by Paul Peck, Buffalo Sports Page
He used his hands to make the catch.
He used his legs to score the game-winning touchdown.
But it’s his heart, while broken, that UB’s Anthony Johnson used to pull off one of the signature plays of his career, and a pivotal play in the Bulls season.
The senior wide receiver scored the winning touchdown with :59 seconds left to send UB to a huge 36-29 win over Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday.
No one in the stands knew what Johnson was dealing with, both emotionally and physically, during the game. But like any great player, he fought through that pain and returned the love to his teammates.
It was one of the most amazing and emotional moments I’ve seen in 30 years of covering sports.
— #MACtion (@MACSports) September 9, 2018
Game tied at 29. Fourth Quarter. 1:09 left. Third down and ten yards to go at the Temple 29 yard line. Quarterback Tyree Jackson throws across the middle to Johnson. He catches it at the 25 yard line, still six yards shy of a first down. Johnson breaks the initial tackle, and runs to the sideline. He gets a great block from fellow receiver Antonio Nunn, and then gets hit at the three yard line. Not to be stopped, the guy they call “AJ” fights through the tackle, sticks the ball out and breaks the plane. Touchdown.
A minute later, the Bulls were celebrating one of their biggest wins in years. But there was something about the celebration, especially with Johnson. It was so much more than a celebration of a win.
The Night Before
Friday night, at the team hotel near the Philadelphia Airport, Johnson gets a call from home. Home is Rock Hill, South Carolina. It’s a 30 minute drive from Charlotte, just across the state line. The news is devastating. His best friend from high school, De’Mon Davis, is shot and killed following an argument. Davis and Johnson were teammates at South Pointe High School. Their relationship remained strong. Johnson referred to Davis as “my real brother.”
Johnson is devastated. He’s overcome with emotion, and trying to decide if he should play a football game in less than 24 hours…or head home to be with his friends and family.
Johnson’s teammates reacted the only way they could. They provided support. They told Anthony they were with him whatever he decided.
Johnson’s roommate and fellow starting receiver K.J. Osborn has been cited by players and coaches as the steadying influence and the one who kept Johnson locked in. You can see that in the picture attached to this story.
The decision was made to stay in Philly, and try to play the game.
No one outside the team knew what Johnson was dealing with. So when the game kicked off, and Johnson was in the starting lineup, there was no reason to think that anything was wrong. He had four first half catches, and the 10 NFL scouts in attendance had to like what they were seeing.
But after halftime, and in the third quarter, Johnson was not on the sidelines. When he did come out of the locker room, he was only playing a few snaps every series. Fans, and those of us in the media, were wondering what was wrong. Was he sick? Was there an injury?
What we now know is that Johnson’s emotional pain converted into physical pain. He was throwing up on the sidelines. The decision was made to rotate him in for only a few plays.
Then, when his team needed him most, he found the strength to make a play very few receivers in the nation could make.
The News Comes Out
While conducting a post game interview, and thinking that he was sick, I asked Johnson how hard it was to battle through. His answer stunned me.
“It was pretty tough for me. Last night, I found out some bad news that my best friend was killed. It had me with a heavy heart today. I really didn’t want to play today, but I wanted to come out here and fight for my teammates. Do it for him. That’s what he would have wanted me to do. I was coming in and out, trying to pace myself, trying to ease through it, push through it,” Johnson told me in the post game locker room.
Now that I think about it, Johnson’s eyes were red. Maybe I thought that came from “tears of joy” after the big win. I now knew the truth.
I struggled to process this unexpected news. How could someone deal with such a tragedy, and still find it in himself to go out and score the winning touchdown? I quickly discovered that Anthony couldn’t have done it without the support of his teammates.
“I respect him a lot, losing a best friend and a brother. I don’t know if I could do the same thing,” senior cornerback Cam Lewis told me. “We wanted to play for him. We all have his back. To see a brother go through something like that, we just all wanted to pick him up and help him out.”
“I let him know that I was there for him. I’m always there for him. He’s a tough guy,” said senior defensive end Chuck Harris.
After the game, Anthony was able to put into words what he had been going through. This is from his Instagram post on Sunday morning.
From breaking down to my knees the night before my game after getting that call crying to death, not being able to eat, drink or keep myself under control, calling everyone’s phone praying it wasn’t you. Waking up on game day crying still debating if I could play that football game. I kept telling myself I could with a heavy heart but I really knew I wasn’t going to be at my best but I did it for you. In and out the game throwing up on sideline trying to take my mind away from it to focus but I just couldn’t. I been with you since we was kids man, real brothers. I knew you needed me to fight and I had the chance to show you with the game winning TD and I knew you was with me money. I love you like my real brother?????
Those NFL scouts will judge Johnson on what he does on the field. Hopefully they’ll hear this story and see what kind of man he is.
If they judge him on his heart, he’s a lock to be a first round draft pick.