By Greg Ostendorf
ATLANTA – All season, Kerryon Johnson has been measured by stats and numbers. The only metric that should matter from Saturday’s SEC championship game is his heart.
It was clear Johnson wasn’t 100 percent. The junior running back finished with 44 rushing yards and 45 all-purpose yards against the same Georgia team that he had 233 all-purpose yards against less than a month ago. It was only the third time in 11 games played this season that he failed to rush for more than 100 yards.
But the fact is Johnson didn’t have to play Saturday. He just as easily could’ve sat out, limited the pain, and waited until the bowl game when he was fully healthy to play again.
“Knowing Kerryon personally, if there was any way he could play, he would play,” Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton said after the game. “And he went out there and fought as hard as he could.”
“K.J. is a warrior,” added quarterback Jarrett Stidham. “If there’s a human definition for a warrior, that’s him. Nobody really knows how much pain he’s in. Just hats off to him because he’s played his butt off all year and he deserves to be in a game like this and play in a game like this. He did a great job. He gave us his all tonight. You couldn’t ask more from him.”
After the game, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made it seem like it truly was a game-time decision as to whether Johnson would play or not. It had only been a week since the Tigers’ star was lying on the grass at Jordan-Hare Stadium with the entire crowd chanting his name, hoping he wasn’t hurt too badly to play in the SEC championship game.
“First of all, I can't say enough about how tough he is and the guts he has,” Malzahn said during his post-game press conference. “He was banged up. He had some rib issues. He had a shoulder issue. We didn't really know if he was going to play. He did a little bit of stuff in practice, but he was very, very limited.
“Pre-game, as the adrenaline got going, he felt he could go. He gave us all he had. You could see it wasn't 100 percent. But he helped get us here, and he's a great player.”
The post-game interview with Johnson went about as you’d expect.
How’s the shoulder feel after this one?
“It hurts, but everybody hurts,” Johnson said. “It’s football.”
What percentage do you think you were going in?
“Not 100. But at this point, nobody is. It is what it is.”
But as one of the team leaders, Johnson wanted to set an example for his teammates and play through the pain Saturday. He was going to give all he had to give for his school, for his team and for the chance of winning the SEC and making the College Football Playoff.
“I just wish I had done a little better to help them,” Johnson said. “But a lot of people on our team are hurt. A lot of people on Georgia are hurt and I’m sure had the same decisions, ‘Can you go? Can you go?’ But when somebody else sees you going, they say, ‘Hey, well maybe I can do it. Maybe I can go.’ That’s just kind of what I hoped to do for someone on our team.”
“He’s obviously a leader figure on our team, and it shows he cares,” Slayton said. “And that’s very important to a lot guys to know that the leaders on your team care and that they’re going to fight as hard as they can for you whenever they can. He did that [Saturday].”
So while Auburn fans might be disappointed with Saturday’s result, it wasn’t for a lack of effort from Johnson and his teammates. And maybe it would’ve been a different game had Auburn’s Heisman Trophy contender been healthy, but now that it’s over, you have to simply appreciate the heart and the drive it took for him to go out and play.
“When Kerryon is at full strength, we’re at full strength,” Auburn offensive lineman Darius James said. “Seeing him go out there just made us love him and trust him way more.”
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: