NFL Combine Football

Clemson defensive back Jadar Johnson is shown running drills at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis on Monday, March 6, 2017.

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CLEMSON -- Former Orangeburg-Wilkinson and Clemson Tiger defensive back Jadar Johnson is making a return to the game of football.

It was on July 30 that Johnson announced he was officially retiring from football and would be enrolling at Clemson to get his master's degree in counseling in the hopes of helping athletes struggling with finding their identity off the football field.

“Right now, my plan is to go back to school (at Clemson) and try to get my master’s degree and then go looking for jobs from there," Johnson said then. "I want to do counseling, more specifically counseling with athletes, guys who go through what I’ve gone through.

“I want to be that guy they can come talk to and help them deal with that type of thing. Because there’s a lot of players who go through that but never really have the heart to stand up and say that they don’t really want to play no more because of the pressure from other people. Just being used to that my whole life, I want to be the guy to help kids like that.”

However, Johnson's agent reached out to The Times and Democrat to announce Monday that Johnson had a workout with the Washington Redskins at their headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia, in hopes of rekindling his career.

Johnson’s journey back to the game that he loved was a winding one, filled with twists and turns that began with his inability to enroll at Clemson due to the timing of his retirement.

"I get back and, actually, when I first tried to enroll in school, I was a little too late because of my situation. I came in a little too late and I missed the deadline to enroll,” Johnson said. “The program that I was enrolling in was the Youth Development Leadership Program and they only do that in the fall, so it's not like I could wait until January I have to wait all the way until the next year. So that was a little setback for me, but I was still doing pretty good.

“I was going to little conferences and networking with people who do stuff like that. I met with the guy that is over the Big Brother, Big Sister program and I got a connection with him. So I've still been doing work toward what I wanted to do in working with kids and setting up the program that I really want to do.”

Door closes, another opens

Once that door closed, Johnson found himself in the “real world.”

The world of alarm clocks and getting up every day to earn the money that you need to live. Gone were the free meals of college football and the NFL. Instead Johnson found himself finding a new respect for the person waking up every day and going to a job to earn everything that he has.

“I got a lot of good experience from the time that I left New Jersey. I came back home and actually was on a few jobs and I needed that experience to get out and try other things, because I've been doing football my whole life,” Johnson said. “When I left New Jersey the first time, I was telling you how I was tired of being labeled as a football player. Well I feel like I've accomplished that now because I went out and I did a little job with Frito-Lay, the chip company.

“I worked with Frito-Lay and just going out there and seeing a different perspective on different jobs gave me an appreciation for football more. Because, really, in the football world a lot of people don't know it, but, man, life is easy. It's easy when you can wake up, got free Gatorade all the time, free coffee, free breakfast - -everything. You don't really have to go buy no meal, you're just getting meals all day, getting drinks all day. But I really applaud the people that get up. The hard-working people who come every day and have to go earn everything they get.”

Hard work is something that Johnson is no stranger to, having grown up with a father and a mother sacrificing and working to provide everything for their family. But for Johnson, the time away from the sport of football gave him — not a new — a better appreciation for his parents.

“That goes back to the speech that I gave about my dad after the national championship. My appreciation, I already appreciated him to the fullest, but it (the experience) amplified it times 100 once I got out there and seen like, wow, these people are really out here working hard and earning everything that they have to get,” Johnson said. “Not saying that football players are just overly privileged because they earn a lot of that stuff too. But it's way easier just waking up and knowing that you got free food, free Gatorade, free coffee all the time.

“But that time away from football it definitely gave me, I feel like that was well needed for me to get that passion back. So I can experience some other things because when you're doing something every day, sometimes you tend to take it for granted or you just like, man, ain't nothing different happening -- like I'm waking up doing the same thing all the time. So I definitely feel like that time away helped me get that passion back for the game."

Path back to football

After spending the fall working, Johnson felt a pull that he never expected to feel again. Something deep within him was pulling him, tugging him back to the game.

Johnson wants to make one thing clear — he is following his heart.

