Those are talented hands that Terry Johnson has been putting down in the dirt, grass and artificial turf for the past three years.
It’s been a good thing for Louisiana-Lafayette’s football squad, since Johnson’s shift over to center at the start of fall drills has been the most crucial offensive position move of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ season.
It’s also been a good thing for Johnson, since football has provided a respite from the pressures of staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to produce art.
Or is it that his escapes into the visual arts have provided a break from the pressures of facing 300-pound defenders lined up inches away from his helmet while he’s making calls, snapping and blocking?
Actually, it’s both.
“I try not to associate one with the other,” Johnson said this week as his squad continued its preparations for a fourth straight New Orleans Bowl appearance, this time facing Nevada at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “I don’t make comparisons. When I’m in the studio, I try to forget that I’m a football player.
“It’s like oil and water.”
Neither, naturally, is among his favorite mediums. The senior from Oxford, Mississippi, keeps it simple. His comfort zone for many years has been with just a pencil and paper.
“I always loved to draw,” he said. “Mom always used to talk about, even when I was really young, I was always drawing these little Mickey Mouse characters, or I’d draw this horse statue that we had. I enjoyed drawing hands ... and faces.”
That interest led to a pursuit of a visual arts major at UL-Lafayette, and they led to the obvious question:
Is Johnson the soft-spoken guy who already has had his art talents on display in a family-published book, a man who grew up admiring the talents of some great actors and the guy who wanted to be a pilot in his early years because of the beauty and serenity of the clouds?
Or is he that rock on the Cajuns offensive line, the guy who barks out the signals and gets his 300-pound teammates at both of his shoulders — the “Hawgs” — lined up and matched up properly, the trigger man for an offense that accounted for 5,000 yards for a fourth straight year?
Again, he’s both.
Johnson was UL-Lafayette’s starter at left guard in all 13 games in 2013, when the Cajuns led the Sun Belt Conference in rushing and had both of their starting running backs — Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire — earn first-team all-league honors. Four starters returned from that unit this season, but the graduation of three-year starter Andre Huval left a gaping void that offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue tried to fill by inserting Johnson into the spot to start spring drills.
That was before an ankle injury early in spring practice led to surgery, and a lot of teeth-gnashing in Cajuns camp this fall when Johnson was back at guard.
“We had so many injuries that we weren’t able to move anybody,” Rodrigue said. “When (Johnson) got hurt himself, it wasn’t a good time to start moving people.”
After experimenting with other options, Johnson was moved back to center two weeks before the season opener.
“Our center has to be our quarterback on the (line),” Rodrigue said. “He’s the one getting everybody on the same page. Terry had never been a center, but he had the intellect to do it.”
Fast-forward nearly three months, a stretch in which Johnson started every game, and he’s now an honorable-mention pick on the All-Sun Belt team in his first year at the position.
“I thank God, (head coach Mark Hudspeth) and Coach Rod for that,” he said. “Coach Hud took a chance on me when no other schools gave me that chance. And Coach Rod told me when I was trying to learn to play center that he was gonna make me an all-conference center.”
That honor didn’t come as a surprise to many, since it’s almost expected in a family that includes six siblings. Johnson’s father, Terry Sr., is a retired U.S. Army Green Beret who spent 11 years with Special Forces and is now a motivational speaker and author of the motivational guide, “Train Like You Fight.” His mother also is a published writer, and the younger Terry’s artwork and sketches illustrate that book.
“He’s always been creative like that,” Johnson Sr. said. “He’s always been the smart and sweet kid who just happened to be 6-foot-2 and weigh 300 pounds.”
That size would have made him an imposing figure on stage, something he also dreamed about.
“I love to act,” said Johnson, who has produced some short films as part of his arts class workload. “I love watching guys like Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg and see how they convey all those emotions with their characters. That’s something I’d love to do.”
He’s about to play his final college football game Saturday, before taking that artistic and creative talent out into what he called the “real world.” But his dream is to blend football and art a little longer.
“If I could make an NFL squad, even a practice squad, I could probably make enough to start my own studio,” he said. “Art’s tough. It’s like football; it’s a lot of hard work. But I’ve always wanted to be an artist and do something that I love. If you do that, do something you love, it’s like you never have to work a day in your life.”