It's easier to earn a nickname like “Johnny Cash” playing receiver than on the defensive line.
But the defensive line is where Johnny Courtney lined up as a freshman after Lewisville's football team suffered mass suspensions following an on-field fight in 2014. There was Courtney, all 110 pounds of him.
Lions coach Will Mitchell never had any doubt about the decision. And Courtney justified his coach’s confidence by scooping a fumble and scoring a defensive touchdown.
“We knew he'd go where we told him to go as fast as he could,” said Mitchell. “Johnny is the epitome of a football player. The stuff inside of him, he is an old school, blue collar-kind of nasty, dirty football player.”
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Courtney, now a sculpted 5-foot-5, 140-pound senior, moved to slot receiver and began returning punts his sophomore year. The nickname soon followed.
“When you give him the ball he's gonna make a play,” said Lewisville standout Quentin Sanders.
Courtney, who is resting a lower back injury during Lewisville’s preseason, is an often overlooked member of the Lions' senior class. Safety Mikial Fourney has a scholarship offer from Liberty, Sanders has offers from Marshall and South Carolina State and defensive lineman Josh Belk is widely known across the state as a future Clemson Tiger.
Johnny Courtney’s 2016 junior season highlights:
But Courtney is just as important to the Lions' chances of reclaiming the Region 2-A crown after winning 10 games last season.
“Work ethic, what he brings with his competitiveness and fire, which sometimes get him into a little bit of trouble, but he's a 100 miles per hour, 100 percent of the time-type guy,” said Mitchell.
Fourney and Sanders are two of Courtney's biggest backers. Courtney began playing football as a first grader and Fourney met him a few years later in fourth grade.
“It's crazy because I've watched Johnny grow into a great player,” said Fourney, who’s 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. “You can put him anywhere and he'll make a play.”
Sanders met Courtney in middle school and remembered how oversized Courtney's helmet looked atop his small frame.
“When we got to high school he just whole changed. He started playing receiver, he got fast and his routes are crisp,” said Sanders. “If he was a little taller he'd be a major D-I prospect.”
Johnny Courtney had over 1,000 yards of total offense and scored nine touchdowns in 2016.
Like most standout athletes of smaller stature, Courtney politely answered a reporter's questions about his size during Lewisville's team picture day earlier this week. He wore a gold chain with a cross around his neck and answered quietly.
He grew quieter when the conversation turned to his oldest brother, Jeremy, who died tragically several years ago from a heart attack. He was just 22 years old.
Jeremy got to see both of his brothers play for Lewisville, including middle sibling Josh, who graduated last year. He would have roared from the stands when Johnny crack-back blocked a Lamar player to spring a Sanders touchdown last fall. Courtney’s teammates certainly did.
Jeremy's death falls in the “uncontrollable” category, just like Courtney's height. He’s hoping for - but not expecting - a sudden growth spurt.
“I just go out there and play football. The game I love,” he said with a shrug. “I know it's a big factor but it's nothing you can really help.”
There are advantages too. Courtney’s low center of gravity enables him to cut and burst at what Mitchell called an “SEC level,” and he’s usually down on the ground before a tackler can deliver a crushing hit.
The hope at Lewisville is that 2017 isn't Courtney's last year playing organized football. He has a 4.5 grade point average and Mitchell would love to see some of NCAA Division III's better academic institutions take a look at Courtney.
“His film speaks for itself,” said Mitchell. “You just have to get over the size.”
“They're sleeping on him,” said Fourney. “Any college that gets him they're getting a hard worker. For his size he's athletic. Whoever gets him, they're getting a diamond in the rough.”
Sanders was more succinct in his verdict of Courtney, one that he would share with any college coach that asked: “he's a hell of a player.”
2017 Chester County Football Jamboree
The ninth annual Chester County Football Jamboree is Friday, Aug. 11 at Chester High School. Tickets cost $6 and SCHSL passes will be accepted.
6 p.m. Lancaster vs. Columbia (Ga.)
7 p.m. Great Falls vs. Franklin Christian
8:15 p.m. Lewisville vs. Garinger (N.C.)
9:15 p.m. Chester vs. Clover