JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (March 9, 2018) – Stepping into the throwing ring for his final weight toss, thoughts of countless injuries and missed opportunities run through the mind of ETSU track and field athlete Ben Johnson.
Johnson — a 6’4’’ 245 pound athlete from a small town just outside of Nashville — struggled to find his place in the world of athletics growing up. But after years of obstacles, Johnson found his place in the men’s weight throw, shattering record after record in the 2018 season.
After a short breath — realizing he was down to his sixth and final throw in the Southern Conference Men’s Weight Championships — Johnson goes through his motion and launches the 35-pound weight.
In the back of his mind, Johnson knew this could very well be his last throw of the season. After his spin and release, the weight slapped the protective barrier at 21.99 meters. The crowd roared, specifically Johnson’s coaches and teammates.
“I really wanted 22 (meters),” Johnson said jokingly. “I stepped in and had all kind of people looking down on me. I had all kinds of issues with my feet — pivoting and stuff like that. I’m just glad I didn’t land on my face. But there it went.”
A sigh of relief overcame the redshirt junior, as his coaches and teammates celebrated. Later, he realized his throw did a lot more than break a personal record.
“I remember it landing near or on top of the 22 line, but I missed it by a centimeter,” he said. “But I looked and (ETSU throws coach) Steven Sanchez was losing his mind. The SoCon had that “Titles are Forever” slogan on a banner, and at that point I knew I could be marked down as one of the all-time greats. I accomplished everything I dreamed of and more. I couldn’t be mad about that.”
Johnson’s final throw set a new ETSU school record, a facility record at the Corps Physical Training Facility, an all-time Southern Conference record and a championship meet record.
More importantly, Johnson’s throw ranked No. 13 in the nation, qualifying him to compete for a national championship among the nation’s best.
“National’s didn’t even cross my mind, “ Johnson said. “It’s almost like an added bonus. I’m definitely not saying I’m satisfied with just making it this far, but the most important thing to me is doing my best and putting a positive spotlight on ETSU and on the Southern Conference.”
Johnson’s life — from an early age to now — has always consisted of competing against himself.
“When we went to Liberty (this season) I found myself back in the rabbit hole of trying to beat everybody else and be the best out of everybody — trying to make it on the list for nationals,” Johnson said. “That was a terrible meet. Once I refocused on (beating) myself for the conference meet and went back to the basics, I did better.”
The process of beating himself began when he transferred from a small middle school of 300 people to McGavock High School to play basketball, who had an enrollment of 2,000-3,000 students.
“That was a life changing experience,” Johnson said. “I think I cried the first day because the school was humongous. There were like 3,000 kids running around, and coming from a small school like that was hectic. I told my mom ‘I can’t do this,’ but I really wanted to play basketball.”
Not only did Johnson play basketball his sophomore year, but he also tried his hand at football and track.
His junior year — the year Johnson said he believed would have brought the most attention from college recruiters in any sport — did not go as planned.
“I don’t know what it is about those first home games, but I ripped the tendon off my finger,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t move the top part of my finger, and I had to let it mend so I could have dexterity in my hand. So that ended my football season and basketball season. All that I had left was track.
“I missed out on those opportunities to get junior year exposure in football and basketball, so I knew if I wanted to do something big, it had to be in track.”
Johnson said he learned how to write with his left hand during that time period in order to be ready for track season.
That season, Johnson finished second in the state in the long jump.
Although it seemed like track was all he had, Johnson decided to give football and basketball another try his senior year. Johnson had a falling out with the football coach during his senior season and parted ways after his final home game.
“He basically told me I couldn’t be the best in my current state of being smart with him,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I am — I’m not going to lie — but I speak my mind and sometimes consequences come with that. That pushed me to become better.”
Johnson moved onto basketball and enjoyed a solid season, but said he didn’t feel he did enough to attract scouts, leaving track once again as his best option.
Johnson competed in almost every event except the pole vault, specializing in the long jump and decathlon. In the meet before the state championship, Johnson felt a tear in his leg.
“In the regional, I tore my hamstring while competing in the decathlon,” he said. “I had to finish it, and I finished in first place. I pulled it in long jump and still competed in discus, high jump and ran a 1500 on a bummed hamstring. I basically sat around for two weeks letting it heal so I could compete at state.”
Despite the injury, Johnson posted nine personal records for a second place overall finish at the Tennessee State Championships. After the performance, Johnson said he had offers from Tennessee State, Wichita State and ETSU.
The Nashville native said the former two schools were appealing, but after interactions with ETSU coaches George Watts and Hassaan Stamps, Johnson knew he wanted to come to Johnson City.
“I still remember the first time I met Coach Stamps,” he recalled. “He was wearing these fake Oakley sunglasses and eating some almonds. He never looked directly at me — he was looking at the track — just chomping away saying ‘You got talent kid…chomp…we’d love to have you at East Tennessee State.’”
After committing to ETSU upon visiting, Johnson intended to compete in decathlon.
As a freshman, Johnson sustained his third career injury. While preparing for the long jump in outdoor season, Johnson said he fractured his foot from what he believed was caused by wearing a different shoe than normal.
Johnson was granted a redshirt for outdoor season and was determined to return that fall. As a sophomore, Johnson, who hated running, was set on making the 1500-meter run “his event.”
“I was determined,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t going to run away from it anymore. I was going to flip the script and make the 1500 my thing. So, I’m running like crazy, and I’m loving it to the point where I couldn’t wait to get to practice. I was in good shape.”
As the spring rolled around, Johnson hit yet another obstacle.
“In my first event back, there went my ankle,” Johnson said with irony in his voice. “I thought maybe I had just rolled my ankle and I could tape it up and walk it off, but I couldn’t. I was helped back to the training room, and that’s when I realized my foot was broken.
“We went to the hospital, and it was broken pretty bad. And I cried. Not because it hurt, but I had put so much time and effort into running and being the best. I only cried for two minutes because I realized after that no matter what they have me do once I get back on my feet, I was going to be good at it.”
Through hard work and patience, along with help from numerous doctors, Johnson made a triumphant return — against all odds.
“I was on a mission,” Johnson said. “I had something to prove. I was in the training room three times a week. I was pretty much a trainer by the time I was done recovering. Shout out to everyone in that room that helped me get back.”
With the injuries behind him, Johnson began shattering school records in outdoor throwing events such as javelin and hammer throw. At the Southern Conference Outdoor Meet, Johnson broke his first school record in the javelin, finishing second place.
“I was fired up,” he said. “I went out and did what I said I was going to do. By my junior year, my goal was to stay healthy. I did that and then some. I was PR’ing by a meter nearly every meet, and my focus had shifted.”
Since that time, Johnson broke school records in the men’s weight throw, javelin, hammer and discus throws — all of which still stand today.
Johnson said his biggest supporter throughout the entire process has been his mother, Lawanna Coleman, who played volleyball, track and softball at Olivet Nazarene College in Illinois.
“Shout out to all the moms out there, but specifically mine for supporting me,” Johnson said. “In my senior day home meet, my mom had just gotten back from a cruise. She flew up here, drove a rental car, watched me break my record and then took me grocery shopping before going home. My goal is to be like my mom and break records like she did.”
Johnson also thanked countless people for helping him get to this point, especially the trainers, teammates and high school and college coaches who motivated him throughout his career.
The NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships begin March 9-10, with Johnson’s competition set for March 10 at 2 p.m. inside Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium in College Station, Texas.