Former Stallions star eager to make his Div. I debut

September 2, 2020

For The Madera Tribune
Former Madera South Stallions’ standout Jonah Johnson practices with New Mexico State in anticipation for the 2020 season.

Down multiple scores on homecoming night in his junior year, Madera South star Jonah Johnson and his Stallions were searching for answers in front of a packed house. 


The Stallions marched into the halftime locker room with their heads down after underperforming.
But, as Madera South fans came to understand, there is no quit in Johnson. The former Desmond Middle School standout wasn’t going to let his fans down that night. 


“That was a good game to be a part of. That whole week of practice was tough because I was battling injuries and stuff. Going into the game, I was doubting myself. We went down after I threw an interception and fumbled the ball,” Johnson said. “I got mad and I think I had a sleeve on and I just ripped the sleeve off and all the other gadgets I had on and I just got mad. 


“We were down 14-0 and I just said to myself that I wasn’t going out like this, so I went back in and threw like four or five touchdowns and I ran for a few. We were down 14-0, but we ended up winning by 20 points. I think we scored almost 60 points that game.”


The Stallions trailed 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 21-6 before Johnson got into the act. He rushed for 150 yards and three touchdowns. He threw for 117 yards and two more touchdowns in a 61-40 Homecoming victory over the Fresno Warriors in 2015.


Now a touted prospect on the roster of New Mexico State, the former Stallions’ multi-sport athlete is eagerly preparing for the next step in his career to start. 


During his time at Madera South, the former Stallion guided his team to multiple playoff appearances and just missed a championship berth. 


Despite coming up short, Johnson and the Stallions had many lasting memories, including bragging rights over the Coyotes and, for Johnson, that’s something to be proud of. 


Johnson wanted to be a Coyote growing up, but found a home with the Stallions of Madera South. 


“When I was at Madera South, we were on top,” Johnson said. “Madera was the bigger school and was always the better team, but not when I was there.” 


In three years as the starter, Johnson amassed more than 5,000 all-purpose yards, totaling more than 3,000 passing yards. He combined to score 75 touchdowns in his career (41 passing and 34 rushing).


Johnson was The Madera Tribune’s football team Most Valuable Player for both 2015 and 2016. He was also on the All-Tribune team as a sophomore in 2014. He also earned All-Madera Tribune honors after his boys basketball season. He was a two-time All-County/Metro Athletic Conference first team quarterback selection after earning honorable mention his sophomore season. 
Johnson and his teammates left a legacy at Madera South when he graduated in 2017.


“During those years, playing playoff games, winning playoff games, and even one year being seeded high enough to earn a bye, really have given the teams that have come after them benchmarks of success to aspire to,” assistant football coach Anthony Gallegos said. “Jonah and his teammates left a positive legacy to the players that have come after them of what can be achieved if you work hard and believe that you can be a playoff team to contend with.”


Johnson flashed his big-play arm often at Madera South and later at Fresno City College, but it was his ability to both run and throw that caught the eye of his new team — Div. I New Mexico State. 


In an interview with the Las Cruces Sun News, Aggies quarterback coach Chase Holbrook explained the team’s fondness for quarterbacks that can extend plays. 


Luckily for the Aggies, Johnson can make any throw on the field, but he can also put his head down and move the chains with his legs.


“Coach (Doug) Martin has always loved those quarterbacks who can move around a little bit more,” Holbrook said. “It’s not pulling down the ball on a zone read, but the ability to extend football plays and throw out of the pocket. That really excited us about Jonah seeing him get out of the pocket, but his eyes stayed downfield. That is where a lot of your explosive plays come from.”


At Fresno City, Johnson had to deal with new concepts, but he was still allowed to be himself within the Rams offense. Johnson finished his career with only nine interceptions to his 28 touchdowns. 


“I’m not a selfish guy, I want to get the ball to other players,” Johnson said. “I know I have good players on my team, so each player brings something different to the table. It’s important to let them do what they do as well.”


But Johnson had to work to get where he is today. Through injuries and challenges that popped up on the field, Johnson always stuck to the plan with the help of a few coaches throughout the way. 
Without the coaching he received, Johnson might not be the player he is today. 


“Coach Gallegos, he really helped me a lot when I was at Madera South,” Johnson said. “Just the things he would say, he made me think different. He honestly made me into the man I am today, taught me how to be leader and I still remember things he said to me back then. I look at what I’m going through in my life and I just remember what he taught me. In the three years that he coached me; I’ll remember those years for the rest of my life. He’s probably been the best coach I ever had because he prepared me for football and what’s after football. He taught me to be a leader and how to go out and demand things. He taught me to be that guy.” 


