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Road to the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl

Alcorn State was the only real choice for quarterback Noah Johnson

The SWAC Offensive Player of the Year said no when schools wanted him to play wide receiver

Noah Johnson had college offers on the table when his high school football career came to an end three years ago. But after quarterbacking his Armwood High School team to two straight appearances in the Florida state championship game, he was frustrated with where these schools wanted him to play.

“Most schools wanted me to switch positions and play receiver,” Johnson said. “They wanted me to do that because of my height. All they saw was my size. But they never measured my heart.”

Give credit to Alcorn State, which was the only NCAA Division I school that offered Johnson, who’s listed at 6 feet tall, a chance to play quarterback. While other schools saw a player who didn’t size up to play quarterback, the Braves saw a strong-armed dual threat.

The Braves were right: Nearly two weeks ago, Johnson led Alcorn State to the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) title, which secured the Braves a trip to Saturday’s Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl in Atlanta against North Carolina A&T. It’s a rematch of the inaugural Celebration Bowl in 2015 when the Aggies, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champions, won 41-34.

Johnson was a spectator for that 2015 Celebration Bowl as a redshirt freshman. Today, as a redshirt junior, he enters this year’s game as a star, throwing for 2,079 passes and 15 touchdowns this season while also running for 960 yards and nine touchdowns. Johnson was named the SWAC Offensive Player of the Year and is one of four finalists for the Black College Hall of Fame Player of the Year award, with the winner to be announced in February 2019.

Not bad for a guy whom few coaches could visualize as being a successful quarterback at this level.

“Noah has really come of age,” Alcorn State coach Fred McNair said about Johnson earlier this season. “He’s been a leader, and he’s been a guy who has helped this team go.”

Johnson doesn’t see him being snubbed coming out of high school through a black-white lens, but more through the optics of height. It was that perceived lack of height that was the reason college coaches told him he’d be a better fit playing receiver in college, even after he threw for 1,980 yards and 18 touchdowns as a high school junior (with 809 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns) and 1,525 yards and 26 touchdowns (with 821 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns) as a senior.

“The recruiting process was frustrating, but I looked at what the coaches told me as motivating,” Johnson said. “Shorter quarterbacks have bigger struggles. I look at Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, and I understand that shorter quarterbacks have to take a different route to success.”

Much of Johnson’s journey to his success is mapped out on the extensive art that covers his body. The “BH” on his left shoulder stands for the motto he’s lived by since high school: “Be hungry, be humble.”

Below the “BH” tattoo are the words “My family is the compass that guides me they are my inspiration to reach great heights and my comfort when I falter,” as well as the names of his three siblings and his grandmother.

His right arm bears the name of his mother, Dawn Johnson, who stayed strong and focused enough to move her young family out of a public housing complex in Tampa, Florida.

“I was young when we moved, but I remember a lot of tough nights,” Johnson said. “My mother’s a strong woman. She’s always been an inspiration through all her struggles in her life, and she never let us see her sweat. She always put her kids first, and I can never thank her enough for that.”

The entire Johnson family will be in Atlanta for Saturday’s game as Alcorn State looks to become the second team from the SWAC to win a Celebration Bowl. Grambling State won in 2016.

There’s a lot at stake for Johnson: His last two seasons in high school ended with losses in the Florida high school 6A championship game to Miami Central. He wants to avoid being denied a second time in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl to North Carolina A&T.

“I think about the fact that I lost those two championships to the same school in high school and lost here to A&T before,” Johnson said. “I told myself I’m not losing another championship.”

For Alcorn State, the season began on Sept. 1 in Atlanta with a 41-0 loss to Georgia Tech.

The season will end Saturday in Atlanta, with the Braves expecting a different result.

“Our goal from the start of the season has been ‘Atlanta to Atlanta,’ and now we’re here,” Johnson said. “We worked hard to get here, and now we’re back. This time, we’re ready to get the job done.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.