"Really my path just took me back to football. It wasn't a thing like I desperately needed it -- I don't want people to think, ‘Oh, he quit football and then he got out there and didn't do anything and had to run back to football,’” Johnson said. “Really, my heart took me back to football and I felt like I got a good start on the things that I wanted to do, as far as the program dealing with the kids. So I really feel like it was just in my heart to go back to football.”

It was not long after Johnson went back to working out that he realized how much he missed the game of football.

After working out, Johnson received a phone call from the Washington Redskins asking the former Tiger to travel to their training facility for a workout — something Johnson could not refuse.

“When I got the offer for the workout for the Redskins I was like, 'Hell, why not try it?' So I went out there and I worked out and it went pretty good too,” Johnson said. “I want to encourage all the kids who read this article that they just need to take their path. I don't want for them to follow exactly what I did, but I am encouraging them to take their path because you never know where your path might take you. I didn't know that I would end up coming back to football. I thought I was just going to go right in to what I wanted to do. Not saying that I don't want to do football, because like I said, it's back in my heart.”

Doing it for the people

Johnson has always been a people person, a person who loves people and in return those people love him.

From his smile to his personality, Johnson has always tried to do things with others in mind rather than himself. So when word began to leak out Monday morning that Johnson had come out of retirement, he was blown away by the words of encouragement that were sent his way.

"I take a lot of pride in that because I have always been the guy that did it for the people,” Johnson said. “So for the people to give me that same love back it definitely means a lot and I take a lot of pride in that. That gives me a lot of encouragement, a lot of motivation to keep doing what I'm doing because when I see people reacting to it the way they're reacting, I know I'm doing the right thing. … I've not regretted any decision that I've made because I see the feedback that I've been getting from the people.

“I've been getting messages from people telling me how the decision that I made encouraged them to do something that they always wanted to do. That's the people I do it for -- that's the reason. Everyone always talks about that reason why -- well, that's my reason why. I like to inspire and motivate other people through the things that I do. Knowing that I'm getting that love from them, man, that's great."

What is next?

Following his decision to return to football, Johnson did what he thought was the right thing for him to do — reach out to the New York Giants.

While the Giants did not select Johnson in the 2017 NFL Draft, they did sign him to an undrafted free agent contract with an opportunity to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. It was the Giants’ belief in Johnson that made him feel it was only right to let the organization know that he was back on the free agent market.

"The first team that I talked to was the Giants once I decided that I was going to come out of retirement and play again,” Johnson said. “I felt like I owed them that first take on it, like I just want to come tell ya’ll that I'm coming out of retirement. I want to play football. Because that's the team that gave me an opportunity coming out of college when other teams passed on me -- they didn't really see much in me -- that organization saw something in me. So I felt like it was right in my heart to go to them first and tell them what was going on.”

Johnson reached out to Giants’ head coach Ben McAdoo — who was fired Monday — in to let him know of his status change.

“I texted him a nice heartfelt message telling him how my process has been going since I left, and I felt like it was the right decision for me,” Johnson said. “But also thanking them for giving me the opportunity and he sent me this message back: 'Great to hear from you. I am glad you are well and in a good frame of mind. I still believe in you. I understand how things go in life sometimes, but I'm going to let the personnel department know that you are back and on the rise. Give my best to your family and we will be in touch. Have a very blessed day.'

"I don't really know how the process works behind the scenes, but I'm definitely waiting on a call from them. I feel like they'll give me a workout for sure because that organization believed in me -- it was a little deeper than the football. I really got good vibe with those coaches up there. If I had to put my money on it, I would probably work out for the Giants next. But I don't really know how it will go. Anything can happen. Any team can call -- tomorrow, later on today -- I really don't know."

While Johnson is unsure of what the future holds with regards to the NFL he is not giving up on the children.

Johnson will continue to work to give back to the kids in Orangeburg County through a program designed to give students in the county something productive to do when the school day is over.

“I’m still strong on starting my program to help kids, especially I want to start off in my area first,” Johnson said. “Whenever I get the grounds done with that, I'm going to try to start a little program in my area, basically a little after-school program or something just so I can try to keep kids out of trouble. Because there's not a lot to do around Orangeburg. I don't want kids just going down the wrong path over the simple reason that, hey, I got out of school and didn't have anything to do.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

This article originally ran on thetandd.com.

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