By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
At 6-foot-1 and a solid 205 pounds, Drake Johnson looks every bit the college running back he’ll become this fall at the University of Michigan.
And amid chasing the MHSAA record for single-season rushing yards this fall, he became a recognizable face as well.
But not long ago, Johnson was known primarily for the elite times he ran during track season. And that allowed the Ann Arbor Pioneer hurdler to have a little extra fun.
A self-admitted jokester, Johnson would get a chuckle before races while watching opponents keep a lookout for him, not realizing he was standing next to them.
“Let’s see who they think I am before the race,” Johnson would say to himself. “And once they figured out who I am, they’d be like, ‘No way! This can’t be Drake.’
“I’d just win the race.”
Now there are few in MHSAA track and field who don't recognize him – or know of the legacy he's about the leave.
Johnson is a two-time MHSAA Division 1 champion in the 110-meter hurdles, and won both that race (14.25) and the 300 hurdles (38.63) at Friday's Division 1 Regional at Saline. He owns the Pioneers’ record in the 110 hurdles of 13.7 seconds, and also will run as part of the 1,600 relay at next weekend’s Division I Final at East Kentwood High.
A Second Half High 5 recipient this week, Johnson has two goals for his final high school meet: Break the all-Finals record in the 110 of 13.6 seconds set by Detroit Central’s Thomas Wilcher in 1982, and win the 300 intermediate hurdles – a race he qualified for last season, but did not advance in past the preliminaries.
Johnson won both hurdles races at last weekend's Regional by more than a second – margins that also have become the norm. After finishing third in the 110 hurdles as a freshman at the 2009 Division 1 Final, Johnson won that race in 2010 by 34 hundredths of a second and last season by 44 hundredths.
His 13.9 Finals qualifying time this spring is the second-fastest among all four divisions. And his best time in high school competition – 13.7 – is faster than them all.
“He’s always had high aspirations to do really well,” said Pioneer coach Don Sleeman, who is finishing his 39th season coaching the Pioneers' boys team. “He’s basically been (this) way from the get-go. I’ve had kids you could see as freshmen would be really good if they developed … but Drake was really good from freshman year on. His talent was pretty obvious.”
And it’s not restricted to hurdles. Johnson would do just fine as a sprinter – for example, he’s beaten Ann Arbor Skyline’s Nathan Hansen, who posted the fifth-fastest Division 1 qualifying time in the 100 of 10.8 seconds. Johnson uses his strength to power through races like he has a ball tucked under his arm, continuously accelerating as others begin to fade.
And the hurdles offer a canvas on which he can create what he describes as his art.
“Everyone has a top speed. It's only one variable -- are you fast, or are you not fast? With hurdles, … it’s a combination of speed and hours of working on technique,” Johnson said. “There's almost that second variable to it, that X factor. A lot of people … can work on technique for hours and hours.
"It’s deeper, but at the time, it’s so incredibly simple. Whoever gets there faster wins the race. Whatever form allows me to finish the fastest, then technically I have better form than you do.”
Johnson has seven entries in the MHSAA football record book, thanks to his incredible numbers in the fall. In 12 games, Johnson ran 344 times for 2,809 yards and 37 touchdowns, and scored 38 times total. His yardage is sixth-most for one season in MHSAA history.
A downfall of his final run through high school track has been the outside expectation that he would post super-fast times in every race – although doing so hasn't always been necessary to win. Sometimes, Johnson focused more on working on nuances, or saving up energy for other events.
But he’s looking forward to one last opportunity to let fly before moving down the road and onto the next level of competition.
“Knowing that it’s my last chance to get the record, I have a sense of urgency almost,” Johnson said. “Also, if I had an actually good start, and a full race, if I run the way I feeI could run it, I’m hoping I could possibly go 13.1 – if I were to run the perfect race.”
Click to read more about Johnson's career aspirations and favorite football runners.
PHOTO: Ann Arbor Pioneer's Drake Johnson won last season's MHSAA Division 1 110 hurdles Final by nearly half a second.