JOHNSON FAMILY VALUES PT. II: BRAD JOHNSON TALKS MAX & JAKE'S LSU ODYSSEY, OCONEE HIGH'S RISE & MORE
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
LONN: We've seen those classic photos of Max as a baby on the Super Bowl field with you, your wife Nikki.... when you first thought of having children, even before you met Nikki, the first time you ever thought of having kids...did you think let's have football sons? Let's root and ground them through sports?
BRAD: Nahhh (laughs)...I'm not really sure, I just was grateful to have a wife, and just raising two kids.... we're fortunate with her family and my family...to have the support that we did.
Her mom actually lived with us for five years when I was playing in Minnesota, in Tampa...and we just....Nikki had 4 brothers and sisters and there's 12 cousins, I just...you think about all the love and attention that all of us would give all these cousins and these kids...and, so I was fortunate enough to...we had two boys with Max and Jake, we were fortunate enough to coach 'em all these years in youth football, middle school and high school...so it's just kind of been fun to be part of their lives.
LONN: Now both have a chance to follow in your championship footsteps, from your Super Bowl win to their National Championship contention at LSU....
BRAD: You know, when I think of them I don't really think of them on the national stage, I think of all the youth baseball games and travel weekends, birthday parties, pool parties and just kind of the fun of watching them grow up....then, you know obviously they got the chance to play on the national stage now, so it's been fun just to watch them grow up.
LONN: Of course, you've had a very unique, but desired career in that your kids were still younger when you retired, so many NFL guys miss out on those prime years. You've been able to really be there and even coach your sons at Oconee High as the QBs Coach.
There's something people don't talk about.... but in 2018, Max's junior season, you guys lost 7 WRs to injury....SEVEN....
BRAD: Yeah...Max's junior year we had seven players that were lost to...2 guys had ACL tears, 2 had broken feet, two of them broke their hand....we lost another one, the other one moved, and so it was....it was tough his junior year. One guy ended up being a starter for us, weighed 120 pounds and bench-pressed 122 pounds, another new receiver they'd never played with before.
That year, there was a time in one game where Max threw for 8 yards....and that's where our team was. The greatness of it was....Max never talked about all those guys getting hurt or not having guys that had ever played before....no one could understand what he went through. But he never threw the kids under the bus...and he fought for those kids. Max is a loyal, loyal kid...if you'll fight, if you'll work, you're on his team for life.
And the cool thing about it, you think about last year against Florida...think about all the kids who had opted out...and the kids that haven't played that were playing that game....and they're 23 1/2 point under-dogs... I'm like, 'this is something he's already been through before in his life'.
And so, you have to go through the ring of fire at some point...and what makes you "you", what makes you tough, what's your adversity that you've been through? You have to ask the kids the question, 'what's the adversity you've been through?'.
And so, those are some things that he had to fight through, and labels or whatever going on through his junior year.
But the greatness of it, Lonn, was his senior year....the head coach, he's like "hey seniors, what do you wanna accomplish this year?" and Max stood up in the team meeting and he said "I want to win the state championship".......that doesn't happen at our high school.
So, he took a stand and he led the team and we went 13-2, went to the state championship....we got beat, but he wasn't afraid to stand and talk about it, go out there and do it, and having to face that adversity that he'd done in his junior year...it's kind of made him who he is today.
LONN: He goes from throwing for 8 yards in 2018 and facing all that adversity to 2019 where Max grinded, worked and grew with his teammates. He threw 12 TDs to 1 INT over Oconee's final five games, including 4 playoff games with 0 picks, but it didn't end the way you wanted, in a very narrow 17-14 defeat in the title game to Blessed Trinity.....
Do you feel the sour taste from that title game defeat still drives Max?
BRAD: Yeah, I mean we actually lost this past year, too....but yeah you only get so many chances to get what you want, you know?
And we earned the right to beat some really good teams along the way, to overcome a lot of adversity and to be there, so it's an unbelievable accomplishment to get there.
