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Football: Defensive player finds unlikely friendship

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 13, 2014


Sherard Johnson, UL defensive tackle, bear hugs Major Hudspeth, Coach Mark Hudspeth’s son. The two have developed a close friendship since Johnson came to Lafayette.(Photo: Submitted)

One is a 6-foot-8-inch, 373-pounder, a large fellow from Florida who plays on the defensive line for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team.

Sherard Johnson is his name.

The other is a tiny 4-year-old, youngest son of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ head coach and someone who — whenever they’re together — hangs on every action and word of his very big buddy.

Major Hudspeth is his name.

"I asked Major the other day, ‘Major, do you want something to drink?’" said Tyla Hudspeth, Major’s mom and the wife of UL coach Mark Hudspeth. "He said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ And he said, ‘I’ll take anything you’ll offer me, Miss Tyla.’"

It’s a sentence Tyla Hudspeth had heard before, though not from Major’s mouth. Rather, she said, "It is something that Sherard always says."

The two really are tight.

"That’s like a little brother," Johnson said. "I take care of him. I take care of Major. I mean, I love the kid. He’s awesome. Who couldn’t love him?"

"Major’s pretty close to Sherard, and Sherard’s a big Teddy bear," Mark Hudspeth added. "They hang out a lot after practice, and they’re sort of ‘good buds.’ Sherard’s a good kid. He’s a good influence, a good role model — as are a lot of our other players."

Johnson carries a lot of weight around Major, far beyond the extra pounds he works so hard to shed.

He knows it, too, which is why he’s so cognizant of his behavior around the coach’s kid and neighborhood pals who, according to Tyla Hudspeth, look up to Johnson as "some sort of superhero."

Doing so, however, means overcoming a background bogged by what Johnson called "negative things."

"I used to swear and curse and do all kinds of bad stuff," Johnson said. "But being around (Major), I can’t do it. I’m not supposed to. So, I don’t curse around kids — because I don’t want them to grow up doing the same thing."

Sherard JOhnson one.jpg

UL defensive tackle Sherard Johnson and Major Hudspeth, son of UL coach Mark Hudspeth, share an unlikely friendship.(Photo: Submitted)

Johnson, terrifically proud of his family’s Jamaican heritage, evidently did not have it easy as one of seven siblings raised in South Florida.

At 406 pounds coming out of Hallandale High in Broward County, Johnson — a Hialeah native reared in the Lake Forest neighborhood of West Lake, Florida — joined the Cajuns only after repeating the 12th grade.

He also spent his first year on UL’s campus as an NCAA academic non-qualifier who wasn’t permitted to practice or even work out with the football team.

Back in Florida, Johnson also was a tad attention-starved — at least as much as any 400-plus-pounder can be.

"I think when he comes here," Tyla Hudspeth said of NCAA-permitted visits Johnson and other teammates take to their coach’s house, "we’re able to zero in on him and focus in on just him… That hits a soft spot with him."

So Mark Hudspeth understands just how meaningful the relationship is to Johnson — and greatly admires the influence Johnson has been on Major.

"It goes back to what type of kid this kid is," the Cajuns coach said. "You know, he came from a home where he slept on the floor, with a big family, and has had to really rely on himself for quite a few years.

"But he is just a very humble kid. Very well-mannered… The teachers really like him, because he is such a polite person.

"He’s a little intimidating the first time you meet him. Anybody that big that walks up to you is," Hudspeth added. "But once you get to know Sherard, you realize that he has a very kind heart. He’s just trying to become a better player, and he’s trying to do a good job with his studies, because education is important to him."


UL defensive lineman Sherard Johnson (97) says he’s working hard to be a better player and a better person.(Photo: Leslie Westbrook/The Advertiser)

Johnson struggled at Hallandale High, and it soon became apparent there was no way he’d be eligible to play NCAA Division I football after his senior season.

He didn’t have any Division I offers either.

So Johnson repeated 12th grade, and that’s what ultimately led to his landing in Louisiana.

"I knew I wasn’t going to go to college if I graduated on time," he said.

Johnson said he played in a couple of games during that second year as a 12th grader, but soon was ruled ineligible.

That, however, couldn’t separate him from a sport and support system that mattered so much.

"I couldn’t play no more; fifth-year senior. So I said, ‘All right.’ Rode along, went with the team everywhere, every day," Johnson said. "Went to every team game. Worked out with the team.

"And Coach Saunders (Cajuns assistant coach David Saunders, who recruits South Florida for UL) saw me and was like, ‘Hey.’"

Hard to miss, you know.

Johnson, at one point, thought he’d play at the University of Miami, but that didn’t pan out.

He said Florida Atlantic and FIU were options, too, but if it wasn’t at Miami then he didn’t want to stay close to home.

He could have gone the FCS route, but had no interest in that. The reason for that rests in his motivation.

"I’m trying to push myself to be the best player I can," Johnson said. "And if I see a team that needs help, I’m gonna try to help them out in any way I can."

So UL it was.

"Coach Saunders and Coach Hud and Coach Ed (Cajuns defensive line coach Tim Edwards) and all of them — they were showing me the most love," Johnson said, "so I just decided to work with them… Now I’m doing my part, trying to help them out."


