FRISCO, Texas – The stars in Texas, big and bright as they say, aligned somewhat perfectly this weekend for one former Eastern Washington football player.
The Eagles hadn’t even completed the second half of a 50-19 Football Championship Subdivision semifinal thumping of Maine when the activity started in a group text message thread between Matt Johnson and more than a dozen other members of EWU’s 2010 national championship-winning football team.
It was understood among the group that if EWU ever returned to the Mecca of FCS football, the ex-Eags would spare no expenses and return to the stadium that manufactured only the very best memories of their playing careers – this time as die-hard alums, rather than title-hungry players.
A pilgrimage to Frisco, Texas, was already in the works by the time EWU quarterback Eric Barriere fired his seventh touchdown pass to Jayce Gilder in the fourth quarter.
“They were so dominant in the semifinal game,” Johnson said, “I think most of us booked the tickets either right after the game or even before the game was over.”
So Johnson, a former EWU safety who played in Cheney from 2008-11, layered his suitcase with red Eags garb before traveling Friday to Texas with his fiancée, brother Zach – a former standout EWU linebacker – and sister-in-law.
But EWU’s title game against North Dakota State is only half of why today could be one of the most memorable dates on Johnson’s all-time football calendar.
After patrolling EWU’s secondary for four seasons, Johnson, who started every game of his EWU career, was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the last pick of the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He played two pro seasons before his NFL career was derailed by injury.
Hours after EWU and NDSU finish up in Frisco, the Cowboys will host the Seattle Seahawks in a crucial NFC wild-card game at AT&T Stadium.
“I was just talking to my dad about it,” Johnson said. “Saturday’s going to probably be the best day of the year and it’s only Jan. 5. But it’s going to be the best day of the year for me. Football, Eastern and Cowboys. Can’t ask for anything better.”
As of Thursday, Johnson hadn’t secured a ticket for today’s playoff game at “Jerry World,” and said he might opt to watch the game at a Frisco sports bar with his former EWU pals.
From the 2010 team, Johnson estimated there would be at least 15-20 ex-Eags in attendance – if not more.
It’s a list that includes linebacker J.C. Sherritt, defensive end Greg Peach, quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, linebacker Bobby Gentry, wide receiver Greg Herd, linebacker Rusty Haehl, linebacker Grant Williams and offensive lineman Jeff Minnerly, wide receiver Tyler Hart, tight end Matt Martin, offensive lineman Chris Powers and tight end Matt Martin.
The coach of that 2010 team, Beau Baldwin, is in town as well.
And both Johnson brothers, who were responsible for spearheading a defense that gave up just 22 points per game in 2010.
“I think there’s going to be more,” Johnson said. “I keep finding more and more.”
A majority of the former players are bunking together in a house they rented for the weekend.
“If we win, we’re going hard,” Johnson laughed. “But we’re older now, so I don’t know how rowdy it’ll be. I’m sure it’ll be a good time.”
Johnson is now a defensive assistant coach at Richland’s Hanford High School, where he also works in peer counseling. He’ll start student teaching at Hanford when he returns to the Tri-Cities next week and is studying for a master’s degree in education, which he hopes to obtain in April.
A Western Washington native who attended Tumwater High, Johnson was raised by a Cowboys fan. His father adored Dallas greats Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, and bought his son an Emmitt Smith jersey at a young age.
Johnson’s been rooting for the team that drafted him since he was a child, despite living in Seahawk country his whole life. If the Cowboys are trailing early in Saturday’s wild-card game, he anticipates a stream of text messages from the high school students and student-athletes he mentors/coaches back home in Richland – most of which are Seattle fans.
“I’m sure a bunch of my high school kids are going to be texting me during the game because I had all of my DBs (defensive backs) over every Wednesday and I have a bunch of Cowboys stuff in my house,” Johnson said. “So if we don’t play good on Saturday, I’ll get a bunch of crap on Wednesday.”
No problem. The majority of them will be EWU fans earlier in the morning.
This summer, Johnson and the Hanford High team spent a few days at the camp the Eagles held in Cheney. That was his first glimpse of the EWU team that will try to take down perennial FCS power NDSU, which has won six national championships since 2011.
The Eagles are playing for a title without a number of senior leaders who were injured earlier the season and Johnson’s admired the mettle they showed without players like quarterback Gage Gubrud and safeties Cole Karstetter and Mitch Fettig.
“The depth that they had and the amount of seniors they had is kind of unheard of in big-time college football,” he said. “So I knew they had a chance and we all kind of talked and said, ‘Hey if they go we have to go.’ ”
Johnson, who arrived to Frisco proudly wearing a shiny national championship ring on his right hand, still has vivid memories of EWU’s 20-19 win over Delaware in 2010. The Eagles trailed 19-0 at halftime, but a large deficit didn’t frazzle the senior-laden team, and EWU outscored Delaware 20-0 in the second half to emerge with the win.
“We were down 19-0 and none of us panicked,” he said. “We were even joking and laughing in the locker room at halftime, so it was kind of the belief. We kind of went into Eastern that year, when I got recruited and then JC – so a year older than me – we kind of all had a chip on our shoulder because WSU, UW didn’t get us and Eastern wasn’t really on the map then, so it was kind of on us to get them going and I think that was kind of the chip we took the whole year.”
“We’ve talked about that over beers,” Johnson said. “Just how tight knit we were and how it was always just the play of the team.”
Those memories certainly will be replayed throughout the course of the weekend and the 2010 Eagles are hopeful there’s a new trophy to talk about.
“I think it’s going to be higher scoring than most people think,” he said. “If Eastern has a chance, we’ve got to put up points. So I’m guessing … 31-28 Eastern.”
And later in the evening?
“I think that’s going to be a little bit lower scoring,” he said. “I’ll say 24-17 Cowboys.”
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