Rico Johnson left the doctor’s office on Thursday and the first place he stopped was the Georgia Sports Prep Academy in Atlanta.
He stepped into the office of Mike Carson with a big smile on his face. He was back in the same location that resulted in his first college decision — one that was abruptly cut short.
After failing to academically qualify with the Bulldogs out of Swainsboro High School, Johnson played a season at the prep school before eventually deciding to stick with his original pledge and enroll at Georgia in May 2014. He immediately fit in with the Bulldogs, manning the secondary as a freshman in the first four games of the 2014 season.
Five days later, his Georgia career was over.
Georgia doctors found a neurological condition that resulted in a medical disqualification. Johnson was allowed to stay on scholarship but his playing days in Athens were finished.
“I was a little disappointed. Just because how the whole situation went down,” Johnson told DawgNation. “I went through so much to get there and then it just stopped all of a sudden. One day you can’t play no more.”
Fast-forward two years and Johnson is faced with another college decision. The former Georgia cornerback announced on Thursday that he had been medically cleared to play football again, and much to his surprise, he found out that a few college coaches had inquired about his services.
Johnson said he would not be returning to Georgia, but according to Carson — his prep coach — three schools have begun evaluating Johnson. Carson would not divulge the programs, but did tell DawgNation that the schools were from Conference USA, SWAC and the Ohio Valley Conference, respectively.
“There are three schools that are interested in bringing him in provided that everything works out from an academic standpoint,” Carson said. “So we are waiting on transcripts from the University of Georgia to make sure that there are no academic issues that would permit him from being on the field.”
The road up until this point has not been easy for Johnson. He remembers sitting on the sidelines during the 2014 season knowing he could be out there helping the secondary. But he wouldn’t take not playing as an option.
So Johnson sought out a second opinion from a doctor about four months after the initial prognosis. The medical specialist ended up leaving the office, and the Adrian, Ga., native linked up with the Atlanta-based Dr. Jeff Traub, who had previously worked with NFL players like Bret Favre.
He continued to exercise, but not too much. He took medicine in cycles: Two times a day one week. One time a day the next.
On Thursday, it was all worth it.
“I didn’t hang my head and kept moving forward,” he said. “I just knew football is what I wanted to do and football is what I needed to be doing. It’s what God put me here for and it worked out.”
Johnson did have some help along the way, especially from a former Georgia star. Jarvis Jones, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, faced a similar situation when he asked for a release from Southern Cal in Spring 2010 after USC doctors would not let him practice following a neck injury that sidelined him the final five game of the 2009 season.
Jones eventually landed at Georgia where he was a two-time consensus All-American, and was drafted with the No. 17 pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
“Actually Jarvis was a big help throughout the whole process,” Johnson said. “He kept me motivated. He actually reached out to a couple professionals that I could have went to. He kept me motivated, he stayed with me the whole time. He checked up on me. He came to see me a couple of times. I really thank Jarvis for the whole thing. I really thank him a lot.”
Now it’s Johnson’s turn to try and resume his college football career. He continues to train every day at Top Shelf Performance in Atlanta and knows he’ll be a little rusty when he gets on the field. But he says he feels good about his body and health despite dropping some weight.
Carson knows getting used to the grind of being a student athlete again will be an adjustment, but he’s not worried about Johnson’s ability to see the field again.
“I don’t think [not playing] has diminished his skill level because I know one thing that you can’t do on any level is coach speed,” Carson said. “You either have speed or you don’t have speed. And the kid basically has a lot of speed.”
Johnson finished his Georgia career with five tackles and a forced fumble. That’s not enough, and he’s spent nearly two years trying to get back and add to those numbers elsewhere.
Where that will be remains unknown, but he’s prepared for the challenge.
“I’m 100-percent cleared. I am ready to play,” Johnson said.