Shontrelle Running With New Purpose
AMES, Iowa - As Iowa State's fall practice has begun, Shontrelle Johnson stood out. The junior running back is at full speed and playing as if he was in his last game on his last carry.
"Shontrelle plays the game the way it should be played," Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads said. "He gives it his all. I think he has the fullest appreciation for being able to still play the game."
It is easy to explain why.
Shontrelle Johnson remembers the moment. An undefeated Iowa State football team was playing host to Texas before a sold out crowd at Jack Trice Stadium.
"I went to make a block and I put my head down the wrong way," Johnson said. "I immediately felt a shot of pain in my neck."
What came next was the opposite of pain.
"For about 10 seconds, I could not feel my hands and feet," Johnson said. "The feeling came back but I was pretty shaken up and needed help getting off the field. It was really scary. I was told that there was no way I was going back into the game."
An ensuing MRI revealed a bone joint that was the source of the pain. It was the type of injury that would require surgery. It was the type of injury that could end his football career.
"It was heartbreaking," Johnson said.
On Nov. 23 Johnson had surgery on his neck in Dallas, Texas. He was in the hospital for three days. The doctors told Shontrelle that though the operation was successful, the definitive part of recovery would be therapy and cautious activity. An answer on football would not be immediately known. He started out wearing a neck brace.
In a place in life where Shontrelle had never been before, it became readily apparent that there was a lot more to Shontrelle Johnson than playing football.
"We talked about doing everything we could do, everything that the situation would allow during that time," Rhoads said. "I was by no means sure that he would get another chance on the field. He already knew he would always have a scholarship at Iowa State, whether he played football or not. Ultimately, it was up to Shontrelle and his family."
"I come from a religious family," Johnson said. "My mother told me it was better to not play and have a family someday that to risk your future by playing football when the doctors don't tell you it is okay. Football is not everything. My family has supported my decisions along the way."
Johnson did everything he could to be a part of the team for the balance of the season, including traveling to the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City.
In the interim, he trained separately from the team on a special conditioning program. While that might provide one with a sense of isolation and loneliness, Johnson said he still felt a part of the squad.
"My teammates were very supportive," Johnson said. "Whatever happened they were my friends. The guys and my coaches kept me positive."
Iowa State running backs coach Kenith Pope talked about Johnson's period of uncertainty.
"We told him that while you may not get to play football, your No. 1 reason for coming here was to graduate," Pope said. "There are guys you really worry about but Shontrelle is a really good kid. He has a bright future."
In early July, after doctors review the latest MRI, Johnson was cleared to play.
In 1998, Iowa State offensive lineman Marc Cortez, whose career was over after an injury in the first game of that season, wrote a note to his teammates which was read to the squad before the Cyclones' game at Iowa. It harkens strong feelings that Johnson knows first hand.
"I realize now that God gave me a gift," Cortez wrote. "The gift of football. You must cherish that gift, because it can be taken away at any time. Enjoy every play, every series, every hit, every touchdown, because you never know which one will be your last."
Johnson has faced that uncertainty. Now he's been given a reprieve. That second-chance can be seen in every step at practice. Just wait till the games.