he is building towards the start of the regular season on Nov. 11 at the Pavilion against Monmouth.
"It just feels great to be able to strap on those shoes again," he says.
A matching pair of game shoes have seldom felt so good.