Tejay Johnson grew up in North Philadelphia, where if you weren't physical on the football field you stayed on the sidelines.
"If you didn't hit hard, you couldn't play," Johnson said. "We ran the wishbone. You had (defenders) two steps away from you. You had to run over people and break tackles."
Johnson, now a senior at Egg Harbor Township High School, is one of the state's fastest players and a Division I college prospect. He won the 100-meter dash at the outdoor track and field Meet of Champions last spring.
But the running back and defensive back's game is about more than just speed. He learned early that football is about hitting and getting hit.
"I coach track, too," EHT coach Tony DeRosa said. "Tejay is a football player who runs track. We've had track kids who play football. But Tejay has a passion for football."
Second-seeded EHT (9-0) meets third-seeded Toms River East (9-0) in a South Jersey Group IV semifinal at St. Augustine Prep on Saturday at 1 p.m. The matchup is one off the most anticipated playoff games in the state this weekend. EHT is No. 4 in The Press' Elite 11 and Toms River East is No. 5.
EHT advanced to the semifinal by grinding out a 21-17 win over Shawnee in the quarterfinals last Saturday.
What impressed DeRosa and the rest of the EHT coaches most about Johnson's effort in the Shawnee game was his blocking. He helped spring other EHT runners for big gains with key blocks.
Players who run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds aren't often praised for blocking. Most players with that type of speed disdain that part of the game.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Johnson is an exception.
EHT clinched the Shawnee victory with a fourth-quarter drive that saw the Eagles move from their own 1-yard line to the Shawnee 48. Johnson carried six times for 31 yards on the possession.
"Sometimes you have to pound the rock down the middle of the football field," Johnson said.
Players with his speed rarely see the ball in those spots. Those carries are usually reserved for sure-handed fullbacks, who are built low to the ground.
Speedsters usually head for the sidelines when they see a collision coming and that's something ball carriers can't do when they're trying to run time off the clock.
"He knew exactly what we needed to do on that drive," DeRosa said. "He had to secure the ball and stay inbounds."
Johnson began playing football when he was 6-years-old in Philadelphia. He moved to Egg Harbor Township when he was 14.
He's been a standout on the football field and the track from the start of his high school career.
Johnson has rushed for 649 yards on 93 carries this season but statistics don't measure what he means to the Eagles.
Nowhere was that better seen than in a critical 30-0 regular-season win over Absegami on Oct. 2. A glance at the box score would say Johnson was not a factor with six carries for 25 yards.
But he picked off two passes and set up EHT's first two touchdowns with a long catch and a punt return.
Johnson is outgoing and not shy about saying what he and his teammates intend to accomplish.
But DeRosa said Johnson's confidence does not mean he has an out-of-control ego.
"He's very unselfish," DeRosa said. "He's very coachable."
Johnson has matured into a team leader. He made a couple of shaky plays in the second half against Shawnee. He muffed a punt that Shawnee recovered and got beat on a long pass that led to a Shawnee touchdown.
But he didn't dwell on those miscues, and on the final drive got the yards EHT needed to clinch the victory.
"I felt like on that last drive the coaches were testing my confidence," Johnson said. "They wanted to see how I would bounce back. They wanted to see if I was going to fall back or make plays."
Johnson is juggling EHT's playoff run with the demands of being a college recruit. Nebraska, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Rutgers and Syracuse have offered him scholarships. He has visited Nebraska and Cincinnati and plans to visit Rutgers on Dec. 12.
Johnson will run track and field again in the spring.
But no matter how fast he runs or how many races he wins, he wants one thing remembered.
"I told you during track season last spring, and I guess you thought I was joking," Johnson said with a laugh. "Football is my favorite sport."
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