At first glance, it’s hard to distinguish Anthony Johnson from the other members of the Rough Riders all-star team.
Once the football is snapped, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Johnson makes his way around the edge of the offensive line and into the backfield.
Johnson’s speed is not the only thing attracting attention. The Louisiana School for the Deaf senior is the first deaf player selected to play in the 11-year history of the U.S. Army Red Stick Bowl.
“I want to win, and I want to get respect for deaf athletes,” Johnson said through LSD coach Darren Gremillion, who serves as his interpreter.
Johnson is the first LSD athlete to play in an all-star football event in 25 years. The War Eagles’ James Mims played in the Louisiana High School Coaches Association all-star game in 1987, Gremillion said.
Gremillion credits Rough Riders head coach Guy Blanchard and defensive coordinator Leonard Parker, both of Port Allen High, for taking a chance on Johnson. Both coaches lobbied to add him to the squad as a defensive end at last month’s play selection meeting.
For LSD, Johnson was known primarily as an offensive threat, rushing for 1,218 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2012 and 4,125 yards and 48 TDs in his career.
“It is absolutely refreshing,” Blanchard said. “He can play, which is what we thought when we picked him. He’s a good athlete and we’re hoping to put him in situations where he can succeed.
“I told the other coaches to have fun with it and see what he this guy can do. The speed and size of the game is not what he’s used to, but you can see he’s adjusted. He’s playing ball and being the athlete he can be.”
Defensive line coach Lawrence Brown of Pointe Coupee Central added, “He (Johnson) is picking up everything we tell him fast and he’s getting a lot of praise and positive reinforcement. He’s as fast as lighting. I really like him.”
Johnson and other members of the Rough Riders and Black Knights were put through their paces during a Tuesday practice at BREC’s Independence Park.
Teams practiced at LSU’s McClendon Indoor Practice Facility on Monday because of the rainy weather. The 11th Red Stick Bowl is set for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Denham Springs High.
In addition to adjusting to the speed and size of the players, Johnson has also had to adjust to 11-man football. The War Eagles play eight-man football against other deaf schools in the south.
“This is monumental for our program,” Gremillion said. “He (Johnson) is getting some national press in the deaf media. Any time a player from a deaf school can step up to the same level as his hearing peers it’s huge. He’s a role model for the deaf world now.”
With Gremillion interpreting, Johnson admits that adjusting to the size and speed of the other players has been a challenge.
“Everybody is big and everybody is fast,” Johnson noted.
Those factors haven’t kept Johnson from setting goals for Saturday’s game.
“I’d like to get a sack and maybe a touchdown,” Johnson said.