Jamar Johnson had a plan, a vision; so much so, in fact, that a camp at his college during his playing days at the NCAA Division III level, attended by a California Football Bowls Subdivision program, helped chart Johnson’s course.
See, his University of La Verne team was hosting a satellite camp, and San Jose State’s coaching staff were among those in attendance.
Johnson, an Anaheim, California, native who recognized his football career was not on a matching trajectory to that of area prep competitors and teammates such as Matt Kalil, Matt Leinart and Matthew Slater, among myriad others, nonetheless knew he wanted a life in a game that had opened so many doors for him.
“I always knew I wanted to coach,” Johnson, a member of FootballScoop’s 2022 Minority Rising Stars, said. “During my time at La Verne, I wanted to reach out to higher spots, and I always knew I wanted to coach Division 1 football.
“San Jose State had come by during my time at La Verne, and I popped in. I shook (then-Spartans head coach) Ron Caragher’s hand, and I said, ‘I would love to work for you and be a fly on the wall. Let’s keep in touch.’”
Just a couple years later, after Johnson’s playing days had ended and he had served a graduate assistantship for the Leopards, Johnson leaned on his faith – a recurring theme across his still-ascending career arc – and packed up for San Jose State.
Must have been a great offer and opportunity, right?
Actually, no. Johnson loaded his belongings and embarked on the 360-mile journey from La Verne to the Spartans’ football complex with the only guarantee his determination.
“I just packed up and drove to San Jose State; I was going to go chase this D-1 thing and get into coaching,” said Johnson, now the wide receivers coach at Football Championship Subdivision and Atlantic Sun Conference program Central Arkansas. “I didn’t have a job. I said I’m going to grab it. I believed it in my heart and my faith in God.
“I think I got there about one or two days before spring ball, got there about 4-something, 5 in the morning.”
With nowhere to change before his reintroduction to Caragher, Johnson dressed in his car. He awaited the head coach’s arrival.
“I got dressed in my car, waited for him and when he got there, I went up to him and said hello,” Johnson said. “He asked me how I had been, and I said I’ve been great coach.
“I just got done with my masters (having earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from La Verne). I said, ‘Hopefully you remember I said I’d love to come work for you, and I’m here to do that.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You drove down here to tell me that in person?’
“He said that stuff doesn’t happen anymore. That’s awesome.”
Nonetheless, Johnson’s appearance did not mean the Spartans’ program had any openings. Not that Johnson was deterred.
He cajoled his way into a volunteer position and then began to dwell inside San Jose’s football facility. Sleeping on the floor. Showering in the facility. Eating what happened to be left over from the training table. Even hosting his now-wife, Shelcy, on dates inside the Spartans’ football home and Johnson’s temporary digs.
His former high school assistant coach and longtime mentor, Steve Calhoun, marveled at Johnson’s resiliency.
“It just shows how much passion and love he has for the game,” Calhoun, who’s trained noted NFL players Keenan Allen, Nick Foles and Jordan Love, among a bevy of loyal clients at his Armed and Dangerous Academy, said. “Because even in a situation like that, a lot of people would throw their hands up and say I’m out of here. But I talked to him every week and I just told him it was going to get better. They’re gonna recognize your determination and give you an olive branch. I’ve heard other stories like that, but now I’ve had someone live it.”
Johnson approached the situation as he encountered any other obstacle; failure never entered his mind – even as Caragher was brutally honest.
“Coach told me he didn’t have a position,” said Johnson, who still raved about Caragher’s impact on his career and life. “I said, ‘Coach, I’m willing to do it for no money. I actually had a good friend, Cameron Davis, who’s with the Detroit Lions now (as assistant defensive line coach), he was an Oakland native out in the bay, his mom still lived out there in Oakland, and I knew I could kind of pop in with her and stay there. They said if you don’t have a spot, you can stay in the office.
“It was just making ends meet, sleeping in the office, I was volunteering for four weeks doing spring ball.”
Then, making Calhoun something of a soothsayer, Johnson got his break after spring camp concluded.
“At the end of those four weeks,” Johnson recalled, “the G.A. they had just hired said, ‘I’m out.’ He left. Luckily, I was there, and the head coach brought me in and said, ‘I’m going to be giving (his position) to you.’”
Johnson transformed that graduate position on the Spartans’ offense into a full-time gig at nationally noted junior college program, Iowa Western, and then joined the staff at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, a program known as a pipeline to both major Power 5 schools and the NFL.
As that journey unfolded, Calhoun hearkened back to Johnson’s work in his Armed and Dangerous settings.
“It’s huge, just his approach,” Calhoun said. “I think him being around me and understanding, we’d have a camp on weekends with 45 quarterbacks and 55 wide receivers, and before warmups were over, I’d know all the quarterbacks’ names. Every one. Maybe 30 of those kids I’d just met that day. But I made it an important thing to my coaching staff, get to know the players’ names, and Jamar soaked that up. And now that’s why Jamar doesn’t have to worry about his kids doing the right things, about them going to class; they’re going to do that for him because they know how much he cares.
“I always said it’s putting tools in your tool box, and he took a tool and put it in his coaching box that he happened to learn from Armed and Dangerous.”
Today, Johnson has just completed the NFL’s prestigious Bill Walsh Coaching Fellowship with the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. His name already is known amongst FCS circles; now it’s percolating at the sport’s next levels.
Not that he’s focused on anything but the path in front of him.
“I’d honestly say, I think it’s exactly who I am because of those things,” Johnson said. “Right now, me coaching for the Purple Bears, UCA, it wouldn’t be as sweet if I didn’t go through those things. Sometimes you don’t know how awesome some things are until you go through some struggles. All those small hills and mountains, it felt like at the time they were so big, that all helps me be able to coach my guys.
“Ball is always going to be for sure about the Xs and Os and knowing the craft, but where you can change the game is I can’t get a kid’s mind to change unless I capture his heart. So maybe it’s sharing a struggle I had. It shows some vulnerability, and a lot of these guys have broken stories and even guys who don’t, hopefully there’s something I can share with them that connects with them – even if it’s just motivational. It plays a big part in how I coach now. I appreciate the little things. I don’t know if we live in a world right now where you just appreciate what you got.”
Where an air mattress isn’t a disadvantage but rather a vehicle to a better future.
“I did spend the majority of nights in the office at San Jose State,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of late nights working and then early mornings, and I just ended up sleeping at the office in back of the football locker room; it was the referee room, to be honest.
“So for two years, I basically lived in the back of the football facility. I would get a blowup-mattress, blankets, or I would sleep in my coach’s chair, a rolling chair, and put my feet up on another. My family and friends would feel so bad for me, but my family raised me to be thankful for what you’ve got. I felt blessed. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard, but I had to look at it like that.”
Johnson looked at his circumstances as he has learned to look at every day; as he has embodied an old family mantra.
“Learn how to take a lemon and make strawberry lemonade,” Johnson said. “That’s my family’s saying. You gotta learn how to turn whatever you got, the cards you’re dealt, into something great.
“That’s how I think all that shapes me and makes me coach how I coach today.”
Like the lemonade itself, Johnson’s is a refreshing approach.