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Harbaugh Honors Recruit’s Scholarship After QB Suffers Career-Ending Health Setback

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A young athlete must overcome daunting odds to gain a full ride to a Division I school. Phoenix, Arizona high-school senior J.D. Johnson had to overcome one additional obstacle as well: a congenital heart defect. When Johnson was 12, doctors diagnosed him with coarctation of the aorta, which they were able to repair with a stent. The young quarterback went on to have several successful seasons in junior varsity and at Pinnacle High School, where he caught the attention of recruiters. One of those recruiters was working for University of Michigan coach, Jim Harbaugh, who offered Johnson a four-year scholarship and the chance to don the Wolverines’ blue. 

Unfortunately, the senior’s dream of playing for U of M slipped away in October 2019, after a physician’s consult. Johnson took to Twitter (@jd10johnson) to share, “After going through a battery of tests and a complete evaluation of my cardiovascular system[,] the doctors have discovered I have some issues that cannot be corrected through additional surgery.” While Johnson described feeling shock and terror, he was soon humbled to hear that Coach Harbaugh would honor his scholarship, regardless. Said Johnson, “[Coach Harbaugh] demonstrated a high level of loyalty to a player that will never throw a TD pass for him.” Supporters quickly responded with words of encouragement. Scottsdale, AZ high school @CoachMohns replied, “Unfortunately the game ends for everyone at some point, and very few get to choose when that time will be. Best of luck in your future and congrats on a tremendous playing career!” Fellow U of M parent @paul_zinter posted, “such a class act @jd10johnson! As a parent of another future Wolverine @zak_zinter I feel so fortunate to know that Zak will be surrounded by high character young men like yourself and coached by @CoachJim4UM @4Warinner Go Blue!”

‘Tis The Season

College football recruiting, especially among the so-called Power Five schools, is famously speculative and competitive for players, fans, schools, and alumni. As Johnson racked up winning passes for his hometown, the offers started coming in just after his junior year began. According to 247Sports, University of South Carolina and Oregon State had offers before Johnson even set foot on their campuses. When he visited Ann Arbor at the end of 2018, he said, “I found a true TEAM environment that was perfect for me. I wanted nothing more than to be a Michigan Man!” Though Johnson committed to Michigan shortly after his campus visit, he received one more offer from Texas A&M at the end of his junior year. 

When Johnson had to step aside, Michigan shifted gears to go after CJ Stroud, a senior from Rancho Cucamonga, California who has seen interest from Ohio State, Georgia State, Oregon, and UCLA. Stroud had scheduled a visit to the Ann Arbor campus in early December 2019 to explore his options. Johnson will take a role in the Wolverines’ 2020 season, it appears; in his tweet, he explained, “Coach, without hesitation, explained that my scholarship would be honored and offered me a position to join the Wolverine staff.” According to the Detroit News, Johnson will have a spot on the coaching staff when the season starts. 

Class Act

Even Harbaugh’s detractors had to praise the coach for his actions, in a climate where the National Collegiate Athletics Association has come under fire for their treatment of student-athletes when they are in crisis. California recently passed a law permitting student-athletes to profit from their endorsements, a rebuke of the NCAA’s long-standing rule that prohibits students from accepting money, even as respective schools make money from the labors of said students. According to U.S. News & World Report, fewer than 2 percent of enrolled college students have an athletic scholarship, and fewer than 1 percent have the sought-after full ride. 

Division I colleges, under NCAA conference rules, must offer full four-year scholarships to recruits for headcount (revenue-generating) sports (basketball, football, softball). Smaller colleges may offer only a portion of funds, without any guarantee that the scholarship will be renewed from year to year, or even semester to semester. Often, injuries leave these students the most vulnerable, because their tuition reimbursement is tied to their performance. For Johnson, Coach Harbaugh’s promise means he won’t be sidelined from becoming a “Michigan Man!”

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