Hunter Johnson hasn’t put on a Wisconsin football jersey yet, nor is he even a senior in high school. But the future Badger has more experience with what it’s like to be a Badger than most in his position.
Johnson has had the opportunity to play in Camp Randall Stadium three times already, all coming in state final appearances for Darlington High School.
Three opportunities, and three silver balls. The gold ball has been elusive to Johnson, something that he wants to change desperately this year.
“Getting silver stings more and more each time but it’s also very motivating,” Johnson told SST. “We’ve obviously struggled to get over the hump and get that gold ball.”
In last year’s state final, all was going well for Darlington and Johnson up through the middle of the third quarter. Johnson had over 100 yards on 19 carries along with two touchdowns, but it would be his 20th carry that would decide the fate of the game.
On his 20th and last carry of the game, Johnson hurdled a defender on his way into the end zone, scoring his third touchdown and tying the game at 20-20 against Saint Mary’s Springs High School. It would end up being his final carry of the game.
On that touchdown run, Johnson broke his fibula.
St. Mary’s Springs would go onto score 19 unanswered points, winning the state championship 39-20. It was Darlington’s third straight loss in the state championship, and their second straight defeat to St. Mary’s Springs.
Johnson’s injury kept him out for most of the following basketball season, another sport in which Johnson is a standout. He would eventually force his way back, only to aggravate the injury and sit out the rest of the season.
“I had a hard time sitting and watching,” Johnson explained. “I’ve never had an injury where I had to sit out for so long and watch my team. If I learned one thing out of the whole process, it was patience.”
Johnson’s newly learned patience would end up paying off, as he later received interest from multiple FBS and FCS schools, including interest from the Badgers and a scholarship offer from Western Illinois. During his junior year, Johnson ran for over 2,300 yards and amassed 43 touchdowns on 207 carries. The most impressive individual performance for Johnson came on a night where he scored seven touchdowns and ran for 296 yards in a 67-32 win over conference foe Fennimore.
Johnson’s production and performance in a camp at UW led him in getting a walk-on offer, an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. There were a lot of forces that drove Johnson to Madison, which is within an hour from his hometown of Darlington.
“Growing up in Wisconsin, I was always watching and cheering for the Badgers,” Johnson said. “They are always a top-25 team and there’s nothing better than cheering for a winning program. That’s part of what drew me to my decision.”
Another key to his decision was a famous Wisconsin walk-on from Darlington: Alex Erickson. Last year, Erickson’s 77 catches were second best in UW history and his 977 receiving yards were sixth best in school history. Darlington is home to just under 3,000 people, an unlikely place for multiple Badgers to play high school football.
“Watching your hometown hero excel in the same position I found myself in is a huge deal,” Johnson said of Erickson. “Growing up my friends and I idolized him and wanted to be just like him.”
With the easy decision behind Johnson, his focus now rests on bringing that elusive gold ball to Darlington. The Redbirds are bringing back most of their key players, with another special season almost certain barring any injuries.
Photo courtesy of Mike Burley/THOnline.com.