UL defensive lineman Sherard Johnson (97), right, participates in practice Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at the Leon Moncla Indoor Practice Facility in Lafayette, La.(Photo: Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser, Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser)

UL’s interest, however, came with a caveat.

The Cajuns had no other choice.

As a non-qualifier, he wouldn’t be on scholarship that first year. He couldn’t stand on the sidelines for games with other freshmen not playing. He’d even have to work out with regular Joes at UL’s physical education/rec center.

"It was rough," Johnson said.

"They told me that if I come out here, I just have to do what I need in school, and I can start playing and working out with the team (later). So I had to do side workouts by myself at Bourgeois (Hall), trying to get better and get ready for the upcoming year, when I got eligible."

Trying times proved well worth the wait.

"Being away from the game that long, it did something to me," Johnson said. "I needed to get back in it. And that’s what I did."

Surviving the travail, however, required support from future Cajun teammates.

"Although I couldn’t practice with them," he said, "while I was in the dorms I’d hang around them and… they’d show me the ropes and showed me around and kept me good in school."

Once academically OK, Johnson played in 2013.

He did so sparingly, however, appearing in only a small handful of games, mostly on UL’s field-goal defense unit, because of another ongoing battle.

"He’s a guy that was a little bit out of shape in high school who is just now really transforming his body," Mark Hudspeth said.

It’s no small task.

"When I came here," Johnson said, "Coach Saunders said one of the reasons why he (saw) that I had potential was because I have great hip mobility. And (strength) Coach (Rusty) Whitt came and told me I have the best hips on the team.

"So, I can move. I lost a lot of weight, then I got a little bit faster… I’ve gotten a lot better with my hands… I got a lot more explosive.

"Still working on my goal weight, but (at 370ish) I’m 10 pounds away from Coach Whitt’s goal weight," he added. "My goal weight is to get at least 40 more."

Every two steps forward, however, seem to come with one back.

"When I lose 10 pounds, then I’m trying to work on 10 more," Johnson said, "it bounces between five pounds of me losing it, and then it goes back up, and then I lose 10 pounds.

"I don’t know how that works like that, but it just does."

The frustration felt by so many in the real world comes with repercussions on Hudspeth’s planet, too.

Johnson isn’t a starter, and he’s not a backup yet either. The Cajuns do plan to play him, though, during a 2014 season that gets underway Aug. 30 vs. Southern.

"He’s a guy that’s gonna give you a few quality snaps on first down," Hudspeth said.

Just stuff the run, in other words.

For now, that is. More can come later.

"I think he’s got a chance to be a dominant player once he gets himself into position where he can play even more," Hudspeth said. "But he’s still young, still learning, and he’s got to get in a little better shape."

Johnson — nicknamed "Big Show" — knows it.

He truly does.

"Their goal for me right now is to do two plays, and then get out once you get third down," Johnson said. "Stop the rush, and let it go to pass.

"I like the pass rush," he added. "So I’m trying to work. The more weight I lose, the better chance I get at getting in on pass rush."


Sherard Johnson said he thinks of Major Hudspeth, 4, as a little brother. (Photo: Submitted )

What Johnson is in no hurry to do, however, is forget the joys of being young.

In Louisiana, a small guy named Major founded his personal Fountain of Youth.

"It just makes me want to be a better player, a better person," he said of his relationship with the coach’s young one. "Being around him changed me from where I came from and what I grew up in.

"My real little brother, he’s a grown man now — so he does his thing. Major is the ‘little’ little brother I’ve got. And he’s like family here. So I try to be around him as much as possible."

Whenever Johnson visits, the two get along swimmingly.

Most of the time.

"When he comes over to the house, they genuinely play together," Tyla Hudspeth said. "It’s not like Sherard’s doing us a favor, or he’s just trying to be nice or be a good role model.

"I mean… they run around the house, play hide-and-go-seek and fight over who watches what on TV. They’re like best friends."

Different size?

Different age?

Different looks?

None of that matters.

The relationship, Tyla Hudspeth thinks, has "calmed" Johnson.

"It’s comfortable," she said.

"(They) look at each other like brothers," the coach’s wife added. "It’s family to (Johnson)."

With that, though, comes added accountability to which Mark Hudspeth holds Johnson.

Tyla Hudspeth recalls one particular day that was hammered home.

"He (Johnson) was supposed to go to church with us, and he went out (the previous night) for his birthday," she said. "He slept in; he missed church.

"So he comes over that afternoon, and Mark sat him down and said, ‘Sherard, you need to tell Major why you didn’t go to church this morning.’ (Hudspeth) … kind of called him out and put him on the spot. He was so humble — you know, ‘I’m so sorry; hey, I let you down.’

"He’s aware that he is an influence, and that people notice him, and he’s very careful with what he does and says," Tyla Hudspeth added. "Like I (said) with Major earlier, it obviously pays off, because Major uses the manners he learned from Sherard."

They may not always have been from the book of Miss Manners. But Miss Tyla certainly approves of them now.

"He is who he says he was gonna be," she said. "The first time I ever met him, he was sitting alone, watching (an open-to-the-public) practice, because he couldn’t participate yet, and I struck up a conversation with him.

"He said, ‘Miss Tyla, I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna work hard and I’m gonna do everything the coaches tell me to do.’ And he spelled out exactly who he is today."