Sit down with a sports writer, and I’m sure a list of the best players they’ve ever covered will come up in the conversation.
Who’s the best shooter? Who’s the best baseball player? Who’s the best all-around athlete?
People who cover sports can provide a unique perspective because they’re at all of the games and don’t have that family or friend connection that can cloud judgment. In my past life as a journalist, I covered sports.
My list was already beginning to form early in my career, and when I came to Clinton in 2008, somebody already had claimed the top spot in my “best running back I ever covered” list.
I was only 22 years old, but I had been in and out of the business for about six years, covering mostly high school football, but also college football, which happened to feature the nation’s best Division II football program — Northwest Missouri State University.
During my two years at Northwest, the football team was in the midst of appearing in the national title game for five consecutive years. In my final year as a sports editor of the Northwest Missourian, that meant I had a front-row seat to watch the best running back in school history, Xavier Omon.
That name likely doesn’t do much for people around here, but Omon was the best player on the best program and his name is forever etched in many national Division II records. He also happened to be drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft.
So when I began covering the Clinton High School football team in 2008, it would have taken a herculean effort by a running back to compete for the top spot on my “list.”
Then I watched David Johnson.
Johnson was a junior in 2008 and that team laid a solid foundation for the history made in 2009. Johnson, much like Omon, was surrounded by great talent. But it was evident that Johnson had the brightest future.
It’s too bad he rarely played more than a half or three quarters during his senior season. If he had played all four quarters, who knows how many state records he would still have today.
However, the coaching staff wasn’t going to risk injury when the River Kings were usually up by so much that the running clock started early in the second half.
I can remember both moments when I realized that Johnson and Omon weren’t just regular running backs. Omon’s moment came against rival No. 16 Pittsburg State at Arrowhead, when he basically put the team on his shoulders, ran for 274 yards, averaged 8.1 yards per carry, and notched five touchdowns, including the game winner when he leaped over his offensive line on fourth down in overtime.
Johnson’s game actually happened when Mediacom was there, allowing me to call my friends, and make sure they tuned in to the rebroadcast of the game, just so they could witness something I still can’t believe.
On Oct. 16, 2009, the River Kings did what they did that year — they beat a team by a lot.
On that night against Davenport Central, though, Johnson did something that looks like a misprint. He recorded eight official touches — 7 carries, 259 yards (37 yards per carry), one catch, 19 yards, for six touchdowns. He also took back a 65-yard interception for a touchdown, but it got called back for a penalty.
That’s an impressive stat line.
Now, for the second time in my career, a running back that I covered is getting drafted. I’m not gloating, but there is a common denominator in there, and it appears to be me.
Sure, I can’t contribute anything on the field, but it appears my mere presence can get running backs drafted. Or maybe it had something to do with me being in the right place at the right time. Either way, I was pretty lucky for those four years.
I’m not going to boast that I knew Johnson would be drafted, but I, like many in the area, were confused why he wasn’t getting more looks from colleges. He had size, speed, athleticism and those might not even be his best attribute.
His biggest asset may be his ability to stay out of trouble and be a good person. He was always gracious during interviews after his high school games and I haven’t heard a bad word mentioned about him from people in the public.
No matter where he goes in the NFL draft, which runs from Thursday to May 2, he’ll be a good ambassador for Clinton, and can be a great example for our community’s youths of what happens when you work hard and remain focused.
I feel lucky to have covered such great athletes during my time in sports. Oftentimes, you don’t realize what you’re watching until years down the road when it becomes apparent those kinds of talents don’t come around every day.
When the draft commences next week, it will be a good day for Clinton, and I can assure you, the top of my running back “list” isn’t the same as it was when I moved here.
Scott Levine is the Associate Editor of the Clinton Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.