Feb. 14, 2005
Jim Lamar, The Osceola
Nate and Carmen Johnson have every reason to brag about their youngest son.
They could point out that Garrett Johnson turned down a chance to study at Harvard -- and every other Ivy League school -- so he could enroll at Florida State. They could point to his internship with the governor's office and his role as a staff member on Jeb Bush's Haiti Commission.
They could share the fact that he met the president -- on Air Force One, no less. They could point to Garrett Johnson's progress in the application process to become a Rhodes Scholar.
Or they could simply highlight his success as one of the nation's best shot-putters. They could talk about how excited they were to see him record the 12th-longest throw in the world this season -- and how he is now a favorite to become the first male athlete at FSU to win an individual title at the NCAA Championships since 1995. They could show off his twin shot put titles in the 2003 ACC indoor and outdoor championship meets.
But from their home in Tampa, Nate and Carmen Johnson have something far more important to cheer about when they talk about Garrett.
"We just thank God he's still with us," Nate Johnson said.
A year ago, that was nothing to take for granted.
Less than a week before final exams in December of 2003, Garrett Johnson said he felt a series of what he thought were muscle spasms and cramps in his chest and abdomen. He self-diagnosed the situation and assumed it was fallout from heavy abdominal workouts.
So he didn't hesitate to jump on Florida State's team bus and head to an indoor track meet in Clemson, where he was scheduled to compete in the shot put. Johnson never left the hotel room on that trip and painfully endured the bus ride back to Tallahassee in what he calls "the longest six hours of my life."
The next morning -- and at the urging of his parents -- Johnson checked into a Tallahassee hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He took his final exams and spent two full weeks treating the pneumonia.
Despite a prescription for pain killers and muscle relaxers, the pain he felt never went away.
When he woke up on Dec. 23, 2003, Johnson's right leg had swollen up to almost twice its normal size. He also began spitting up blood.
So Johnson checked into Tampa's University Community Hospital where a CAT scan revealed a blood clot that had broken off from his leg and landed in his lungs.
"Thankfully we caught it before it got to my heart because that's where it was heading," Johnson said.
He spent nine days in that Tampa hospital, with at least one of his parents at his bedside the entire time. He lost 35 pounds, began taking the same blood thinner medication that he still takes today and tried to make sense of his future.
"In the hospital, it seemed like the doctors had more questions than answers," Johnson said. "They thought my training might have contributed to what happened. They were asking if it might be best if I quit training. It scared me to death."
The first steps to recovery
Walking away from track and field was not an option Johnson wanted to explore, but he knew it was a possibility.
After returning home on New Year's Eve in 2003, Johnson spent the next three weeks at home in Tampa before returning to the FSU campus. He communicated via e-mail with his teachers and was able to stay on pace in the classroom, where he maintains a 3.8 GPA as a double major in political science and English.
For six weeks, Johnson was forbidden to take part in any physical activity. Even walking was a problem -- especially to and from class on the hills of the FSU campus.
"I basically had to take a step and then drag my right leg," Johnson said. "I was miserable. It took me forever to do the things that are routine."
Johnson said his older brother Marcus, who completed his FSU track career in 2004, made life a little bit easier by driving him to and from class as much as possible.
Teammates also took turns on the chauffeuring duties and his coaches kept a close watch on his emotional progress.
FSU associate head coach Harlis Meaders, who trains the throwers, played a big role in Johnson's recovery.
"Coach Meadors didn't care if I was able to compete again," Johnson said. "He was more concerned about my quality of life. As a coach, his concern was in the right place and him providing that support made it a lot easier for me."
Nearly two months after his release from the hospital, Johnson was cleared to walk around the FSU track. He began to do light workouts in hopes of regaining his strength. Slowly, but surely, his weight returned to his regular 275-280 pound range, "but it was all cupcake and cookie weight. It's not like it really helped me."
He returned to competition in a couple of home meets late last spring, throwing as an unattached athlete to preserve his eligibility. He recorded throws of 50 and 52 feet -- a full 11 to 13 feet off the marks he recorded during his freshman season.
"For me, that's not very good at all," Johnson said. "I felt horrible. I was slow in the box and I was just off my rhythm. I had lost 35 pounds and I could feel it in everything I did."
Though he said he never reached the brink of quitting, he did question whether he would ever return to his top form.
"When I finally got back to doing light work, I was doing body squats using just the bar or leg presses with no weight," Johnson said. "If I was a cross country runner, that would be no big deal but I'm in a sport where my competitors are squatting 550-600 pounds and bench-pressing 400 pounds. I was sitting there trying to squat just the bar and thinking, 'What am I doing? This is crazy.'"