Didn't finish it off, so it'll always be a sour taste, but it's also about being thankful to have led a place that had no belief that they could ever reach that far.
The belief was "can we go to the playoffs? Can we win one playoff game?" let alone get as far as we did, so I think all that's been beneficial for him, obviously you don't get to wear the state championship ring...but you know you gotta move on and that's what he's done.
LONN: Still, it's an incredible accomplishment what Max has done at Oconee and what Jake has done and continued to do:
For Jake, he's caught 14 touchdowns in 2019 and 10 this last year. Big time numbers both sons put up there, but it's more the work ethic that catches my eye.
When I talk to Jake about Oconee, he understands he might not get the ball as much, but he's very selfless in that. It's the same kind of team first mentality that you had as well throughout your career.
BRAD: Yeah, you gotta have it and so for Jake, after sophomore year to play with Max, he was actually playing more receiver. And then there were a lot of rumors about him transferring and things of that sort, and so he was going to play more tight end and we knew we'd have to block a lot more and not get to throw as much, but he said "you know what, that's going to make me a better all-around player when I get to college".
It's a unique view to take a kid that ends up being a top player in the country and say "I'm not worried about if I'm gonna catch a hundred balls...because the ones I do catch are going to impact games."
And so, he's a kid that I think caught maybe 35, 40 balls last year but kind of dominates the game without catching the ball sometimes....it's hard to do that from that position but it's very...he's like "what's going to make me better in the long run?"
We're a team that doesn't throw the ball that much, but when we throw it hopefully we can be effective.
But he's a kid that works hard, loves the game, and has made himself a better player by doing what he's doing.
LONN: And that's why he's the #1 TE in the country!
When both Jake and Max were first recruited by LSU, Miami offered Max first, then of course your alma mater Florida State, then UGA were all in the mix mainly, so where did Max's passion for LSU come from?
BRAD: We had taken a lot of visits...just throughout the years, we'd been...I think he got offered as a sophomore, we visited a couple times, went to camp, and just for some reason kind of liked it.
And as it went on, we went to all the places you could potentially go, and he's a kid who played underneath center for his whole career in high school, until his senior year....so most kids cannot play from underneath center and where he's actually learning more how to play from shotgun where other kids they have to learn how to take a snap. So it's kind of reversed.
His senior year, he took every snap from shotgun, but the system....we were looking for systems.
He wanted to blaze his own trail, as far as not following me at Florida State or not playing in Georgia here in Athens or going and playing for his Uncle at Miami.
We couldn't go wrong with any choice, but I think Max wanted to be his own guy...and you know, look at LSU, he wanted to be apart of a Top 10 program, a team that has a chance to win National Championships and be on a national stage and that's what you have with LSU. It's as big as it gets and he loves it.
He loves being there and loves the system, loves all the coaches and he loves all his teammates. He's excited about it and we all feel like he made the right choice.
LONN: He seems to be a mysterious kinda guy, very chill but reminds people around LSU of Joe...a quiet assassin. What are the biggest keys of Max's personality that will make him an effective quarterback going forward?
BRAD: (intensely) He's a loyal kid to his teammates, he's a hard worker:
Here in Oconee County, we work hard.
We run, we lift and we get after it...and so, to do the workouts at LSU, he's not just trying to get through the conditioning test, he wants to win every stinkin' race.
Every race....every race....and it doesn't matter who he's going against...he wants to win.
It's contagious with other players, but he doesn't need to be in a race with anybody else, even if he's working out by himself, he's going to run as hard as he can. He's going to lift, he's going to throw, he wants to get better at it and he loves playing the game.
And so, that's what you have at LSU. It's a competitive place, it's a place that wants to win with great players.
I think he's a tough kid, he's not a kid that speaks out a lot, sometimes he can be quiet in those terms, but as far as being in the moment, being in the games and stuff, he loves it.
He loves doing the film work, he loves being taught and obviously it's got to carry over to game nights.
