BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — When California opens the season at North Texas on Saturday, Golden Bears defensive lineman Brett Johnson may need a moment to soak in the occasion.
After missing two full seasons to deal with grueling injuries, Johnson is set to play a game for the first time in 1,001 days since a win over Oregon in an empty stadium on Dec. 5, 2020.
“That is a long time,” Johnson said in an understatement.
Cal didn't play again in that pandemic-shortened season and Johnson then dealt with bad luck and injuries for more than two years.
A car crash in March 2021 led to a major hip injury and questions about whether he would ever be able to play football again following surgery.
Undeterred, Johnson fought his way back and was in camp last summer ready for a triumphant comeback before he tore up his knee during practice about a week before the season opener.
After surgery to repair his ACL and another year of rehabilitation, Johnson made it back on the field for the start of training camp in August and is set to play a real game again on Saturday.
“I will feel like a football player out on the field,” he said. "It’s been a while since I had that feeling but I don’t think it will feel any different than it did before. I try not to get in my head too much about it, try to keep my cool but I am looking forward to it.”
Johnson said he had a little doubt about whether this day would come when he first injured his knee but soon realized that coming back from ACL surgery was “cut and dry” and not nearly as complicated as the hip injury.
That doesn't mean it wasn't difficult psychologically after putting so much work into his first rehabilitation only to have to go through a similar process again.
“This second go-around, I struggled a lot more mentally,” he said. “I had to kind dig a little deeper to keep going with it. I got it done. I made it out on the other side in one piece. Physically, obviously, it’s challenging, but it’s nothing that I haven’t done before. It’s just another day.”
Getting a healthy Johnson back is a big boost for the Bears, who went 9-15 the past two seasons without their top defensive lineman.
Cal is trying for its first winning record since 2019 during Johnson's first season. He had 1 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 tackles for loss that season when he emerged as one of the better interior linemen in the Pac-12.
He had 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss in just four games in the shortened 2020 season and the Bears are hoping he can get back to that form this season.
But even his presence will provide motivation for the team.
“A lot of folks would be, no judgment on them, but a lot of people, a lot of guys probably wouldn’t come back from that,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “Brett is just a rare, rare breed when it comes to physical, mental, emotional toughness. I don’t suspect he’s going to be any different. I think he’s poised for a big year. We’re glad he’s back. Feeling that presence, not only the players feel it, they know he’s a good player, but just literally feeling his presence when he lines up under center is noticeable because the center has a hard time doing anything against him. We’re glad to have him back.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll