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Boise star's work is never done

Johnson leads nation in touchdowns and works part time as a plumber's assistant. Really.

December 30, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

BOISE, IDAHO — By day he unclogs your drain, by night he leads the nation in scoring, by November he emerges from a hospital bed to save the non-Bowl Championship Series world and by December he finishes eighth in Heisman Trophy balloting?

Ian Johnson is Boise State Man!, the latest superhero to emerge from the Western Athletic Conference.

Johnson, from San Dimas, is WAC all right.

"I don't think when he got to Boise State they knew what they were getting," Colleen Johnson, Ian's mother, says. " 'Oh, that quirky California kid.' I choose to consider him unique."

Consider this:

In between leading Boise State to a 12-0 season, a berth in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, gaining 1,613 yards, leading the nation with 24 touchdowns, making the Associated Press All-America squad on the third team, knitting beanies for his teammates and almost dying after the San Jose State game, the sophomore tailback worked part-time as a plumber's assistant in Boise.

Ian Johnson averages 6.4 yards a carry on the ground and $9.25 an hour under it.

"First day, they want to test me out," Johnson says. "They want me to dig an eight-foot hole. There's rocks and gravel and I hit the water table at five feet. They were like, 'Wow, we didn't think you'd do it.' "

This isn't one of those "jobs" the NCAA investigates.

Johnson is employed by DeBest Plumbing Inc., which has served Boise-area customers for 33 years.

"I really do work there," Johnson says. "It's a real job. I come home greasy and muddy."

Milford Terrell, DeBest president and owner, confirms it. "He's digging trenches, throwing dirt, doing whatever we ask him to do," Terrell says. "He's got a work ethic that is unbelievable."

Johnson not only works in the football off-season, he works during it.

Boise State played only eight of its 12 games this year on Saturday, which left Johnson time for some weekend ditch shifts.

"There's no playing around," Terrell says of the job. "He has to work. You and I both know about prima donnas, and they don't work here very long."

Being a plumber's helper helped keep humble a guy who finished ahead of USC's Dwayne Jarrett in this year's final Heisman voting.

"It all goes out down in that eight-foot hole," Johnson says of the notoriety that has come his way. "When I'm in that hole, there's no Heisman."

Johnson is doing this because he's trying to stand on his own two work boots, be responsible, secure his horizons, all while making the monthly mortgage payments on the house that his parents purchased for him in Boise.

"It doesn't always work out that way," his mother says. "We do send him money, but he wants to be as self-sufficient as he can be."

Ian sees the practical side of plumbing.

"If I buy myself a new toilet, I don't have to pay the guy to put it in," he says. "I put it in myself."

As for football, no one outside the Johnson inner-circle could have imagined he would have gone from 663 rushing yards as a freshman to this, a center seat on the college game's center stage.

Johnson hasn't even come to grips with it.

The Boise State Bronco who rushed for 240 yards and five touchdowns against Oregon State?

"I still don't see me when I think about it," Johnson says. "I didn't do that. Ian Johnson did that, not me. The player is not all who I am, so I don't just take that and let it override the rest of my life."

Those 240 yards, it turns out, were just the start of Johnson's story board.

Let's pick up his exploits Nov. 11, in a game at San Jose State.

Johnson thought his ribs were cracked after he was hit on a second-quarter run, when in fact he had suffered a partially collapsed left lung.

"I knew something wrong," Johnson says. "We're football players, though. I can breathe, I'm tired, because my lung's collapsed. I don't know it's collapsed. I'm like, 'Oh, I broke a rib.' Long as I can go play to play, who cares what I feel like in between the plays?"

Boise State needed every breath. Johnson carried 29 times for 149 yards in a game the Broncos won, 23-20, on a last-second field goal.

Johnson says the doctors planned on examining him more thoroughly after the team got back home, but in the locker room after the game he didn't feel so hot.

Tailback Brett Denton suggested doctors look at Johnson's spleen, which they did.

"When they reached under my rib cage, they touched the air pocket where the lung collapsed," Johnson recalls. "It sent me into immense pain. I went in and out of consciousness. The pain was beyond what I felt before. I was dripping sweat, lost all color."

He was transported to San Jose's O'Connor Hospital, where he spent the next five days with a tube in his chest, recovering from pneumothorax, a collection of air or gas in the space surrounding the lungs.

"It was life threatening as it was, apparently, but had I gotten on the plane I probably would have died," Johnson says.

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