LONN: Max committed to LSU more than a year before Joe Burrow delivered the title, but when Max was an early enrollee he had the opportunity to see Burrow in action, did he tell you what that was like and have you seen the effect his "Burrow Experience" had on him?
BRAD: Yeah, well he only got to be with Joe for about 3 or 4 practices, so I don't think....I think they just got to meet each other. And we'd met Joe a couple times just on the visits, but Joe was getting ready for the National Championship so it wasn't like....but I do remember the first night we were there, he was up til 2 o'clock at the Cook Hotel and they said "here's 75 plays, draw 'em up and give 'em to us tomorrow".
He stayed up til 2 o'clock drawing up the plays and hands 'em in, and the next night, they give him his 75 plays and say "draw 'em up again".
I think he got to see where the drills were going, the speed of what was happening at practice and then honestly, the cool thing about it was he was there: Max saw the National Championship, he saw those guys win it.
As far as learning football throughout the year, the pandemic hit.
And when the pandemic hit, it wasn't like he was just thrown into practice, like he actually got to come home and learn the plays....over Zoom.
It wasn't like Spring football "what are the signals, what's the snap count?" he really got to kind of come home and learned the plays over Zoom and I think that helped him, honestly, where they didn't just go "here's Spring football, go play", he kind of got to settle in a little bit.
But at the same time, he had the college experience of being there a couple months.
LONN: I remember you saying at the time that you felt he improved throughout the pandemic, with the heightened access, Jake being his receiver and of course you as his coach.
BRAD: Yeah as far as physically, I think he got better. We had a gym at the house and we had some fields we could actually go throw at.
So, a lot of kids in the pandemic didn't have places to lift weights or didn't have....they were doing push-ups and sit-ups and that was about it. We were able to do the whole thing, we had a schedule that we stayed on constantly.
I feel like he improved last Spring because we were on a schedule....we were throwing, running and lifting, then they got to spend all the Zoom time, as far as learning the plays and so yeah, I think they definitely improved over the pandemic.
LONN: All throughout his freshman year, Max came into some tough moments in games...LSU facing shutouts vs Auburn, Texas A&M and facing utter destruction from Alabama, and in every game he produced the best offensive plays of those games, what do you think those cameo opportunities showed him most, coming in as a freshman and just being thrown into the fire?
BRAD: You know, last year was a weird year, and just....you know (laughs) you could do 10 podcasts on what happened...but.....and all that's gone, but I really think it was just a time for when he did come in there, you're hungry....you're hungry to get an opportunity, you wanna show your worth. It took a while to get Max in there, some things are out of your control, and he never complained about whatever the situation was.
And you know, I remember the very first snap, I think in a couple games...against Texas A&M, definitely against Florida, the first snap was on the 1 yard line coming out.....those are things where you're dealing with crowd noise, you're dealing with "let's don't take a safety here, let's get the ball out", but I felt like he felt confident in the system, he loved being with the players he was with, he was able to stay calm and not do anything out of.....just go through his progressions of where the play was, not try to do anything special, just do what was asked of him.
LONN: What did you say to him before that first start, the wild Florida game on the road in Gainesville?
BRAD: I didn't really say much to him, because they got great coaches. I feel like he was just excited for the opportunity; and really, sometimes as a parent you can say too much, you know, sometimes as a parent you just want to make sure "you're homework going good? Got enough gas in the car?" those kind of things... filling up the fridge with food.
But I just felt like he was confident and thankful for the opportunity to play.
There were some kids who had left the team, and he was just like "you know whoever's here...we're gonna go play".
He was just excited for the opportunity and glad they were able to come through.
LONN: Then Ole Miss right after that, did you expect that? 435 yards, 5 total TDs, how was it watching that with your wife and Jake?
BRAD: There were so many high emotions from the Florida game the week before, and then you know it became foggy, then you got the shoe being thrown, the 57 yard field goal, and it was just a crazy experience. And then the next week, you turn right around and the weather report said it's going to rain at about halftime...and that's when it came down.
