Shoulder injury ends career for 45-game starter at
strong safety, as he joins his twin brother Zach on the
Eastern Washington University’s injury woes in the 2011 football season have been painful enough to witness let alone play with, and finally, the pain became too much for All-America strong safety Matt Johnson to cope with.
Playing with a painful biceps tendon injury since the second game of the season, Johnson will undergo surgery next week as his illustrious 45-game career will come to a premature ending, Eastern head coach Beau Baldwin announced Wednesday (Oct. 19).
“What he’s been able to accomplish here has been amazing, both individually and what he has helped us accomplish as a team,” said Baldwin. “He can certainly hold his head up high – he’s a great ambassador for our program.”
On Sept. 27, Baldwin announced the season-ending knee injury of Matt’s twin brother, Zach Johnson, an Eastern linebacker who graduated with his brother in 2007 from Tumwater (Wash.) High School. Before the season began, the Johnson twins were selected as Eastern’s two defensive co-captains for the 2011 season.
Matt Johnson ends his career as the fifth-leading tackler in school history with 341, and also finishes second on the school’s all-time lists for interceptions (17) and interception return yards (219). After starting every game Eastern has played the last four seasons – with a collective record of 30-15 -- he exits tied as the all-time leader in career forced fumbles with six.
Eastern has now had seven starters lost for the season because of injuries, including a pair of All-Americans off last year’s NCAA Division I Championship team. Besides the Johnson twins, the others include All-America wide receiver Brandon Kaufman, wide receiver Tyler Hart and offensive guards Ashton Miller, Steven Forgette and Jase Butorac.
“We’re losing a player who has been a big part of our program,” Baldwin said. “It’s hard on all the other players we’ve lost, but with Matt you are talking about a four-year starter who wanted to finish his senior season playing in the last game that we have the opportunity to play in.
“Like we told Matt and the team, other players have to step up,” he added. “Matt has nothing to hang his head about.”
According to Eastern head athletic trainer Brian Norton, Johnson suffered a subluxating biceps tendon injury in his left shoulder when EWU played at South Dakota on Sept. 10. Norton said surgery was the only way to repair the damage, but that Johnson elected to play with the pain for the next five games.
Sophomore Allen Brown and junior Jeff Minnerly have split starting time at free safety for the past two seasons, but are both expected to start now. Other players expected to see increased action at safety include sophomore Billy Lechtenburg and junior Scott Burgett.
A bonafide professional prospect, Johnson is the team’s second-leading tackler with 52, including a team-high eight tackles for loss. He has 1 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry this season.
He finished his career just one interception away from the school record of 18 set by Mike Richter from 1971-75. Johnson is currently tied with former NFL 10-year veteran Kurt Schulz (EWU letter winner 1988-91) and long-time Canadian Football League standout Jackie Kellogg (1990-93), who both have 17 each. Johnson was also only nine interception return yards from the record of 219 held by Schulz, and his six career forced fumbles are tied for the school record along with J.C. Sherritt (2007-10) and Chris Scott (1994-97).
Matt has 341 tackles in his career to move into fifth all-time at Eastern – just five from moving into fourth (Derek Strey had 346 from 1994-97) and only six from third (Jason Marsh had 347 from 1991-93). Johnson had five interceptions in 2010 to help Eastern lead the FCS with 26.
“It’s hard on him because he cares so much about the team and his teammates,” added Baldwin. “He loves playing this game so it’s hard on him. The team is handling it well and supporting him – that’s what you do at times like this. The other players need to say, ‘okay, I need to step my game up a little bit.’ It might not just be the player replacing him – it might be other teammates who need to take it to another level. It’s just another challenge for us.”
Less than a month ago, the circumstances were similar for Zach Johnson when he elected to end his season. He had been playing with a chronic tear in his left patellar tendon, but the pain became too much to tolerate and he had surgery on Sept. 29. It’s the same injury that required surgery to repair on June 30, 2009. He then missed the entire 2009 season after a blood clot developed in his leg following the surgery.
Zach Johnson and EWU will appeal to the NCAA in the offseason to grant him a sixth year to complete his four years of eligibility. He will eventually have at least 19 games wiped out because of injuries -- 12 in 2009 and seven remaining regular season games this season.
Through four games, Zach was tied for the team lead in tackles with 30. Like his brother, he has started every game he has played as an Eagle – at total of 30 thus far. He has 260 career tackles to rank 10th in school history, and his average of 8.7 tackles per game is fourth-best in school history and slightly better than the 7.6 average of Matt.