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An army of one

By Maxx Wolfson
Headline Photo
RANDY METCALF/Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA senior nickelback Zaharius Johnson stands in front of Arizona Stadium yesterday. Johnson, who went to the United States Military Institute in Roswell, N.M., has brought his military experience to the field for the Wildcats.

Thursday September 20, 2001

Zaharius Johnson more than just a football player

War metaphors are used all the time to describe football, such as "in the trenches" and "this game could 'be a war.'"

These metaphors might work well to describe a football game, but UA senior strong safety Zaharius Johnson is a little more familiar with their literal meanings.

Johnson spent one year of school training at the United States Military Institute in Roswell, N.M., before he became a Wildcat three years ago. For the senior, it's not hard to take his military knowledge and put it to use on the field.

Johnson and the Wildcats play a defense - the double-eagle flex - that sounds more like an attack strategy against an enemy plane than a scheme to stop a running back or pressure a quarterback.

After three seasons at Arizona, Johnson plays a large role on his team, both on-and-off the field. In the first game of the 2001 season, he was named a game co-captain for his commitment to the team.

Johnson credits his success to his experience at the New Mexico Military Institute, whose mission statement stresses four values for each cadet to live by - honor, excellence, service and responsibility.

Since leaving NMMI, Johnson has done his best to live by each of these.


Headline Photo
Photo courtesy of Zaharius Johnson

UA senior nickelback Zaharius Johnson (second row from top, sixth from right) joins the rest of his platoon at the United States Military Institute in Roswell, N.M. Johnson said the four values stressed in the school's mission statement - honor, excellence, service and responsibility - have made him a better player and person.

Johnson is the first to say his life is built on faith.

He has faith in God, his athletic abilities and his country - the latter might put him on a different type of battlefield if America goes to war.

He said he would be right there with the rest of the American troops fighting for his country.

"I would do anything for my country," he said. "Obviously, if they called me to go to war, it must be in God's will for me to be there. I'm not afraid. My whole life is built on my faith.

"If they called tomorrow, I would be gone," he said. "It's something that I have to do."

Playing football can at times be considered dangerous, but war can be deadly. Johnson said he's afraid of neither.


Since his high school days, success has come easily to Johnson.

At Bayshore High School in Bradenton, Fla., Johnson excelled in football, baseball, track and field and basketball.

A two-year, all-area football player and the team's MVP his senior season, Johnson - who was heavily recruited for football - said the physical aspects of the gridiron were too much to pass up.

"I loved playing baseball, (but) I liked the physical aspect of football because you really can't hit anyone in baseball," he said.

As a defensive back at NMMI, as a defensive back, he had 42 tackles and one blocked kick for a touchdown.

His performance opened the eyes of recruiters at UA and other schools around the nation.

"My dream was to always play Division I football," he said. "I had a couple offers from a couple other schools, but I didn't know about the transferable units I needed. When it came down to it, the other schools wanted to see my transcripts, and they said that I didn't have the correct amount of units to transfer."

Just one school - Arizona - and two former coaches, head coach Dick Tomey and defensive backs coach Duane Akina, refused to let Johnson to slip away because he didn't have enough credits.

They pushed him to go to summer school and gain enough units to become a student at UA.

"Coach Tomey and Coach Akina really stuck by me," Johnson said.

While at home in Florida taking classes, he was able to see the birth of his daughter, Zytavia NaQuay Johnson, and earn enough credits to transfer to UA.

"I went back home and saw my daughter being born, and I went to summer school," he said. "(UA coaches) just kept believing in me."

At UA, Johnson contributes the most on special teams and as a nickelback.

Last season, he played in 10 games and recorded nine tackles and one sack.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he has had to play in the shadow of senior strong safety Brandon Nash during his tenure as a Wildcat.

But Johnson said he is happy to just be on the team.

"I will do anything for this football team," he said. "Brandon is a great player and if he wasn't a great player, then I would be worried. So I can't complain.

"I just thank God that the coaches gave me an opportunity to play this game because not everyone can play this game. It really doesn't bother me."

UA head coach John Mackovic said he is happy to have a player like Johnson who adds depth to an already strong defensive back core.

"He is an excellent cover man and he is a great special teams player," Mackovic said.

Service and Responsibility

Joining the military wasn't Johnson's first option out of high school, but it ended up being his only one.

With no money and a daughter on the way, Johnson decided on a career that would pay the bills.

"I had a daughter on the way and I needed money to support my daughter," he said. "I just wanted to do the responsible thing. I felt that being in the military would help me grow as an individual."

Johnson played football at a program that produced NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach and earned $40,000 for school.

However, his days at NMMI were no cakewalk.

Each morning he had to be dressed and ready by 5 a.m. for workouts.

Even as a football player, Johnson was at the bottom of the social ladder.

He was considered a rat - a term older cadets use to refer to first-year cadets.

"I was considered a rat," he said. "I didn't have any privileges. I wasn't even able to watch television for a whole semester. I just took everything there and believed in God."

However, Johnson doesn't regret his experience.

"It was a special time," he said. "It was hard at first, but it was a situation where I had to be a man. I wasn't a regular citizen at the school because it was my first year. I had to abide by the rules. It taught me a lot about responsibility. It was the best thing in my life."

Mackovic said Johnson's days in the military might be one of the reasons he has been such an easy player to coach.

"He has a terrific personality and he gets along well," Johnson said. "As far as coaching, he is one of the best guys on our team to coach because we never have a problem with him. He always takes care of his business and he goes about work everyday in a real nice fashion."

While he may not be on the front lines, you won't hear Johnson complain. It's war, after all, and the senior is happy to help out any way he can.


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