Jadar Johnson stepped back from the podium as a shy smile stretched across his face. He clutched the podium and rocked.
“I ain’t even gonna lie to y’all. I’m nervous,” Johnson said, as he addressed a crowd of eager and exuberant fans.
It was Jan. 14, 2017. Nearly 65,000 people filled the lower bowl of Death Valley to celebrate the national championship the Clemson football team earned earlier that week.
Team leaders rotated to the microphone to share thanks and thoughts on the milestone achievement. Johnson, a senior safety from Orangeburg, allayed his nerves and acknowledged his coaches, mentors and teammates.
After three minutes, he paused.
“I’m still nervous,” he said to a roar of laughter, “but I’m still not done.”
Johnson proceeded into a two-minute, heartfelt tribute to his father. The speech evoked an ovation from the crowd and astonishment from his coach.
“I’ve been with Jadar Johnson four years,” Dabo Swinney told the crowd. “That’s the most I’ve heard him say in four years.”
Johnson’s play was always louder than his voice, but, on that day, his words resonated. The reserved prospect blossomed into a team captain. That speech provided a lasting image of his transformation.
It is a stark contrast to the images Clemson fans saw this week.
Johnson was one of three men Clemson police arrested and charged with armed robbery Wednesday. Johnson, former Clemson running back C.J. Fuller and former Duke lineman Quaven Ferguson were also charged with possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
Thursday morning, news of the incident circulated through social media. It evoked disappointment from fans and astonishment from former teammates.
“My heart sunk,” said former Clemson lineman Eric Mac Lain, who shared the locker room with Johnson for three seasons. “For a guy that so many coaches said made such great strides and had become such a leader in those last two years playing there, seeing his name in that headline, I was just taken aback.”
Mac Lain was an established elder leader during Fuller’s first two seasons at Clemson. He said during that time Fuller’s most egregious transgressions were perhaps missing a block or an occasional class.
“I never had or heard of any trouble with them. They were good guys, good teammates that did what they were asked to do, just quiet guys that kept to themselves,” Mac Lain said. “They’d have a good time in their friend group, but that was normal for any player. So, never in my life would I have thought that was what I would’ve read.”
Johnson earned first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as a senior. He amassed 65 tackles and five interceptions. He was not drafted into the National Football League, but he signed a free agent contract with the New York Giants.
Johnson participated in minicamp last summer, then abruptly announced his retirement. Johnson later revealed that he spent the subsequent months improving his mental health.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always been quiet and never really talked about much,” Johnson told Marcel Louis-Jacques of Orange and White. “Once I realized I can still be a strong man and come talk to people about my problems, it made me feel so much better.
“I knew I was going through something, and football was the only thing in front of me. It’s just what I pointed my finger at. When I got away from the game, I realized it wasn’t that, and I missed it.”
Johnson auditioned again for NFL scouts during Clemson’s pro day on March 15. He professed newfound assurance and resolve, attributes he will need to endure this latest ordeal.
“I want people to look at my story and gain strength from it,” Johnson said via a social media post shortly after his pro day workout. “Whatever you (are) going through, you can get through it. We all go through struggles. Don’t drop your head at all. Don’t be ashamed of anything.”
Fuller and Ferguson also had stepped away from football. Fuller compiled 599 yards and four touchdowns through three seasons at Clemson. He started two games last year.
Ferguson recorded 22 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, through three seasons at Duke. Earlier this year, Fuller and Ferguson announced plans to transfer from their respective programs. Neither player had found a landing spot.
Thursday morning, they found themselves in a courtroom. Johnson stood beside them. The stoic stare had returned to his face. With his eyelids pulled low but head held high, he listened calmly as a judge announced his bond.
Almost a year after signing a pro contract, Johnson signed a different document: Criminal court paperwork — handcuffed.