And for Gallegos, who also had great success on the gridiron with the Coyotes and is a member of the Madera Athletic Hall of Fame, having the chance to assist Johnson on his journey was all he wanted. 


“It’s incredibly humbling to think that Jonah feels that I helped him along his way to achieving his dream of playing Div. I college football,” Gallegos said. “As a coach, I think it’s our duty to be a guiding light for our players.” 


But Johnson didn’t only take advice from his coaches, teammates, and teachers, his role model is Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson. 


“He is definitely, just the guy he is and how he is a man of God, someone I want to be like,” Johnson said. “Just what he’s able to do for his family and his faith, but then he goes straight to the football field. I think it’s the way he presents himself, his attitude and just the way he plays on the field – I want to be like that.” 


After a sparkling career at Madera South, Johnson moved to Fresno City, but it was his last choice. 


“I heard a lot of rumors about Fresno City and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there. They ran an offense I didn’t want to be in (more run first),” Johnson said. “I reached out to pretty much every junior college in California. I told myself I was not going to Fresno City; I wasn’t doing it.” 


He ended up doing it. 


It was close to home, offered him the ability to keep playing and, most importantly, quarterbacks coach Mark Hetherington stayed in constant contact with Johnson. 


“He just reached out to me almost every week. He went to my high school football games and basketball games. Dude was showing me love,” Johnson said. “None of the other coaches showed me anything. Even after I got surgery after high school and couldn’t play my first year, they were still supportive and seemed to care about me as a person and a player. 


“There was a meeting for incoming players and this was right before I had surgery and I let them know I couldn’t play. Hetherington told me he was going to coach me this year, next year or five years from now. He showed me love and really wanted me to play for him. That’s what really stuck out to me. He always asked how I was doing. He showed interest in me and that’s why I went there.”


Johnson injured his throwing shoulder during his junior year at Madera South, but decided to skip surgery for two years and finish out his high school career. 


“I tweaked it a bunch of times and made it worse,” Johnson said. “It was really hard to play both basketball and football, but I did what I had to do and I don’t regret it. Me playing my senior season helped me get a chance at the next level, I might’ve missed it if I didn’t play.”


After missing a year, Johnson had to come back and try to recapture his form. This time, the competition was tougher and an uphill battle awaited the former Stallion. 


Not only physically and mentally to get back, but he also had another player in his starting role. But like every other challenge thrown at Johnson, the six-foot-three quarterback ran right through it. 


“It was about 18 months since I got back on the field and was able to play again. It was a long, drawn out process and I was just itching to get back on the field,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t even ready at first so I took my time getting ready. It was tough because I couldn’t make some throws at first and the competition at the quarterback position was tough.” 


Sam Metcalf was the starter when Johnson was cleared to play again and for Johnson, Metcalf had the upper hand. 


But true to Johnson’s work ethic and mindset, he did not care. 


That starting job was his. It wasn’t a matter of “if”, it was only a matter of when. 


And that time came four games into the season. Despite Metcalf playing well, Johnson was thrown into the game and he never came out. 


“I was mad about it so I worked harder. (Sam) had a great arm and he set state records for passing yards and stuff like that, but I still felt that I should be starting,” Johnson said. “I just thought I was the better player and I knew I could bring more to the table.” 


Johnson entered the game for the first time as a Fresno City Ram and he didn’t disappoint. 


“I came in during the second quarter and I scored in like three plays, they ended up just keeping me in,” Johnson said. “We won seven straight games the rest of the year and we went to the semifinals of the state championship, but ended up losing.” 


Johnson hit the ground running, and he wasn’t even fully fit until late in the year. For Johnson, being able to perform at a high level is nothing new, but to do it at this level showed just how much potential he product had. 


Johnson was named National Division Valley League Offensive MVP in 2018 and named to National Division Valley League’s First Team in 2019. 


He finished with 1,635 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman, including rushing for two touchdowns and 181 yards, while throwing for at least three touchdowns in four separate games. 


During his sophomore campaign in 2019, he threw for 1,818 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for an additional 254 yards and six touchdowns. 


Today, Johnson finds himself in New Mexico State. 


Johnson was included in Athlon Sports’ list of the top-11 junior-college passers making the jump to the FBS level in 2020.


After an offseason spent mostly in virtual meetings and small groups Johnson and some of his New Mexico State teammates have been working out together to build chemistry until the season starts.


“I can’t wait to get on the field and start playing again. I want to be able to play some games and just play the game I love again,” Johnson said. “I am fully healthy now and just want to sling the football around.” 


And along with just being able to play again, Johnson has work to do. For him, being at a starter at every level has been the goal and that includes the NFL. Being a professional football player in the next few years is the goal. 


“That’s pretty much every guys dream to make it, that’s the number one goal right there,” he said. 

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