Sept. 11, 2000
By Peter Stuhldreher
When the Fighting Irish football team runs out of the tunnel and onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium, gold helmets gleaming in the sunlight, it has special meaning for many people surrounding the program. Some are reminded of Notre Dame's illustrious past, while others look with hope for continued glory in the future. This year, both meanings are applicable for 5-11, 191 pound, fifth-year Irish veteran Jay Johnson.
Johnson joined the Irish five years ago following a decorated high school career in which he was a two-way star at Starkville High School in Starkville, Miss. As a senior, he helped his team to an undefeated 15-0 record and the class 4-A state championship in 1995. After that magical season, Johnson was approached by many top-ranked schools to play college football. He eventually chose Notre Dame because the coaches and players made him feel like part of the family on his official visit. The experience left him wanting to play for the Irish and contribute to the team's success.
As a freshman, Johnson had big plans for his collegiate career.
"I was just like any other freshman coming into a big-time institution. I wanted to be the All-American and the big-play guy. I guess I was a typical freshman. I wanted to be the guy everybody knew and brought fans to the stadium. I had that dream to come in and be the man."
While Johnson's first few years didn't take the path that he had envisioned as a freshman, he kept working hard and stayed focused. He tried to remain mentally focused, even though he was not always the featured receiver that he envisioned when he arrived in South Bend.
"Jay never complained," says senior tight end Jabari Holloway.
"He always came to practice and worked hard."
Through all the challenges, Johnson remained humble and committed to the team.
"I tried not to think about the fact I might not get the ball or get the chance to make a catch. I take every play when I'm in the game and think of it as the one play, whether it's a block or a catch, that can change the game and help us win."
That attitude paid off last year against Navy when Johnson caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jarious Jackson with 36 seconds left to win the game.
"That was a huge boost for us as a team because we really needed that play," defensive lineman Grant Irons says.
"He was the player who really came through for us. He made a big play at a big time in the game and that's a tribute to the type of player he is."
In his Notre Dame career, Johnson has made 13 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns, but none bigger than the game-winner against Navy.
Now in his final year at Notre Dame, Johnson is looking to do whatever it takes to help the Irish to achieve a winning season. Both Holloway and Irons expect Johnson to be a leader on this year's team. Johnson realizes this and is prepared for that role.
"I have to be more of a leader by example Ð by making big plays or making big blocks and doing the small things other people might take for granted," Johnson said.
"We pride ourselves in being able to block any safety or cornerback or being able to make big catches. My role this year would be, whenever I am on the field and I have a chance to make a play, keep us going, keep a drive alive and help us win games."
While Johnson is focused on the season at hand, he also enjoys taking time to think about his years at Notre Dame. This year, he is taking time to enjoy things he once took for granted. For Johnson, it is more and more special every Saturday when he puts on the gold helmet and the blue jersey and runs out of the tunnel onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
"This year, it means a lot because many people don't get the chance to put on the gold helmet and run out of the tunnel and hear everybody cheering. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had and it means even more because it's my last year and it's getting closer to my last home game. This has been a great experience and has meant a lot to me," Johnson says.
After five years in the Notre Dame football program, Jay Johnson has truly learned that everything is achieved through hard work. This idea is something that he will take with him after his football career is over. As a product of his hard work, Johnson has earned the right to run out of the tunnel through which so many great players have passed. When he runs out of the tunnel this year, he will be thinking of the past, looking to the future and focused on the present.