A Dream Come True
by Paul Floeckher
Frankie Johnson had modest expectations for the 1985 Division I-AA national championship game.
"All I wanted was for my mom and dad to see me on TV," he recalls.
A freshman walk-on, Johnson had caught six passes all season. He scoffed when teammate Kenny Butler told him at the team breakfast that morning, "I had a dream that you're going to do something big tonight."
With Georgia Southern trailing Furman 28-6 early in the third quarter, Head Coach Erk Russell decided that quarterback Tracy Ham would have to start airing the ball out for the Eagles to come back. Russell sent Johnson into the game, and the quick and elusive slotback from Sylvania soon responded with his first catch.
"Here I was, a freshman playing in a national championship game," Johnson said. "As nervous as I was, I ran an out pattern to the right side, caught the ball and made about a six-yard gain."
Later in the third quarter, Johnson hauled in his first touchdown of the night. Ham connected with Johnson down the middle of the field for a 40-yard score to pull the Eagles within 28-21.
"I was out of my mind at that point. I thought, 'Am I really in this game?'" Johnson said. "I was the No. 8 running back during camp, but I continued to work hard and found my way onto the varsity."
And into Georgia Southern lore.
Before the Hugo Bowl, before "The Run," there was "The Catch." An improbable hero capped Georgia Southern's improbable march to its first national title.
Trailing 42-38, the Eagles drove to Furman's 13-yard-line in the closing seconds. The coaches called for 360 Vertical, a play that gave Ham the option to throw to either of the two outside receivers or either of the two slotbacks. Johnson cut across the back of the end zone and Ham rifled a pass over the outstretched arms of a Furman linebacker.
"I saw the ball sailing my way and I said, 'I'd better get this one,'" Johnson said.
Johnson leaped and hauled in the pass with 10 seconds left in the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Playing just its second year in the NCAA's second-highest classification, Georgia Southern had its first championship.
"It's really a fairy tale, a dream come true, for a kid who was told he was too small and too slow to play college football," Johnson said.
But that fairy-tale ending didn't come without blue-collar hard work. An all-state running back at Screven County High School, Johnson spent hours with Ham on receiving drills and worked his way up the depth chart to the No. 2 slotback position behind Ricky Harris.
"I became a much better receiver during the season, just by working with Tracy," Johnson said.
Even so, he played a limited role on game days. Johnson tallied just six receptions for 53 yards and 21 carries for 199 yards during the regular season, although he was the leading rusher in the Eagles' 34-0 rout of Tennessee Tech with 117 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries.
Then came his breakout performance on December 21, 1985. On the biggest stage of his young college career, Johnson made catch after catch - just as he had time after time practicing with his quarterback.
"It was like pitch and catch," Johnson said. "We had done it a thousand times."
But no Eagle receiver has done it better than Johnson did that night in Tacoma. He finished the game with seven catches for 148 yards, which remain Georgia Southern single-game playoff records.
As he put Georgia Southern football on the map in front of a national television audience, the once-unknown walk-on accomplished his goal for the game.
"I did get to say, 'Hi, mom,'" Johnson said with a laugh.
- Category: Athletics
- Published on Friday, 08 October 2010 21:05