When Larry Johnson was a freshman at Capitol High Academy, he was closing in on a starting job with the football team.
Then he suffered a broken leg.
He had to wait his turn.
Lean and undersized for a linebacker, Johnson was overlooked as a college prospect.
The 5-foot-11, 198-pound athlete came to Southern last year as a walk-on. He didn’t play at all.
“Growing up, as a kid, I went through a lot of stuff,” Johnson said.
This season, he’s been relegated mostly to special teams. His stat line: seven games, eight tackles, one sack.
Still, Johnson kept faith - in his team, and in himself, and the idea that one day, he’d get his chance to shine. He started wearing a black plastic wristband that reads:
With God, We Can Be The Change
For him, on the football field, change has come.
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday in A.W. Mumford Stadium, the star-crossed Jaguars (2-5, 2-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference) host Alcorn State (2-4, 1-4) for homecoming. It’s the home finale for Southern in a season that, to date, has included four losses by six or fewer points.
It is also Johnson’s turn to play, and play extensively.
Thanks to a handful of suspensions that stemmed from the Jaguars’ postgame fight at Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Oct. 15, the linebacking corps is a little thin; among others, the team will play without senior Jamie Payton and sophomore Anthony Balancier. As a result, second-year coach Stump Mitchell said Johnson will see more than his usual share of snaps.
“After all these close games, it’s time for a breakthrough. It’s time for a breakthrough,” Mitchell said. “And this would be a great game for it. It’s homecoming. We’re the underdog in our own homecoming, as well. But I think we’re going to pull it off.”
So maybe his big chance might have come by default. He’ll take it anyway.
“Now you have the chance to show that you deserve to play, and the only reason you (weren’t) playing was because the guy in front of you was a little better,” Mitchell said. “Or, perhaps, the coaches didn’t give you an opportunity. That happens, sometimes, too. I don’t want to think that’s the case, but I’m excited for these guys that’s going to get an opportunity to play.”
When they tee it up, they’ll be playing in a big game, as well.
Really? How does a matchup of two struggling programs (combined overall record: 4-9) count as a really big deal?
Well, it just does.
First, it’s Southern and Alcorn. Though the rivalry doesn’t carry the same cachet as, say, Southern-Grambling or Southern-Jackson State, it’s been peppered with great games, great players and great coaches. And sheer geography - Lorman, Miss., is the nearest SWAC town to Baton Rouge - often makes for interesting ties.
“It ought to be a great game,” said Marino Casem, who won or shared seven SWAC titles as Alcorn’s coach from 1964-85, then served as Southern’s athletic director from 1986-99 (a run that included two short stints as the Jaguars football coach).
“This game usually has more of an impact on Alcorn than it does Southern,” Casem said. “Alcorn always seems to step up and play at a higher level against Southern. It’s always been that way. I really don’t know why. But ... they just seem to play at a different level. Alcorn was always looked at as the small kid on the block. Southern had the great following and the big city. It felt like they had more of everything.”
This year, the ties run deep.
Alcorn, of course, is now coached by Melvin Spears, the Clinton native and former Braves wide receiver who spent three seasons as Grambling’s head coach, from 2004-06, then ultimately returned to his alma mater in February. Armed with a host of Louisiana natives on his staff, Spears makes no secret of his intent to cherry-pick a few athletes out of Southern’s back yard.
That, of course, adds another layer to the story.
“It’s a big-time rivalry, no question about that,” Mitchell said. “You’re trying to win the in-state battle for recruits, and winning the ballgame goes a long way toward getting that done.”
Saturday’s game is also homecoming. It’s always an affair to remember at SU, whose homecoming games often draw the largest or second-largest crowds of the season.
Early in the day, fans line Harding Boulevard and Scenic Highway to watch the annual homecoming parade. Then they gear up for a day of tailgating, entertainment from The Human Jukebox and a little football for good measure.
Saturday’s game is senior day, a chance for Southern to recognize 16 players who won’t play another game at Mumford after this weekend (in fact, Payton and tailback Terrell Alex, both suspended for this game, have already played their last home game).
Senior center Lee Almanza came to Southern from Houston in 2008, barely knowing a soul in Baton Rouge when he first grabbed his equipment in the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
Now, he and the players dress in the sprawling A.W. Mumford Field House, and they play for Mitchell, not Pete Richardson.
In some ways, Almanza said, the whole journey seemed like it started a few hours ago. In others, it’s been maddeningly long. Lest anyone forget, the Jaguars are 16-24 in the three-plus seasons since the Class of 2008 arrived.
“It (happened) too fast,” Almanza said. “Being a freshman, I didn’t know too many guys. My head was swimming. Now, I’m used to it. I’m the vet on the team. I just want to get a win in this last one.”
For the seniors, it’s their last chance at home.
For Johnson, it’s his first big chance.
Together, they believe they can be the change.