‘Unbelievable’: Pinnacle’s J.D. Johnson grateful that Michigan honored his scholarship

Pinnacle High School football players Tosh Baker (79), Adam Verbalatis (57) and Clay Zupke (24) walked arm and arm with J.D. Johnson (10) to honor their starting quarterback, who was forced to step away from football because of a heart ailment. (Photo by Cassidy McCauley/Cronkite News)

Russell Johnson (9) and his Pinnacle High teammates honored quarterback J.D. Johnson by wearing a logo featuring his uniform number on their helmets. (Photo by Cassidy McCauley/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – J.D. Johnson’s football career may be over, but that won’t keep him from rooting for his high school team as it begins the state playoffs, and it won’t keep the University of Michigan from honoring the scholarship it offered him.

Johnson, a quarterback at Pinnacle High School, announced Oct. 30 that he no longer can play football due to a heart ailment. The Arizona native and three-star prospect in the class of 2020 said a recent medical evaluation revealed that a heart condition first diagnosed when he was 12 can’t be corrected by surgery.

The condition, called coarctation of the aorta, initially was thought to be treatable, but upon further evaluation, doctors found complications that would make playing a contact sport a serious risk to Johnson’s health.

The news was eased by the Wolverines’ support of him.

Video by Corey Kirk/Cronkite News

“It meant so much to me just knowing that coach (Jim) Harbaugh believes in me like that,” Johnson said Friday. “Just the loyalty that I see from him is unbelievable and I really appreciate it.”

Johnson was a backup turned starter for a powerhouse Pinnacle team that produced quarterbacks Brian Lewerke (Michigan State) and Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) in the past five years. Johnson started for nearly two seasons.

The news hit his coaches and teammates hard.

“The meeting when J.D. addressed the team, there was a lot of tears and a lot of hugs. I mean the love that was in our room it was overwhelming,” Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke said. “J.D. means so much to this team and the kids ached for him. He’s one of their brothers.”

Johnson was overwhelmed by his team’s reaction.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I knew that they were going to be there for me, and just the love and support that they’ve given me has really helped me through this.”

Despite the recent news, Harbaugh assured Johnson his scholarship would be honored.

In a tweet, Johnson wrote, “There is NO BETTER place to be a college football player then ANN ARBOR! Coach Harbaugh, I promise I will make the opportunity you have given me count!”

Although his playing career almost assuredly has ended, Johnson plans to attend Michigan and be a part of the football program in some capacity.

“I asked him, ‘What’s next? What are you going to do?'” Zupke said. “I think he’s going to get his feet wet pretty early in the coaching thing, and I think J.D. would make a fine coach.”

Johnson and Pinnacle had high hopes when the season began. The Pioneers (8-2) still do, but they’ll have to adjust to a significant change as backup quarterback Devon Dampier leads them against Salpointe Catholic in the Open Division quarterfinals in Tucson on Nov. 15.

“You know we want to play the Chandlers, the Salpointes, the Saguaros and stuff like that, and show ’em what we got,” Johnson said. “We think that we have a good team, and can go compete with those guys.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix
Sports Reporter, Phoenix
Sports Photographer, Phoenix