Philipsburg-Osceola coach Mike Mann watched as Matt Johnson limped off the field last season, his jersey and pants completely covered in mud after one of the team’s blowout losses.
Johnson had played every snap of the game — Mann couldn’t even see the No. 22 on Johnson’s jersey — and the coach said the exhausted running back/safety showed up to practice the following Monday ready to go. In another game, Johnson rolled his ankle and returned to the field minutes later. This preseason, it took some convincing to get him to take a break and stretch a tight hamstring after the coaches noticed him limping.
“No matter what, he doesn’t miss anything,” Mann said. “He’s the type of kid that you wish you had 40 of.”
Johnson, a senior, relishes playing the entire game for the Mounties. Mann praises Johnson’s work ethic and toughness, adding that he never complains about his heavy workload. His father, Jeff Johnson, taught him to play hard and to put in the time in the weight room, and Matt did just that this offseason with the blowout losses of the past driving him.
It’s why Matt Johnson plays through pain and fatigue on Friday nights.
“I want to win for (my teammates), so that’s why I just want to be out there,” Matt said.
Though he’s undersized at 5-foot-6, Mann said Matt plays “like he’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds” as he flies around the field and constantly makes tackles. His father said Matt’s never shied away from contact despite being smaller than the rest of his family. Mann pointed out the size difference between the father and son during a preseason practice at Memorial Field in Philipsburg. Jeff, a P-O assistant coach and former Mounties player, stands 6-foot-3 — much taller than any height listed for his son.
“We’re going to say he’s 5-8,” Jeff said. “That might be generous. But that’s what he wants to go with.”
Still, his size hasn’t stopped him from playing football.
He’s always been fast, something that caught Mann’s eye during summer workouts in 2016. And he’s always been tough, something his father noticed during one of his son’s youth football games back in fourth grade.
“A sixth-grader came across after he gained about 20 yards and demolished him into the sideline — a way bigger kid,” his father said. “He got up and came back in the huddle and kept on moving. That was kind of the beginning to say he can handle whatever comes his way.”
Johnson has played with the same mentality in high school, establishing himself as one of the Mounties’ top playmakers and leaders. In 2016, he led the team in both rushing with 343 yards on 111 carries and receiving with 343 yards on 23 catches.
Philipsburg-Osceola will be relying on Johnson the rest of this season as they look to improve after last year’s 1-9 campaign. Johnson doesn’t want to endure another season defined by losing with the Mounties, who lost 36 straight games before beating St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in their final game in 2016. He remembers how poorly the team played as much as he remembers leaving the field wearing his mud-covered uniform in that game last season.
So he spent this offseason in the weight room — much like former P-O star running back Keith Powell, who played with Jeff Johnson on the Mounties’ 1984 team that went undefeated.
“Keith held the school records here for a lot of years in rushing, and he was Matthew’s size,” Jeff said. “He was maybe 10 pounds heavier, but he had Matt’s attitude. He spent a lot of time in the weight room, and so did Matt this year.”
Matt was one of 20 players who dedicated themselves to lifting this summer — Matt’s regimen lasted two hours for six days every week. He said he added 10 pounds of muscle and increased his max efforts on bench press (190 to 235), squat (265 to 305) and deadlift (300 to 365). The 160-pound running back can feel that added strength on the field.
“I can break tackles this year and I’m faster,” Matt Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s developed into a hard-hitting safety, too. He’ll be ready to play the entire game again this season — from nervously taking the field before the first snap with his arms shaking and foot tapping to walking off the field after the final play exhausted.
In between, he’ll only come off the field for timeouts.
“I just chug some water really and get back at it,” Johnson said.
Philipsburg-Osceola 2017 Football Schedule
Fri., Aug. 25: at West Branch Area, 7 p.m. (at Clinton Heacock Stadium)
Fri., Sept. 1: at Bald Eagle Area, 7 p.m. (at Alumni Stadium)
Fri., Sept. 8: vs. Bellefonte, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 15: at Tyrone, 7 p.m. (at Gray/Veterans Memorial Field)
Fri., Sept. 22: vs. Chestnut Ridge, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 29: at Penns Valley, 7 p.m. (at Penns Valley)
Fri., Oct. 6: vs. Central (Spring Cove SD), 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 13: at Huntingdon Area, 7 p.m. (at at War Vets Field)
Fri., Oct. 20: vs. Clearfield Area 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 27: at Curwensville Area, 7 p.m. (at Riverside Stadium)