Tim Reynolds (AP)
CORAL GABLES .- Duke Johnson plays football for one reason. It’s not to hear himself touted as Miami’s best hope for success this season or for attention, fame or individual accolades.
It’s so his mother will never worry about where to sleep again.
A few years ago, long before Johnson became the Hurricanes’ star running back, he, his mother and his sister were forced to sleep in a car. They got back on their feet quickly and life returned to normal, but Johnson never forgot what those couple days were like.
“Things like that just make you see the big picture,” Johnson said. “She never stopped working. She never quit. Anybody could have quit and said, ‘OK, I’m done.’ She kept going and kept fighting to get me and my sister in a better place.”
Things are most definitely better now. His mother, Cassandra Mitchell is still working, doing her shift and then logging tons of overtime in her role as a corrections officer for Miami-Dade County. And her son is following her lead, working harder than ever with hopes of taking her and the Hurricanes where they want to go.
Among players with at least 300 career rushes and receptions entering this season, no one will enter 2014 averaging more yards per touch than Johnson, whose sophomore season was cut short when he broke his right ankle against eventual national champion Florida State. He’s healed and already raring for the start of camp in early August.
“He did things during spring break that he hadn’t done since he played Optimist football,” Mitchell said. “I’m like, ‘Where is my son? What did you do with Duke?’ He’s always working out, three times a day, early in the morning, late at night. I see him jogging in the street when I thought he was asleep. And then I see him and he says, ‘No, you told me to go running.'”
Mother knows best.
When Johnson started rehabbing from the broken ankle, his mother would regularly ask if he was running yet. He’d always say no; eventually she stopped asking. Then one day, he casually mentioned he was running, like it was no big deal — and his mother urged him to do even more, because she felt that he wasn’t in the right kind of shape last season.
So he got bigger in his upper body and feels better than ever.
“I’m looking forward to camp,” Johnson said.
The Hurricanes started last season 7-0 and climbed to No. 7 in the nation before Johnson got hurt and a freefall began. Miami finished 9-4 and unranked, blown out by Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. When this season starts against those same Cardinals Miami will have a new quarterback — likely freshman Kevin Olsen or transfer Jake Heaps.
Ryan Williams was slotted as the starter before a knee injury in the spring, and he won’t be ready for the opener.
“Not worried at all,” Johnson said. “Whoever the quarterback is won’t have all the pressure. I will accept that role.”
Johnson is a rarity, a Miami native not all that unimpressed with the city’s temptations. He is usually at home, playing video games or cards. When he goes out, it’s often to a bowling alley.
“People, if they knew Duke, really knew Duke, they would be amazed at what he’s really like,” Mitchell said.
He’s also tired of watching his mother work. And when it comes time for Johnson to decide his future — he is already mentioned as a 2015 draft candidate should he elect to leave Miami early — he will be more fixated on what she can get out of the deal than any potential riches that will be coming his way.
He’s a mama’s boy, and proudly.
“Honestly, I play for her,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, if I didn’t have the childhood I did and if it wasn’t as tough as it was and my mom didn’t struggle the way she did, if I didn’t want better for her, I probably wouldn’t play football. The reason I play is for her.”