Sometimes it takes a lifelong dream coming true to realize that was never really your dream—at least that was the case for former Clemson Tiger and Orangeburg-Wilkinson standout Jadar Johnson.
Johnson made the most of his single season as a starter on the 2016 Clemson Tigers national championship team being named first-team All-ACC, one of six permanent captains—while producing 65 tackles, five interceptions and seven pass breakups in 913 snaps over 15 games.
After graduating from Clemson with a degree in sociology, Johnson signed an undrafted free agent contract with the New York Giants—a standard three-year $1.665 million contract with none of the money being guaranteed.
But after rookie camp, OTAs and only three days into his first training camp with the Giants, Johnson learned something about himself that he was not expecting to learn—he had fallen out of love with the game that he had played his entire life.
“Well, I kind of just fell out of love for the game—I didn’t have the passion I did for it anymore,” Johnson said. “That really was what I was going off of. I knew that I already had my degree, so I knew that there was something else I could do—football wasn’t my only option. So that weighed a lot into it too. If I didn’t have a college degree, I don’t know how that decision would have went. But really knowing that I already had my college degree and there were other options for me to be successful, that’s really what it was.”
With speculation of health issues swirling, due in part to the statement made by his agent Trey Robinson that stated, “He (Johnson) has new ventures that he wants to pursue and he values his health,” Johnson stated that the only health issue he could have been speaking of was his mental health.
“There wasn’t no health problems. My health, he might have been talking about my mental health. Just being up there, being depressed,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t really call it depression, but when I come at other people like that. When all you know is Jadar playing football, Jadar playing football and then I come (home)– people are like (he said), ‘I don’t want to play football no more.’
“That what a lot of people see it as—a depression, but I wouldn’t really call it a depression. I was just in a state where I didn’t really—I was in a state where I didn’t really want to play football anymore. That’s really the only thing. There was no health problems. I’m 100-percent healthy—I’m healthy.”
For Johnson, what some people call depression he sees more as a societal problem.
A problem that arises when athletes are put on pedestals. When they are only seen for their actions on the field and their ability to play a game, and no longer for being a normal person—something that Johnson has firsthand experience in.
“That’s where the majority of the pressure comes from,” Johnson said. “That’s also weighed in on the option of wanting to step outside, because I wanted to do something different. Every time I came around, every time I see somebody from back home that’s all they want to talk about, ‘Hey, you up there with the Giants now, right?’
“That’s all they want to talk about and it just kind of takes away from you as a person when people just label you as a football player—it kind of takes away the other things from you. And I just wanted to get something different, because I’m not just a football player. You know, I’m a college graduate. I can go and do other things and still be successful.
“And I feel like when you know somebody as just a football player, when you try to do something else it seems to other people like that person is just throwing their life away or they’re about to become a failure just because those were the only expectations that people set for me—just be good at football. It also gave me the courage and the strength to step outside of that lane, and show people that I can do something different and I’m not just a football player.”
So, what does a retired 22-year-old do? He sets out to make a difference.
Johnson plans to use his sociology degree to help athletes that have gone through, or are going through, the same struggles that he has. But first he plans to return to Clemson– not as a coach or a football player, but as a student—to get his master’s degree in counseling.
“Right now, my plan is to go back to school (at Clemson) and try to get my master’s degree and then go looking for jobs from there. I want to do something, as you know I graduated in sociology, so I want to do counseling,” Johnson said. “More specifically counseling with athletes, guys that go through what I’ve gone through where I’ve been in the sport my whole life, and when it gets to that point where certain person, that certain athlete, doesn’t want to play football no more.
“I want to be that guy that they can come talk to and help them deal with that type of thing. Because there’s a lot of players that go through that, but never really have the heart to stand up and say that they don’t really want to play no more because of the pressure from other people. Just being used to that my whole life, I want to be the guy to help kids like that.”
For Johnson, being the journey to this point actually began at the time of the NFL combine—where he saw firsthand the struggle of those players who feel trapped in a game and see no way out from its grasp.
“I talked to some guys and they really felt the same way I was feeling, but they felt trapped in the game and didn’t really have any other options,” Johnson said. “A lot of people felt that pressure from their loved ones and their support system really kept them in the game, and made them have to play the game. There was actually some guys that I talked to that I just met recently from, I’d say, that period of the time of the combine all the way until I was up in New Jersey with the Giants and there were some guys that were feeling like that too.
“Specifically, it came their support, in that back home they’ve got people that really want them to succeed in football, because that’s all they’ve seen. You know that has been the dream for a lot of us since we was little, but when we young we don’t really know what want when we get older. We can say it all we want, but when you get older you tend to think a little differently than when you were five or 6 years old. That is personally what it was for me, I always wanted to be in the NFL since I was a little boy.
“But as I got older, my mindset just changed and I just wanted to do something different. So, it definitely, there are a lot of other people dealing with that, but they just feel trapped or they feel like they just have too many people depending on them for them to stop like that.”
While Johnson knew in his heart what he wanted to do, there were two people who he knew he would have to confront—his parents.
But, as they had been with everything in their son’s life, after he explained his heart to them, they knew that he was making the right choice for himself, and that was all that mattered.
“They were, I wouldn’t say extremely happy at first, but once I really sat down and explained to them what it was they came to terms with it,” Johnson said. “When I first brought it to them, they thought I was going through a phase where I just got up there and maybe it was getting a little too hard for me.
“But that really wasn’t the case, because I was cool with the coaches and the organization was real cool—it didn’t have anything to with things like that, it’s just I didn’t have a love for the game no more. And when you don’t have love for the game no more, you’re not going to go out there and put your all into it. So, I just felt like it’s my time to try something new.”
After hearing their son pour out his heart to, and explaining why he was choosing this path—his parents turned from questions to pride. Pride in their son for having the courage to follow his heart when everyone around him would tell him he is crazy.
“They definitely are (proud), because, especially, with the fact of me just standing up and actually coming out with that. Having the courage to actually come out and tell people that I didn’t want to take that ride anymore—that I wanted to try to do something different,” Johnson said. “That was really the main thing that they were proud about. With them being my parents, they would be happy as long as I’m happy.
“So, whatever I’m doing, whatever makes me happy—it could have been, if my dream was being a gardener they would have been right behind me supporting me. From the perspective of my parents, it didn’t change much for them. As much as they supported me with the football, they support me with this going back to school and trying to do something different.”
Even though some may look back on their journey with regrets, for Johnson he would not change a thing about the path that has led him to this point.
Everything he has learned, the places that he went, the people that he met and the things he saw have all made Jadar Johnson the person that he is today.
“The experience was great. Even just being up in that big city (New York) like that with me being from Orangeburg. It showed me a lot of different things that I didn’t experience growing up,” Johnson said. “It also was just me going out there on my own, I feel like it made me become a little more responsible, because I couldn’t just run to my mom and dad for everything. I was really up there having to handle everything by myself. I wouldn’t change how I did it. I was definitely glad that I took a shot and that I actually went up there to see how that stuff is, because it showed me things from a different perspective. Once I got up there it made me realize that’s not what I wanted to do anymore.”