It was just a wild shootout, 53-48, either team could've won that day. I just felt they were able to make enough plays to pull it out, kind of a good way to end the season.
Finish at home and finish on a winning note.
LONN: Did you see Max's relationship with Kayshon Boutte build over the season, beginning with his touchdown pass to Kayshon vs Auburn... or was their record-breaking 308 yard performance just two great players going to work?
BRAD: I think it's more of guys going to work. I know him, Koy Moore and Kayshon have built up a great relationship in the off-season, just throwing and working out. Just building a friendship.
The cool thing after the (Ole Miss) game, he's like "holy cow, I didn't realize Kayshon had 15 catches". I was like "you didn't?" and he said "No, I was just throwing to the open guy".
Obviously, Kayshon has great abilities...is fast, was able to get open and make a lot of plays after the catch, but you know that was kind of what I wanted to hear: Make the read, make the throw and move on to the next play... and I think that's what kinda happened....they caught lightning in a bottle that game.
LONN: Max seems to loves the contact, one of his first plays vs South Carolina, late in the game, he comes in and clobbers a few defenders for the first down....he seemed to get more into the game with each hit in a way?
BRAD: I think all quarterbacks want to....not that you want to get hit, but you want to feel a part of the game, sometimes you have to be careful about taking unnecessary hits. And that's something I talk to them about, I know they want them to run players over and get every inch, and I believe in that, but I also believe in being available, by being healthy and being on the field at the same time. You know.... sometimes you have to get down, sometimes you have to run out of bounds and sometimes you gotta go for it.
I think he improved on that as the season went on as well.
LONN: Brad, you've suffered through it all, knee injuries, broken ankles, cracked vertebrae, nerve damage.....you've gone through it all, and you played in a time when defenders could literally do whatever they wanted to a quarterback....even though this is a different era, is there a part of you that says "I can't look" when there's a big hit coming, or is it just a part of the game?
BRAD: Yeah, you know as a parent you're hopeless. I felt like there was one time, I think it was against Alabama, I felt like he almost got his knee blown out. It's like a tackle right in the middle or something, he got sacked on a QB sneak or something.
Injuries are a part of the game, so you just want to limit...there's only so many you can take at the end of the day. But, it's just a part of the game, as a parent you're just sitting there (laughs) you can't.... you can't yell and say "watch out!", you can't say "throw to that guy!", you just know he's playing with great players, he's got great coaches and just play the game and whatever happens happens.
And then, just be there more as a parent than..... you know.....one of those.....a....
LONN: A fan?
BRAD: Yeah no doubt.
LONN: Well, despite the competition at many positions, this team seems close, from your vantage point seeing the team behind the scenes, what do you think are this team's strengths and its biggest weaknesses?
BRAD: I'm not there day to day, I don't really know, but....I think it's pretty awesome that a lot of these kids got an extra year because of Covid, and getting a lot of those players to come back, especially a lot of the linemen, was a big deal.
I think there's hunger because of what happened last year, the way the season just got away from everybody for whatever reason, but you got new coordinators on both sides of the ball, you have tremendous talent, and they've moved along as far as the workouts this off-season from Coach Moffitt, all the spring workouts and all the meetings, so there's just a hunger for them to be great this year and so it's really fun to watch.
LONN: One of those coordinators who came in during the off-season, Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz has entered the scenario... both of your sons are really into his coaching, what have some of those conversations been like getting to know his football mind and intentions for your sons?
BRAD: I think it's Coach Peetz's intentions for the whole program.
Obviously getting talent there and recruiting.
He's very very organized, he's been around a lot of football, from pros to college, you know you got this whole list of all the coaches he's been with, all the systems he's been in.
He's into making relationships, building team chemistry, and wants the greatness to come out of all those players.
I think he has the ability as a play caller to find mismatches and use each one's skills, their abilities, to find those mismatches.