A new man
During the summer of 2004, Johnson's training took off.
He said he focused completely on re-shaping his body. Starting with what he calls his core exercises, Johnson committed himself to being stronger, quicker and more explosive than ever before.
Playfully, he said he stretched the patience of strength and conditioning coaches Jon Jost and Charlie Melton.
"I lived in that weight room," Johnson said. "Every day, I was in there lifting. Coach Melton and Coach Jost probably got sick of seeing me every day, but I have to give credit to them. They did everything they could to accommodate my schedule. They gave me every opportunity to spend time in the weight room so I could continue my training."
After six months of steady lifting, Johnson saw the results he hoped to see. He felt stronger than ever. The strength in his legs -- the foundation for success in the shot put -- returned. So, too, did his confidence.
"Because I had to take a year off, I didn't have to focus on throwing," Johnson said. "I focused on my body. I think having that combination of not competing and focusing on my strength and conditioning made a tremendous difference.
"I'm not the strongest person in my event. I will never say I can squat 600 pounds or bench 400 pounds. I'm not a power thrower, but I can win because of my speed and my technique."
This past December at that same meet in Clemson where he never left the hotel room a year ago, Johnson threw for the first time in competition while at full strength.
He won the Clemson Opener with a provisional qualifying mark for the NCAA championship meet. That throw of 61 feet, 10 1/2 inches was barely two feet short of his own school record -- but it was light years beyond the chest pains and muscle spasms that sent his life in a tailspin just a year ago.
"I threw 61-10 and I thought that was great, especially in my first meet back," Johnson said. "I had been having some great practices so I knew the potential was there for a big throw. My only question was would I be ready when it came time for competition?"
'That's world class'
Johnson's year-long struggle to return to form finally gave way to one of those special moments in athletics on Jan. 15 at the Florida Intercollegiate meet in Gainesville.
With his mother and grandfather in the stands and with his father on the infield at the meet, Johnson let loose with the best throw of his career.
The mark of 66 feet, 8 3/4 inches set an O'Connell Center record. It broke his school record by three feet. It guaranteed him a spot at the NCAA Indoor Championships in February and gave him what was then the No. 2 throw in the world this season.
The throw, which was rounded up a quarter of an inch on the O'Connell Center scoreboard and is now simply referred to as "66-9" on the FSU campus, also set off a celebration that has not yet subsided.
Nearly a month after that throw, Johnson's mark is still the longest in the country by a college athlete and ranks 12th in the world this indoor season. To put his throw in proper perspective, the men who have recorded longer throws than Johnson this season are 29, 27, 32, 27, 24 and 22 years old. All are professionals.
Johnson is only 20.
"I've coached 22 years on the college level," FSU track and cross country coach Bob Braman said. "And that is a top three moment for me. That 66-9 was unbelievable. I looked at Coach Meaders and he was going crazy. I look up in the stands and his mom is going crazy.
"That 66-9 is world class. That's not pretty good. That's world class. That's one of the favorites for the NCAA Championships. That's one of the most unbelievable moments I've ever seen in track and field."
Nate Johnson had one of the best views in the house when his son made FSU history. He served as a secondary official at the meet -- and got to hear the words come out of the head official's mouth when the throw was measured.
"As soon as he released the shot put, everyone erupted," said Nate Johnson, who is employed by Hillsborough County. "They knew it was something big. Where I was positioned, I wasn't going to see where it landed. I heard the lead official when he read it and I was just overwhelmed.
"It was very special for me. He was the last thrower to throw and once the competition was over, we embraced at the back of the shot put circle. I just said, 'Look what you did. Look what you did.'"
From track to Air Force One
Ask around on the Florida State campus and you won't find anything but admiration for Johnson.
The son of former Florida A&M track and field athletes -- mother Carmen threw the javelin, shot put and discus and father Nate ran the 400 and 800 on the same team in the mid-1970s -- Johnson seemed content to watch older brother Marcus' track meets as a youngster rather than commit himself full-time to the sport.
"He told me, 'Dad, I'm ready to start training now. I want to be a winner," Nate Johnson said. "I told him that I would come up with the workout if he's ready to put forth the effort. From there, it took off."
By his senior year at Tampa Baptist, Johnson was rated one of the top three shot putters in the country. He had his pick of schools and ultimately narrowed his choice to Harvard or Florida State.
