Johnsons put Heels on run Explosive backs send N. Carolina off to fast start

September 15, 1993|By Charles Chandler | Charles Chandler,Knight-Ridder News Service

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- William Clarence Johnson used to urge his youngest son, Leon, an aspiring football player, to run through the woods behind their Morganton, N.C., home.

"If you hit a tree," the father would say, "you know you've been tackled."

Leon learned fast.

"Let's just say it didn't take me long to start making those trees miss," Leon says.

Curtis Johnson's father died when he was an infant. He was raised by his grandmother. No one else in his family graduated from high school. He had a 1.7 grade-point average in his first semester at Ben L. Smith High in Greensboro, N.C. He graduated with honors.

"Sometimes he'd call me early in the morning -- I'm talking 1 or 2 in the morning -- wanting help in his classes," says David Moody, Curtis' football coach at Smith. "Most kids would have said forget it. Not Curtis."

Today, Leon Johnson and Curtis Johnson -- no relation -- are together at North Carolina, fast emerging as the latest in a storied heritage of star tailbacks. Twenty-one times, more than any other school, Tar Heels runners have gained 1,000 yards in a season. Curtis and Leon are on pace to do it in the same year, sharing minutes playing the same position.

Curtis, a sophomore, ranks first in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing with 390 yards after three games. He is averaging 7.8 yards per rush attempt. His 90-yard touchdown run against Maryland last week was the longest by a North Carolina player in 101 years.

Leon, a redshirt freshman and a converted quarterback, is second in the ACC with 342 yards. He's averaging 9 yards per rush. His 147-yard performance two weeks ago against Ohio was the best home debut at Kenan Stadium by a first-year Tar Heel since the legendary Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice gained 102 yards in 1948.

Their explosive starts have helped North Carolina (3-0) to a No. 13 national ranking heading into Saturday's home showdown against No. 1 Florida State and created so much excitement that Tar Heels fans are searching for catch-phrases. Perhaps the best yet is "Johnson & Johnson, no more tears."

There was weeping around Chapel Hill last winter when two-time All-ACC tailback Natrone Means surrendered his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

Tar Heels fans worried about finding a suitable replacement for Means, a 240-pound bruiser who gained more than 3,000 yards in three seasons and seemed to be the team's spark.

The Johnsons can't duplicate Means' power, but their breakaway ability has added a new dimension to the offense. They have combined for six touchdown runs of 30 yards or longer, twice as many as the Tar Heels had all of last season.

"Any option pitch can turn into a touchdown," says quarterback Jason Stanicek. "If you get them one-on-one with a defender on )) the corner, they can make big plays.'

Leon likes to make defenders miss. His quick cuts, jukes and spins have helped him break free for five touchdowns.

Curtis prefers to run straight ahead. Speed is his game. He set state sprinting records in high school and already holds the Tar Heels' record in the 100-meter -- (10.38 seconds).

"Sometimes I go so fast I miss the holes," Curtis says.

The Johnsons say they are friendly and have no rivalry, but they don't socialize together off the field. Their styles are distinctly different.

"Curtis is pretty serious," says Leon. "My style is to kid and joke around a lot."

Curtis says his worst fear is "to die without Christ in my life." Leon's craziest ambition is to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Curtis' favorite movie is "Malcolm X;" Leon's is "Beauty and the Beast."

Both wear the jersey numbers of their childhood heroes. Curtis is 32, like O. J. Simpson. Leon is No. 12, like Randall Cunningham.

Both also have beaten adversity.

In a 60-day span during his senior season at Freedom High in Morganton, Leon was involved in an auto accident, spent eight days in a hospital due to fluid buildup in his lungs and barely escaped a fire that destroyed his family's house.

Thanks to donations from friends and fans in Morganton, his family bought a new home.

Curtis says he planned to enter the military until Moody, his high school coach, "showed me I could be somebody."

Curtis credits his grandmother, Williet Johnson, 69, for teaching him good values and helping him overcome an otherwise unstable family background.

"She raised me to be the best I can be," he says.

Williet Johnson adopted her grandson when he was 6 and gave him her name. He was born Curtis Thompson, after his father, Henry Mack Thompson.

Johnson & Thompson?

"Doesn't have the same ring, does it?" says Curtis.

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