TUSCALOOSA — Sam Johnson was an immensely gifted athlete in desperate need of an outlet.
He was a promising youth baseball player on the summer travel circuit for a few years, but he got bored with it. He grew to be 6-foot-3 as he replaced baseball with basketball and football, but struggled with which one would engage him for years to come.
Chris Johnson, Sam’s father, said his son is, “blessed that he found punting.”
In finding a passion for punting, Johnson grew from a freshman who irritated his high school coach to a senior who worked too hard for his own good, and now started his first game as a freshman walk-on at Alabama, averaging 39 yards on three punts. Should he hold onto the starting job through Saturday’s game against Texas A&M and beyond, he will continue living what his dad called, “a dream come true for him, for sure.”
There were multiple chances for his rise to Alabama to go awry.
As Sam Johnson’s high school coach, Oak Mountain's Cris Bell, told him recently, “I’m glad I didn’t kill you when you were in the ninth grade.”
Bell struggled to get 100 percent effort from Johnson, despite his talents as a tight end and defensive end. Bell remembers one incident of coming off the field in a particularly lackadaisical way, one that required a stern talking-to in the locker room after the game.
“He just hadn’t found what he wanted,” Chris Johnson said.
When he did, he almost let it go. Near the end of that freshman season, Oak Mountain desperately needed a new punter. Sam Johnson was the long snapper at the time, so he spent most of the tryout snapping to potential punters before taking a few himself.
He proved to be a natural.
Sam Johnson made the transition from long snapper to punter as a sophomore, after he and his father spent most of the summer looking up punting tutorials on YouTube. His training became much more serious when, while working out with Sam at a local park, Chris Johnson got approached by a stranger asking him about Sam’s punting.
It was Mike McCabe, a nationally renowned punting and kicking coach based partially in Birmingham. McCabe encouraged Sam to work out with him for a couple of weeks and see where things go.
Through McCabe — who also trains Alabama kicker Will Reichard and punter Ty Perine — Sam Johnson got to meet current college and professional kickers and punters. Chris Johnson thinks Sam became enamored by how hard the act of punting is, especially compared to place-kicking, where punters are moving and kicking a ball in space as opposed to striking a stationary ball.
He also discovered he has talent.
“Once Sam recognized what he could do, Sam really sold out to getting it done,” Bell said.
Sam Johnson matured immediately. He was engaged in football and his teammates again; he found ways to help the team outside of his punting routine, like snapping for the team’s 7-on-7 drills.
“I cannot tell you how many footballs we have kicked and busted, overkicked at times,” Chris Johnson said.
To the point that Sam Johnson spent most of his senior year injured. Bell said Big Ten, SEC and ACC schools visited regularly to see Sam Johnson, and he kicked for a lot of them. In kicking every day in training and at times taking on extra kicking sessions to vie for a scholarship offer from coaches, Johnson suffered a strained quad.
He toughed it out to punt at Alabama’s camp, where he won the competition among punters. But the damage done cost him other camp visits he was going to make, including some where coaching staffs suggested if he punted the same way he punted at previous camps, he would receive a scholarship offer.
Alabama had always been Sam Johnson’s dream, but he also developed good relationships with other coaching staffs. Had one of them offered Sam a scholarship, Chris Johnson isn’t sure what Sam would have done.
Bell was surprised a scholarship offer didn’t come. He was not surprised by what happened once Sam Johnson got to Alabama.
Sam Johnson had narrowed down his decision to Alabama and Mississippi State, where Bell’s daughter was being recruited by the track and field program. The Bell and Johnson families made a visit to Mississippi State together for last year’s game against Alabama. On the field for pregame warmups, Bell assured Sam Johnson of one thing.
“If you go there, you’ll win the job.”