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CHS athlete overcomes odds to reach collegiate goal

Johnson tackles homework, learning disabilities to join ATU Russellville

Published: April 24, 2024   
Catholic High offensive lineman Adam Johnson, seen here April 18, will play for Arkansas Tech’s Wonder Boys this fall. (Dwain Hebda)

According to the NCAA, there is about a 7 percent chance that any given high school football player goes on to compete at the collegiate level. 

Of the roughly 1 million football athletes in the U.S., the vast majority will see their organized athletic lives end with high school graduation.

Adam Johnson, a graduating senior at Catholic High School in Little Rock, overcame these long odds and then some. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 295-pound offensive lineman, a three-year letter winner for the Rockets, recently landed a football scholarship to Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.

Long hours in the weight room and studying film earned him team captain honors his senior year, but it was the work in the classroom that solidified his place at CHS as he overcame a lifelong struggle with two learning challenges, dyslexia and dysgraphia.

“Probably sophomore year I realized that I have to be able to work hard in both entities no matter how either of them are going. I can’t let one affect the other.”

“Through middle school, how football was going was kind of how school was going. If football was going well, then I would try hard; if it wasn’t going well…” he said. “Like, I got injured in eighth grade, and when I got injured, I kind of stopped focusing on school. But when I went to Catholic, they were like, you can’t stop. You have to work hard at all times.

“Probably sophomore year, I realized that I have to be able to work hard in both entities no matter how either of them are going. I can’t let one affect the other. I can’t let a bad test grade affect how I’m going to do in practice or a bad practice affect how I’m doing on my homework. It was definitely hard to adjust and learn how to make sure my academics and my football were doing well at the same time.”

Johnson didn’t just benefit from the school’s tough-love approach when it came to overcoming his challenges, he also was given access to resources. Particularly helpful was a special program by which CHS provides tutoring for students with dyslexia (which affects reading), dysgraphia (affecting writing) and dyscalculia (affecting math skills).

“Instead of having a full study hall, I would go to a tutor,” he said. “First, she’d ask me if I had any pressing homework I had to do or anything in English in particular that she could help me through. If not, she would work with me through The Barton Reading Program. About junior year I tested out of that, so she would just help me with homework and study for tests. If I needed, she would read tests to me.”

The hard work paid off with Johnson scoring a 25 on the ACT overall, with a 29 in math, and was recently awarded the Jerry Jones Sr. Scholarship through the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. His career plans are to become a teacher and coach following his college experience.

“I realized how much I loved helping others and teaching them techniques and stuff in football. I realized how much I enjoy teaching,” he said. “Then, once I started to get good at math, I was like, I think I can teach this. So I started to tutor some kids. I’ve been tutoring some freshmen in math this past quarter and they’re all in the dyslexia program as well.”

In both the classroom and on the field, Johnson had a ready role model in his brother Ethan, three years his senior. Ethan dealt with the same learning differences as Adam, as well as playing offensive line on the football team. Since graduating from Catholic High, Ethan has also been a good resource for his younger brother on the rigors, or lack thereof, of college life.

“He told me (college is) easier than Catholic,” Adam quipped with a chuckle.

Overcoming challenges in the classroom translated to the football field as well. Though he started sporadically as a sophomore, Adam knew it wouldn’t be enough to achieve his dream of playing college football. He rededicated himself as an upperclassman, and the rest is history.

“Ever since I started playing football, I think I always wanted to play in college,” he said. “I don’t think there was ever a point where I wanted to stop at high school, but I feel like it didn’t really become a reality until after sophomore year. I didn’t play as much as I wanted to, and I realized how much work I had to put in. I started to work much harder and the summer going into junior year, I got a lot more attention from the coaches. That definitely opened my eyes that this could be a possibility to play at the next level.”

Johnson’s football resume includes as a starter on one of the most successful teams in Rocket history, his junior year campaign that saw the team go undefeated in the regular season for the first time in program history and advance to the state semifinals. 

As he leaves, he said he’s vested the returning players with some sound advice for keeping the Rockets’ recent momentum going, words of wisdom that apply equally to the challenges of the gridiron and the classroom.

“I tell them to embrace it and take it day by day,” he said. “Every single day is a new day and a new opportunity to get better. Just keep your head down and work every single day and get a little bit better every day and it’ll stack up eventually.”

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