Johnson was named a state winner and national finalist for the prestigious Wendy’s High School Heisman Award, and later helped lead the Panthers to the Class AAAA state championship game in the Georgia Dome.
Today, in his own words, Johnson reflects on what the experience has meant to him and to his teammates.
After everyone had left Bowers and Painter Field following the spirit rally after the state championship game, I lay down on the 50-yard line and let the rain pelt my face. I thought about Ridgeland. My season. Our season.
In late August, I sent in my application for the Wendy’s High School Heisman, customarily on the last day (un-Heisman-like, I know). I filled it out thoroughly and to the best of my ability, but I didn’t think too much about it. We still had football games to win and turf to defend. Then in September, I learned I was a state finalist and later, a state winner.
Shortly after, we were called to have an assembly. None of the students knew what was going on. My English teacher told me U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson was coming (which made me actually really excited…what a nerd.) Rumors swirled that Vonn (Bell) was signing, which made me a little mad. I thought he would tell Gannon (Hampton) and me first. I guess he wanted his privacy.
“I think it’s for you, bro,” Gannon said.
“No way man,” I replied.
The announcement that I was named a national finalist came as the surprise of my life. I was shocked and honored at the same time. I stood up in front of the student body and said something…I don’t really remember it. Then came the barrage of reporters and cameras. Heisman poses. All-you-can-eat Frosties, a trip to New York and the Heis…
Wait. December 7th? The state semifinals? The date of the Heisman ceremony? That little nugget of information stuck in my head. It was four weeks away. I didn’t worry about it.
But we kept winning. That date kept getting closer, and after the win over Mary Persons, I assumed I was playing in the semifinal game. There was really no choice. I had to lead my troops on my turf one more time.
What ensued that Friday was the best game ever played at Ridgeland High School, and I was blessed to be a part of it. After the game, my mom told me I didn’t win the High School Heisman, but I didn’t care. We were going to the State Championship! I hurried home to get ready to catch a plane headed for the Big Apple.
The Heisman Weekend and New York City were incredible. The biggest surprise — getting to be on the Heisman floor. It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. The other finalists were great people and inspirations. I left New York exhausted, honored and awestruck.
So, as I lay on that field, rain pouring, lights shining, I couldn’t help about thinking about everything. I couldn’t have gotten this award without a multitude of people — Mom, Dad, Ally, teachers — but two things stuck out in my mind.
I was under the tutelage of a great man, and his staff, on the Ridgeland football team for four years. They pushed me to be a leader in everything I did, and guided me to becoming a moral and just young man, as they had done with nearly a decade of players at RHS.
Then I thought about Ridgeland High School and the familiar, “wait, you go to Ridgeland?” attitude. What an incredible school that has given me all these opportunities — athletically, academically, and socially — that doesn’t have the reputation it has earned and deserves.
And then I thought long and hard about something. Why didn’t we win the state championship? I mean it just felt right. It felt like destiny. I believe everything has a purpose from God, and maybe we (the football team) fulfilled that purpose.
We brought two communities and former rivals together. We did something no man, woman, or group for the previous 23 years could do. We brought Chattanooga Valley and Rossville together behind Ridgeland. We paved the way for future Panthers, and gave our community something to be proud of. Maybe that was our purpose, and we fulfilled it.
I got down on my knees and kissed the turf. Thank you God, and thank you Ridgeland High School.
Daniel Johnson is a senior at Ridgeland High School and was a national finalist for the Wendy’s High School Heisman Award.