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From the Vault: Eddie Johnson starred as a Saint and a Ute
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From the Vault

From the Vault: Eddie Johnson starred as a Saint and a Ute

Even though it's been 30-plus years since he suited up in Salt Lake City, Eddie Johnson's name still stands the test of time in the University of Utah record books.

But before that memorable career with the Utes, Johnson was a star some 800 miles southwest in Santa Maria. 

Johnson was a lightning-quick running back during his days with the Saints of Santa Maria High, where he played on the varsity teams from 1981-1983. 

Johnson burst onto the prep football scene as a junior in 1982. He rushed for 246 yards through the first two games of that season, which were both wins, starting with a 21-7 victory over Santa Barbara and a 44-7 rout of Bellflower. 

Here's what legendary coach Barney Eames had to say about Johnson as a youngster in 1982: "There's no doubt about it, Eddie's got a lot of potential," Eames told then Times sports writer Joe Dana. "He's definitely a dimension above the average high school back."

That was certainly true. In fact, Johnson went on to be much more than an average college back.

At Utah, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster set the school rushing record despite numerous injuries and a coaching change. 

Johnson's school rushing record at Utah stood until it was surpassed by Zack Moss last year. 

From 1984 to 1988, Johnson rushed for 3,219 yards with the Utes.

Johnson rushed for 2,400 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at Santa Maria High. That season he had five 200-yard games and a 300-yard game.

Johnson, though, felt from an early age that his numbers weren't a top priority. He focused on team success, something the Saints had during Johnson's tenure with the school. Santa Maria won the Northern League his senior year and went undefeated in the regular season, making it all the way to the CIF semifinals, where they lost to Bishop Montgomery.

"Statistics don't mean that much," Johnson told Dana in '82, "especially when you're on a good team. We've got a fantastic line — I wouldn't be able to do anything on the field without them — and we've got a lot of other good players, too. I think we have the guys who can dominate."

Johnson also adjusted to college life quite quickly in Salt Lake City. 

"You're on your own," Johnson told Times sports writer John Bachman while home from school in 1984. "You don't have anyone telling you to do this or do that. Nobody forces you to go to class. If you want to succeed, you have to take it upon yourself."

Johnson was named an Honorable Mention All-American after his freshman season at Utah and made the All-WAC Team that year, too.

His career at Utah started with a 1,021-yard, seven-touchdown season in 1984. 

Johnson wasn't nearly as effective in 1985 as the Utes changed coaches, with Jim Fassel taking over the program. Johnson rushed for 384 yards on 75 carries. The team experienced increased success, though, going 8-4.

In 1986, he regained his form, rushing for 1,046 yards with six touchdowns; three receiving and three rushing.

Then came the 1987 season. Johnson was poised to be an All-American candidate again that year. But just as the university distributed 1,000 flyers campaigning for his All-American bid, Johnson suffered a major knee injury in the second game of the year. That season ended with just 10 carries and 20 yards in the two games.

But Johnson had a final year of eligibility in 1988 and made the most of it. Though he never fully recovered his burst and quickness from the major knee injury the year prior, Johnson rushed for 748 yards on 157 carries, scoring 12 times on the ground while catching 32 passes for 319 yards and three more scores.

Johnson scored four touchdowns in one of the biggest games of his career, a 57-28 win over archrival BYU to end a 10-year losing streak to the Cougars.

Johnson ended his Utah career with nearly 3,900 yards from scrimmage and 35 total touchdowns.

Football success wasn't anything new for the Johnson family. Eddie's older brother Ricky Johnson was a star running back for the Saints in the 1970s and went on to play at Ohio State under legendary coach Woody Hayes. 

The younger Johnson picked Utah over UNLV, Cal Poly, Washington, Washington State, Arizona and Arizona State. He even had Nebraska, the top program in the nation at the time, considering him after his senior year. Johnson nearly chose Cal Poly to stay close to home. 

After his senior season at Santa Maria, Eames still had high hopes for Johnson, even though he was still a bit undersized for a top college back.

Eames dismissed any concerns over Johnson's size: "You can't tackle what you can't catch."

After nearly 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 35 touchdowns later, it turns out Eames was right. 

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