Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008 | The first words Bill Grier spoke after his University of San Diego basketball team lost the city championship game Saturday to San Diego State were, “I’m devastated for the kid.”
He referred to senior guard Brandon Johnson, who suffered a season-ending injury late in the first half with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. But the first words “the kid” offered were an analysis of why the Toreros lost 57-46 at Cox Arena.
“We didn’t take care of the ball,” said Johnson, leaning against a wall with the aid of crutches. “Coach said we couldn’t get in a rat race with them.”
Uh, Brandon, the coach breaks down the game for the media. The question for you was about how you feel after the injury.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to have faith, and I haven’t lost my faith,” Johnson said. “God has a plan for all of us regardless of what happens. I love to play ball and it hurts, but I’ll get over it.”
Grier felt anguish because the 6-foot, 200-pound combo-guard from Houston is the player who led the Toreros to the NCAA tournament last year.
“He’s devastated — I’m devastated for him,” Grier said. “My heart goes out to the kid for everything he has done for this program and this university. He’s been the heart and soul of our team.”
Johnson was the MVP of last year’s West Coast Conference tournament that USD won to gain an automatic bid to the NCAA. In the first round, the Toreros upset Connecticut, a milestone win marking the first time a San Diego men’s college basketball team won an NCAA game.
Only that was no “kid” who put aside his own pain. He made his way on crutches out to the team bench to encourage his team in the second half, he graciously received handshakes and words of sympathy from SDSU coach Steve Fisher and his players during the customary post-game handshakes and he patiently met with the media.
I’ve seen injured professional athletes leave the stadium or arena with heartache no more devastating than what Johnson felt, yet those “men” angrily left the premises without speaking to the media so their thoughts could be relayed to the fans.
The night started as the biggest game in the history of the city championship played before the largest crowd to see an SDSU-USD contest (9,923) and ended with the growing rivalry’s deepest heartbreak.
“I want to say how badly we feel about Brandon Johnson with the Achilles’ injury,” Fisher said. “He’s such a tremendous competitor and a terrific player. You just feel so bad when it happens to anybody. Our thoughts will be with him as he goes through what is next.”
It was just one of those fluky plays. Johnson and SDSU guard Matt Thomas were chasing a loose ball at midcourt when Thomas’ foot came down on Johnson’s.
“I tried to reach for the ball, and I couldn’t get up,” Johnson said.
“I knew what it was. I couldn’t feel the back of my foot.”
Johnson plays with reckless abandon, often tumbling to floor and bouncing to his feet. So when he didn’t get up, you knew it was something serious.
Thus begins USD’s second season-within-a-season as the Toreros were confronted with two games in their first three days without Johnson. USD hosted San Jose State Monday and is home again Wednesday against New Mexico at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“I told our team we can do one of two things,” Grier said. “We can hang our heads and pout or we can look at the kid that gave his heart and soul to our program and rally together for him. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Johnson was scheduled to have surgery today and will need 4 to 6 months of rehab.
Since Johnson has been a regular or a starter since he was a true freshman and thus didn’t use a red-shirt season, USD has already started the application process for a medical red-shirt so he can return in 2009-10 as a fifth-year senior.
The NCAA red-shirt clause was upped this year from 20 percent of a season’s games to 30 percent. USD has 31 games scheduled and Johnson only played in eight (25.8 percent). But the red-shirt must also be approved by a vote of the WCC Executive Council, with each school having one vote.
Johnson says he wants to play another year if the red-shirt request is approved.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got a couple of guys I want to pay back,” he said with a grin.
“I’ll be working out. I don’t know what God has in store for me, but I’ll try to keep positive and go after it.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.