From what I've heard, Coach Peetz has made that relationship with all the players, all the quarterbacks. It's just a comfort you have as a parent.....we were fortunate enough that we got to meet him a little bit more through him recruiting Jake, but then Max has raved about him, too.
LONN: That's the thing with Jake, he's proving to be an absolute freak of nature out there, what surprises you most about Jake's growth as a footballer?
BRAD: Jake loves to be taught, he loves to be coached, he wants to learn new things. He doesn't just want to learn tricks of the trade, he wants to learn the trade.
You know...he's actually fortunate I'm great friends with Jason Witten (legendary tight end, 11 Pro Bowls from 17 NFL seasons), so a week or two ago we spent a day with Jason on the field.
Jason's out there with his cleats on, coaching him up....it was pretty neat...it was just pretty neat...that experience...Jake wants to learn, he wants to know "how do I get better?" he wants to ask the question, "how do you block this guy? What did you see in this route? Why did you call this play? How would you use me over here?"...those kinds of things.
He has a lot to learn, there's no doubt about it, but he's willing to do that, he has a great ability to catch the ball and use his length, he wants to build his overall game...not just be a catcher, he wants to be an all-around tight end player.
He's a great kid, he's easy to get along with, he can talk to grandparents, he talks to any head coach in America or he can talk to a four year old kid. He's a leader on and off the field and he's just fun to be around.
LONN: You said the word right there....leader. Let's switch it back to Max now:
Can the soul of a team be competed for just like a position battle or any game, and do you think Max can win the team over?
BRAD: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is just being respected for your work, respected for your craft. So, sometimes you'll have a vocal person, sometimes you'll have a quiet person, I've seen every kind of leadership skill there is...it's really how you wanna sell it.
And that goes for all the quarterbacks...but you want to be respected as a player, knowing that you're good enough, knowing you can make plays in the clutch and impact games......you're just thankful for opportunities.
LONN: Coach O was recently quoted as saying he "knows who the starting QB is"...he says "the team does too"....it's "obvious" he said to Mike Detillier on Sportstalk....do you think he's meaning Max?
BRAD: I don't know...you know, you want what's best for LSU, whoever's the best center, let that player play. Whoever's the best corner....let that player play. Whoever's the best kicker, let that best player play..... whatever's best for LSU is the route they need to go....
LONN: Of course!
BRAD: ...they'll make that decision in time, so as a parent I'm not at all like that.... I'm just sitting in the stands, supporting the players, supporting the team, so whoever they decide to go, that'll be their decision.
LONN: The Final Question, Brad: With both of your sons' talent, potential and will to win, backed by your Super Bowl winning legacy, have you recognized the possibility of a family dynasty beginning here?
BRAD: (laughs) I don't know, it's fun for Max and Jake because everyone's always separated them. It's really interesting. They play pick up games, they separate them. But when they have gotten with each other it's always been pretty cool, you know from youth baseball to...when they get together, not a lot has to be said. They look at each other, wink at each other, ya know, "let's ball".
So it's kind of fun...they really only got one year to play with each other in high school, hopefully they get that chance again this Spring.
LONN: I remember reading a quote where you said it was always cool to see the way they worked together in silence like that....
BRAD: Around the house, there's always a shove, a fight, "I'm bigger than you, I'm better than you", I always say it's like Tom and Jerry the cartoon characters, they fight and chase each other all around the stinkin' house, we're threatening to take away their phones, all that kinda stuff, but when they get together....when they play basketball, it's ugly. It is ugly, they just...it's not a game, it's more of....
LONN: (laughs) War...
BRAD: (laughs) It's a war yeah and nothing to do with any basketball skill.
But when they get together to do football stuff, it's all....they work together, they really don't say a lot to each other, honestly, they just kind of have a feel for each other....it's really neat to see it from that standpoint. But around the house, I just hope they don't hurt each other or break too many lamps, you know?
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
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