Meaders, who successfully recruited older brother Marcus, said the younger Johnson was attracted to an education in the shadow of the state capital.
"Even in recruiting Garrett, we knew he had a lot of other interests," Meaders said. "We knew his studies were very important to him. We knew he wanted to become involved in the campus life. We knew he was a very balanced kid coming in to our program and that track and field was just a part of who he was.
"As he continues to get better and better in track and field, it's becoming just as clear that this is still just a part of who he is."
During his freshman year of 2002-03, Johnson earned an internship in the governor's office. That job was supposed to last six months; Johnson has been asked to remain in the office where he now serves in Jeb Bush's office of legislative affairs.
Chris Flack, the governor's Director of Legislative Affairs, said it didn't take long for Johnson to make a positive impression.
"He's one of those guys you can just tell is going to do something special," Flack said. "Within minutes of talking to him, you know he is going to do something great with his life."
As part of his duties, Johnson helped coordinate Pres. George W. Bush's campaign trip to Tampa last fall. That led to a ride in the presidential motorcade and a face-to-face introduction on Air Force One.
He also serves as a staff assistant on the state's newly formed Haiti Advisory Group, which a press release from Bush's office said "focuses on key issues related to Haiti's reconstruction."
Johnson is also in the midst of the application process to become a Rhodes Scholar. He will more than likely be presented to a special screening committee on campus to determine if his academic, athletic and civic service resume is extensive enough to merit a nomination that must be endorsed by the university.
According to FSU Assistant Athletics Director Rob Wilson, no FSU student has even advanced that far in the process in at least three years.
If he is endorsed by the university, Johnson's application would then proceed to a regional and then national selection committee. Thirty-two American students were named Rhodes Scholars in 2004.
"He had all the Ivy League schools recruiting him," Carmen Johnson said. "But because of his interest in government, he chose Florida State. I often ask my son if he thinks he made the right decision. He always says, 'Without a doubt.' I think all the opportunities he's gotten at the capitol and all the other opportunities in school and in track affirm his decision."
On to the NCAAs and beyond
Since that magical throw last month, Johnson's training regimen was quickly re-evaluated. Instead of preparing weekly for the mark needed to qualify for a spot in the NCAA championship meet, Johnson can began focusing exclusively on the post-season.
His record-breaking throw guarantees him a spot in the national meet when it is held in Fayatteville, Ark. on March 10.
He last threw in competition during a meet held at the University of Kentucky on Jan. 28 and he recorded the third-longest throw among college athletes this season. More than likely, his next meet will be next weekend, when he will try to help FSU win a third straight ACC indoor title.
"That is the position I wanted to be in," Johnson said. "I did not want to go to every meet and burn myself out trying to get the standard. So right now, I'm not training for next weekend. I'm training through next weekend with my eyes on the ACCs and the NCAAs."
He will also keep an eye on his health.
The cause of that mysterious blood clot was never determined. He takes blood thinners and avoids any physical activity that might cause him to bruise.
"If I were in another sport like football or basketball or baseball, I'd be done right now," Johnson said. "I'd never be able to compete again. Luckily, I am in a non-contact sport."
He also avoids Vitamin K as much as possible, but says with a laugh that, "I never ate broccoli or spinach anyway so that's no big deal."
He has blood work done every two weeks and keeps regular appointments with pulmonary specialists, vascular specialists and hematologists.
He continues to maintain the 3.8 GPA and has plans on graduating this spring -- just three years after he first enrolled at FSU. And he continues to put in 15-16 hours a week working in the governor's office.
But none of that has given him the same taste of fame that the one magical throw in Gainesville provided.
If the Olympics were held this year, Johnson would also be preparing for the U.S. Olympic Trials. That one throw would have served as the qualifying standard.
"I get emails from people who I've never met before," Johnson said. "It's kind of interesting to go on different Internet forums and see people talk about you. My freshman year, I had the best throw in the world for junior competitors so I got a little bit of fame back then. But nothing like this.
"I know I'm a target now. People are trying to beat me."
Of course, that target feels a whole lot better than the confusion he felt in that Tampa hospital room a year ago. Somehow, he now says, the struggles to return to track and field has made his most recent successes that much sweeter.
"I guess 'scary' is the best way to describe it all," Johnson said. "I just started to feel sick and I still don't know why. It was horrible. Coughing up blood. Chest pains. Muscle spasms in my chest where I couldn't breathe.
"It's changed my lifestyle quite a bit. But I've been through it and I wouldn't change it. I think it has helped make me what I am today. I don't regret it for a minute."