WATSON – Given his football lineage it was apparent Live Oak strong safety Eli Johnson was destined to play college football one day.
That day officially arrived Wednesday when Johnson, surrounded by family members, coaches and teammates, made it official what he determined five months ago – that he wanted to play football for McNeese State.
Johnson followed through on his summer-time commitment, signing during the NCAA’s early signing period during a ceremony held in the school’s gym.
Among those family members present were his father Eddy Johnson, a former wide receiver at Northwestern State, and his grandfather Ellis Johnson, a Hall of Fame running back at Southeastern Louisiana who was a third-round draft choice of AFL’s Boston Patriots.
“I started playing football at the age of six,” Eli Johnson said. “I had the dream of playing college football. I always wanted to play football for as long as I could, and when it got to the point of middle school and high school, when it’s something you’re actually seeing, you start thinking about it.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Johnson was one of the mainstays of Live Oak’s defense over the course of his career, providing the Eagles with a tough-as-nails safety in run support, but someone athletic enough to drop and cover against the pass.
Johnson, a two-time All-District 4-5A selection, totaled 61 tackles as a senior with four interceptions, four tackles behind the line of scrimmage and a forced fumble.
The Eagles reached the Class 5A state playoffs for the fourth straight season, falling to Acadiana in the first round.
“With our scheme and what we asked of him, he was kind of put in the spotlight and he answered and made play after play,” Live Oak coach Brett Beard said. “He was physical which was his favorite part of his game.
“To have a guy play on the back end, that could be that force player and wreak havoc between the tackles, he was a kid that could do it all,” Beard said. “And then you had someone who could cover. He’s a play-maker and he’s where he’s supposed to be. He’s coachable and I couldn’t be prouder to see a guy that’s a hard-hat, get-the-job-done type guy get this opportunity.”
Johnson had the luxury of being able to identify McNeese State as his school of choice in July, selecting the Cowboys for a variety of reasons that stemmed from a desire to play away from home to being a part of a program that’s won 14 Southland Conference championships and made 16 trips to postseason play.
When Johnson offered his commitment, it was to then-head coach Lance Guidry, who was entering his third season but wasn’t permitted to see a fourth year.
Following a late-season swoon by the Cowboys, who lost four of their last five games, the school’s opted not to renew Guidry’s contract on Nov. 20.
Johnson stood by patiently, having put more into his decision to attend McNeese State than who his head coach was going to be over the course of his career.
“He was pretty much set on signing with McNeese,” Beard said. “He didn’t waver. He stuck to his commitment and as I told him a commitment is to a university, not a coach. Coaches come and go, it’s a business. He made a commitment to that university and their community and he’s going to be a big addition.”
The search for Guidry’s successor moved rather swiftly, ultimately landing 40-year-old South Florida offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Sterlin Gilbert, who was named McNeese’s new coach on Dec. 5.
It wasn’t long thereafter Johnson received a call from Gilbert, reassuring him that his previous commitment would be honored and after watching his senior highlights, welcomed him with open arms.
“He said they couldn’t wait for me to sign,” said Johnson, who will take his official visit to the school in January. “I’d like to stay at strong safety, but I’ll play wherever they put me. He made it sound like he was excited for me to be there. That’s where I wanted to be.”