As a high school football coach, Cory Johnson has gotten used to receiving plenty of text messages at all hours.
But when his phone goes off after midnight, he doesn’t even need to check the caller ID. He knows it’s the kid who takes the game home with him, eats and sleeps it and sends him a text to let him know when he’s hitting the gym in the middle of the night.
“If I get a text at 1 a.m., it’s usually Quan telling me he’s going to work out or he’s seen something on film he’s picked up on and wants to talk about,” said Johnson, entering his sixth season as coach at Killian.
“He’s a passionate kid. But more than his talent and more than his passion for the game, he studies and knows the game and takes the game home with him, which is something a lot of kids don’t do. That’s what separates them at this level and every level.”
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Quan is 5-11, 192-pound senior safety Jaquan Johnson, a four-star recruit who orally committed to signing with the University of Miami last week.
Florida State, Alabama, Florida, Louisville and LSU were among the dozens of college football powers who hoped to sway the U.S. Army All-American. Florida might still try to before he signs on the dotted line and enrolls in Coral Gables in January.
But for now, Johnson has pledged his allegiance to the hometown team for one big reason. The Hurricanes make him feel like family. And that’s big for Jaquan, because family has meant a lot of different things to him through the years.
The fourth of seven children raised in what he calls “a little house” in Homestead, there were a lot of days Jaquan would open the refrigerator and would have nothing to eat. His only meals, he said, were the free breakfasts and lunches he would get at school.
“My mom tried her best,” Jaquan said. “Even if we didn’t have food, she would give up eating. People think, ‘Oh that was tough.’ But we really didn’t think of it like that. I just thought it was normal. I thought it was life.
“Now looking back, it wasn’t normal, but it was the way we lived.”
Jaquan, though, no longer lives with his biological parents. He and his siblings have been spread out in different homes since his parents had their home foreclosed a few years ago.
Johnson lives at “Coach’s” house. That would be former flag football coach John Phillips, who has known Johnson since he and Phillips’ son, Trey, became best friends in the third grade.
Back then, Phillips saw the financial struggles Johnson and his family were going through. So he always made it a point to provide help for Jaquan, whether it was giving him money when he needed it, feeding him, giving him his own bed to sleep on or even taking him on family vacations.
Legally, Phillips is not Jaquan’s guardian. But since Jaquan was in the fifth grade, Phillips said, he has been on his emergency contact card and the person who has signed any important paperwork he has needed.
“A lot of people say [it’s another Blind Side story],” said Phillips, 54, who has his own law practice in Miami. “But it’s not that. I didn’t go out and see some poor kid struggling on the side of the road I didn’t know and take in. This kid was just always part of my family, and we’ve loved him.”
Said Jaquan: “I couldn’t have a better figure in my life than Coach. His wife, Hope [Phillips], Trey and Savannah, they treat me like family. I have my own room. And I eat every night.”
As happy and as fortunate as Jaquan feels to have the Phillips family in his life, the burning desire to take care of his biological family has not faded. He still talks to them every day and loves them very much.
“When I play, I notice that’s the only time I get to see my family come together and be happy,” Johnson said. “ I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Coach Cory Johnson sees a lot of similarities between Jaquan and former Florida State safety Lamarcus Joyner, a second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in May. Johnson coached Joyner as an assistant at Southwest High.
Like Joyner, Johnson said Jaquan is very bright. He has a 3.4 grade-point average, scored a 24 on his ACT exam and can see things on the field only most coaches can see.
Last year, Johnson said Jaquan picked up on something eventual state champion South Dade did by putting their receivers in motion, and he pointed it out to coaches in film study before the game. The Cougars ended up picking off four passes that night.
“He makes the players around him better, and when I talk about Lamarcus, that’s the quality they both carry that is unprecedented,” Johnson said. “He and Lamarcus can both make kids believe they are better than what they are at that time.”
A three-time All-Dade first-team selection, the Cougars started 1-3 last season without Jaquan as he tried to recover from a back injury. When he came back, they went 6-1 before losing to South Dade 13-7 on a muddy field in the second round of the playoffs.
The back injury, Johnson said, was the result of too heavy a workload his first two years at Killian, when he combined for 139 tackles, seven interceptions 1,063 yards rushing and 27 touchdowns. Last year, Jaquan played less on offense but still racked up 75 tackles, one interception, five fumble recoveries and had eight catches for 122 yards and three scores.
Jaquan said his back still tightens up on him every now and then, but it’s much better than it was.
“He’ll play a little more offense this year,” Johnson said. “But, really, we just want him to be our Troy Polamalu, our Ed Reed back there.”
The injury, Jaquan said, opened his eyes up to the fact football won’t be a part of his life forever, and it’s motivating him to be the best he can be in all phases.
His coach has no doubt he will.
“One thing I know about Quan is if you put the ladder up six feet higher than he can reach, he’s going to find a way to climb it,” Johnson said. “He’ll go as high as he can to get to the top of that ladder. Special kid.”