Defensive Back, 2002-2005
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in what will be a series of ‘Where Are They Now’ items, abbreviated ‘WATN” which focuses on former Hawkeyes and what they are doing now and/or have been up to since their playing days at the University of Iowa. Mitch Smith will be authoring these items and we are glad to have him and his contributions here at HawkeyeNation.com -Jon Miller)
Jovon Johnson’s nickname is a testament to his knack for finding the football.
The former Iowa defensive back wears a towel at practice with the nickname emblazoned on the front. It serves as a reminder to all who have doubted his abilities on the football field throughout his career.
Nine years have passed since the All-Big Ten defensive back patrolled the Iowa secondary, but he’s still causing headaches for opposing quarterbacks as a member of the Ottawa RedBlacks of the Canadian Football League.
Flying Under the Radar
Johnson wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, receiving offers only from Kent State and Iowa.
“I always had a chip on my shoulder because people felt I wasn’t good enough to play big-time college football,” Johnson said. “I went out to show people what I was worth because people didn’t expect me to be anything. It felt good to go out on the field and prove those people wrong.”
Johnson played a vital role on what many would describe as some of Kirk Ferentz’s best Hawkeye teams. From 2002-2005, Iowa won 39 games — including two bowl victories — and made its first-ever BCS bowl appearance.
He either led outright or was tied for the team lead in interceptions in each of his four seasons as a Hawkeye, ultimately finishing his collegiate career with 17 picks. Only Nile Kinnick and Devon Mitchell have more in a Hawkeye uniform.
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“I don’t think many people expected me to have the type of career I had at Iowa,” Johnson said. “Considering Nile Kinnick is the greatest Hawkeye to ever play the game, it’s incredibly special to have my name right next to his in the record books.”
As the Hawkeyes prepare to open the 2014 season against Northern Iowa, Johnson still remembers his second and final touchdown at Iowa. His first interception of the 2005 season came against Northern Iowa — a pass he picked off and returned 18 yards for a score.
While this would be his last touchdown in an Iowa uniform, there would be plenty more to come.
Canadian Ball Hawk
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After being cut by the New York Jets in training camp and spending a year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson took his talents north to the CFL in 2007.
His best stats came as a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, where he spent six seasons. In 2011, he led the league in interceptions and was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player — the first defensive back to ever earn that distinction. Johnson is a two-time CFL all-star with 24 career interceptions — six of which he’s returned for touchdowns.
The 30-year-old defensive back is out once again to prove the he can still play at a high level after being let go by the Blue Bombers following the 2013 campaign. He’s far and away the most experienced member of the secondary on an expansion squad full of first-year players.
As a seasoned veteran, RedBlacks head coach Rick Campbell looks to Johnson to be a leader on the Ottawa defense. Campbell previously coached the Winnipeg secondary when Johnson played for the Blue Bombers, so he knows what the former Hawkeye brings to the table.
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“Two things stand out about Jovon,” Campbell said. “First, he’s very smart. He has great vision and understands the big picture of what’s happening on the field. Second, he’s a competitor. He literally wants to do anything he can to help the team. He’s had a great CFL career and is still playing at a very high level.”
In five games for Ottawa this season, Johnson has 13 tackles, one interception and a sack. The former Hawkeye partially tore his bicep in a July 26 game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but returned to action in an August 24 loss to the Calgary Stampeders.
Even when his career is over, Johnson expects football to remain a large part of his life. He plans to coach or open an athletic performance facility to impart his knowledge of the game onto others.
Until then, he’ll continue to take the field each and every game looking to prove his doubters wrong.
“I want to show people that even though I might be a little bit older I’m one of the elite players in this league at my position,” he said. “I’m a ball hawk. I know if I work hard everyday in practice, come game time, everything will just come naturally.