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College football

Seminole savors second chance

DT Travis Johnson looks to regain his form and focus after a tumultuous 2003.

Published September 1, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson saw the ending to the worst ordeal of his life as a new beginning.

Moments after a six-woman jury needed just 25 minutes to find him innocent of sexual battery last year, Johnson, tears streaming down his face, promised that the football field would be his reproving ground as a man and a player.

Life, he discovered, doesn't always play out that simply or poetically. He still faced a school disciplinary hearing, so the accusations from the woman clung to him and dragged him down as surely as he did a hapless quarterback.

"I couldn't get into the games, into each of the practices, because I was still thinking about everything that had happened and was going on," said Johnson, 22, a fifth-year senior. "I was like, "Why am I here? Why are these things happening to me.' "

His focus became blurred, his desire and, worst of all for an athlete, his confidence waned.

His performance, predictably, suffered.

"It was disappointing," he said. "But now is my time to shine."

Johnson, who takes over for Darnell Dockett, appears ready physically and mentally to prove he can be a differencemaker and a leader on and off the field for a young defense.

"He has the potential," FSU defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins said. "He's doing some good stuff. I'm on him like he's a true freshmen. I probably said his name 2-million times. I bet he's heard it in his sleep."

Haggins expects that much from Johnson, a prep standout from southern California who, after a redshirt season, earned freshman All-America honors from the Sporting News in 2001. That despite injuring his left ankle in Week 2, an injury that required surgery in the offseason.

Johnson started eight games as a sophomore and finished with 50 tackles, 13.5 for a loss (third on the team), and four sacks. He did that while playing with an injured right shoulder.

"I was riding on a high," he said. "I was starting and I was like, "Man. This is my time. I finally will get to be that guy.' Then all of a sudden, things changed in a matter of days."

A fellow FSU student-athlete, who acknowledged she had had sex with Johnson on the three times they had gotten together, alleged Johnson overpowered her and sexually assaulted her on the night of Feb. 6, 2003. He later was arrested and charged with a second-degree felony.

By the time his trial began six months later, few could miss the the changes in his demeanor. His attorney, John Kenny, describes Johnson as a gregarious, open young man who would greet folks with a hug and ask him about his children. Closer to the trial, he became increasingly withdrawn.

"We told him, "You need to know if (the worst) happens, you're looking at prison,' " Kenny said. "I remember him sitting right there saying, "You mean 15 years? Fifteen years?' It was beginning to set in and you could see the pressure mounting on him."

"Every day was like a fight," Johnson added. "God would never put more on you than you can bear, but at the time I was thinking, "Man. I'm not going to make it through this.' At one point, I was like, "They might as well send me to jail. I'm tired. I know I'm innocent but everybody keeps telling me I'm guilty.' I'm thinking, "If they send me to jail for something I didn't do, can I do something? Let me earn my way into jail.' I had never had that attitude in my life and it upset me that I was thinking that way."

The key testimony at his trial came from a medical expert, originally sought by prosecutors, who said it was "highly improbable" that someone like Johnson, who was a couple weeks removed from rotator cuff surgery, could have done what the woman claimed during her powerful testimony on the stand.

That essentially ended the trial, but not his tribulations. Though the school eventually exonerated him, the process required another couple of months and another emotional hearing during which he and the woman testified.

Football didn't seem as important then and rarely can a player improve without concentration and dedication.

"He looked lost," Kenny said.

"All season long it was a struggle to get him to play well," Haggins echoed. "He just had different things on his mind. I'd say, "Travis. You've got to put it behind you and let it go. Go to class, come out on the football and play hard and put it behind you.' He couldn't translate that."

That changed with an offseason of calm.

Johnson is on track to graduate in December with a degree in social science and a double minor in anthropology and communications, and he came into the fall camp bigger (305 pounds on his 6-5 frame), stronger (he benches more than 400 pounds and squats more than 600) and faster (he ran a 4.7 40).

"The biggest difference in Travis is he's been real focused on the task at hand," said senior offensive tackle Ray Willis, a team captain. "He worked hard all summer and it's carrying over to the fall."

"Everything's behind him, he's a starter now, so he has to take that role and I expect big things out of him," added Dockett, the ACC defensive player of the year in 2003 who is now a starter for the Arizona Cardinals but stays in touch with former teammates. "I know he's going to play 100 percent and I'm excited to watch him on TV (Monday against Miami)."

Most important, Johnson has regained his confidence and is ready to show it.

He promises.

"I feel there's no defensive tackle in the country better than me," he said. "This is my year to shine."

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:10:40]


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