IT WAS SEPTEMBER when St. Joseph's Prep junior Tom Johnson waited for his mom to pick him up from the school's Girard Avenue campus for a trip to the doctor.
The 16-year-old had a feeling the news wouldn't be good. After all, his left foot had been hurting for weeks. And, when his mom broke the ice by cracking a few jokes, his suspicions grew worse.
The news was harsh. An MRI revealed a stress fracture, his second in that foot, and his season was likely lost.
A month earlier, the 6-0, 190-pound safety/linebacker was named a team captain, an honor bestowed upon his brother, Paul, as a senior last season. However, this was to be younger brother's time to lead.
"It's really just as you would imagine," said Johnson, as he sat at a second-story cafeteria table while his teammates shared first-floor chitchat below.
"You're really just at a loss for words. You work so hard for something and then you don't have a chance to do what you love."
Not only did Johnson eventually return to help win the Catholic League title that eluded his brother last season, he also switched positions, and now will lead his team into Saturday's PIAA AAAA championship game against Pittsburg Central Catholic.
"It just shows you that you always have to hope," Johnson said, smiling. "Think positive things and positive things will happen."
That outlook was hard to come by while on the sidelines for the guy teammates dubbed "Collateral Damage" because of his penchant for running headlong into piles and taking out anyone in proximity (a style that also yielded a broken left elbow that cost him most of last season).
Tears flowed after a pregame Mass before Week 5 against Roman Catholic. At 5-10, 275 pounds, Johnson said fellow junior Vincent Martino lent an ample shoulder.
"I'm probably with my team more than I am my own family," Johnson joked later.
Although older brother Paul, a 19-year-old freshman nose guard at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was never too far away.
Weekly phone calls usually turned into leadership counseling, which Paul said he learned from head coach Gabe Infante's offseason seminars. But how can you lead if you're wearing a cast?
"Getting to know everybody's story," Paul said over the phone from his room in Amherst's South Dorm. "And once you get to know everybody's story, you're able to lead because you know your guys better than anybody else does."
Tom said the injury likely came from running sprints with Paul last summer at Wesley Bishop Field near their home in Moorestown, N.J. Instead of dwelling, he moved forward.
Johnson became more vocal, led weekly pregame speeches and even the occasional in-game melody ("Mama, mama can't you see - what football has done for me . . . ").
His internal monologue, however, was always plotting a return.
"From the day I got the cast on," he said, "I had it set that I was going to play in the Catholic League championship because that game really meant a lot to us after we lost that game . . . It wasn't if I get back, it was when I get back."
Last season, the Hawks fell, 28-27, in overtime after a failed extra point led to a La Salle score/conversion and a fifth consecutive crown.
As a rematch appeared likely this season, Johnson fought through rehab despite atrophy claiming much of his strength. "My ankle was as skinny as my wrist," he joked.
Paul would have attended, but the Lord Jeffs had a Saturday game. He listened on the radio that Friday night and cried when the Hawks won, 30-20.
After missing nearly 6 weeks, and having less than a full week of practice, Tom said he played most of the game. In fact, he was forced from nickel-back duties to linebacker after teammate Nick Vandevere injured his shoulder. He said he hadn't played the position since ninth grade.
"I couldn't feel more proud of those guys," Paul said. "They've done unbelievable work. They keep trying to [credit] it back at us, but at the same time they've put in so much work this offseason to get over the hump."
Both spoke effusively of their Prep ties. The pair also wrestled last season. Paul won a District 12 title as a senior and advanced to the PIAA tournament. Tom fell just short, but is also a captain on the wrestling team. Their father, Paul Sr., lettered in both sports at York Catholic and later played football at Holy Cross.
Younger brother James is a 14-year-old on the Prep freshman football team. Liam, 11, could be another future Hawk. Hell, even their mom's Buick Enclave is crimson.
"So we'll be in Prep football for at least the next 6 years," laughed Regina Johnson over the phone.
Remember, she had to break the news to her son back in September. Now, she'll watch him play for a state title, Saturday at 6 p.m.
"If I had to sum Tom up in two words I'd say, fierce competitor," she said. "And that's what drove him to get back this season and get back on the field for his team."
Last week, Johnson tied for the team lead in tackles [nine] with senior Ryan McNulty.
Humble, was another descriptor used by mom.
"Did he mention he's almost a 4.0 student?" she asked.
He hadn't, but he clarified - 3.93 to be exact. No favorite subject just yet. Although it's definitely not history (that's the B+ he said kept him from perfection).
Ironically, he's contemplating a career in physical training and credited his close relationship with Prep trainer Bryan Ghee.
"It's always been a theme in my life," he joked. "I'm always around trainers and doctors so it's something I can see myself doing."