Battling Back: Nelson’s Johnson returns to the field after recovering from farming accident

Photo by Bart Isley

James Johnson is integral to Nelson County’s football program. The two-way starter at middle linebacker and along the offensive line is the heartbeat of the current incarnation of the Governors’ roster. 


“Without him our team wouldn’t be able to function,” said fellow senior Brice Wilson. “He does it in practice, he does it in school — you never see him doing the wrong thing. He’s leading our team and leading us in the right direction.”


It’s hard not to respect Johnson’s leadership, attitude and approach considering what he’s been through over the last year after an accident at his part time job on a farm.


“We were in a barn where my boss has hay for his cattle and we were moving boards trying to get to something,” Johnson said. “A round bale fell off the top of the stack, bounced on the ground and landed on me. It crushed me from my hips down and it broke my pelvis into three pieces.”


Johnson’s injury forced him into surgery where three screws were placed in his pelvis to repair the bone that was cracked from the weight of a 1,600-pound square bale trapping him. It led to a 15-day stay at UVa hospitals where Johnson wasn’t sure what his future held. 


After getting some early answers from doctors, Johnson was pretty single-minded about where his focus was going to be — getting healthy in time for football, at that point eight months away.


“The day after my surgery I asked my doctor ‘Am I going to be able to play football again’ and he said there’s a strong chance you will be able to but you won’t be at 100 percent like you were last year,” Johnson said. “He said the sooner you start walking, the sooner you get out, the better off you’ll be.” 


That was all Johnson needed to hear.


“The next day I was up on a walker walking around,” Johnson said.


The path he had to follow was far from easy. In addition to healing from the surgery, Johnson had to build up to walking up stairs — when he first returned to Nelson, he couldn’t even reach the school’s second floor. After getting back to being able to handle stairs, he still couldn’t lift weights for much of the offseason. 


But even when he couldn’t lift weights or run, it didn’t stop Johnson from finding a way to impact Nelson’s football program. That’s important for a small school with a small roster as Hicks’ rebuilding project enters year four and Nelson returns to the Dogwood District after playing an independent schedule the last two seasons.


“The first day he was back in school he made sure he was going to practice to stand there and be there for his teammates,” Hicks said. “He’s been in the system since he was a freshman, he started as a freshman, so he’s been through it. He knew his leadership was real important to his team.”


Like a lot of the Governors’ leaders, Johnson realizes that for Nelson to be successful they’re going to need a little bit from everyone on the roster. 


“Every guy that comes out here, even if they aren’t starting on Friday nights, they have a key role from the sidelines to weightlifting to practice,” Johnson said. 


Johnson’s job led to an even more impactful lesson, overcoming a horrifying injury to get back to a sport he loves. It’s emblematic of Nelson’s own recent history as a program, constantly fighting to move forward while running into obstacle after obstacle. 


“If you look at the adversity that he’s overcome just to be out on the field let alone look as successful he’s looking now three practices in, it’s a miracle in some ways,” Hicks said. “There’s been a lot of tough times that we’ve had to overcome and he’s another great example of how we’ve had to keep pushing through.”


A lot of students at Nelson County work a job after school or on the weekends. In a community with a strong agricultural past and present, that’s part of the culture. Johnson has found a way to balance school, work and football during his time with the Governors and that’s helped him develop an enormous sense of responsibility. 


“It’s a whole lot harder than you think because I work every day a part time job and go from there to here (at practice),” Johnson said. “It helps you grow as a young man, just going out and making your own money. I have a sense of purpose making my own check and then coming out here (to football) and going to work with your family. I love it.”


He clearly loves it enough to put in the incredible work that it took to get back and it’s pretty clear that Nelson and Johnson himself will benefit from that battle for years to come.