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Football: Linebacker expresses himself on and off the field
The most creativity conventionally found on a football field takes the form of a swing pass or deep route. Playbooks leave little to no interpretation, and routine is an expectation rather than a guideline. Players on the defensive side of the ball have even less room for expression.
William Johnson, a freshman linebacker, is far from overrun by blocking schemes and the right-brained nature of a playbook, though. He began tapping into his creative side in seventh grade, when a teacher assigned him a poetry piece. Since then, he’s been a believer in breaking down his thoughts in that manner.
He lists childhood friend Angel Washington, an aspiring R&B singer from the West Coast whom he calls his “kid sister,” as the most prominent inspiration for his work — which, in many cases, is not taking reps on Ohio’s scout team, but rather funneling his emotions into words that line his black leather-bound notebook.
When Johnson, who graduated with honors from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., isn’t improving his game on the gridiron, he can often be found hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, shaping rhyme schemes and alliteration into well-thought interpretations of life as a collegiate football player.
“I can write a poem in the locker room right before I come out onto the field, but once I come out onto the field, everything changes,” Johnson said. “It’s football time, and I get back to whatever I’m doing when I get back to the locker room.”
However, it wasn’t until late in the recruiting process that a placard bearing Johnson’s name was affixed above a cubby in the Bobcats’ locker room.
Although the Bobcats didn’t begin recruiting Johnson until late spring, Ohio linebackers coach Ron Collins said Johnson’s strong family background framed him as a much more attractive prospect during the recruiting process.
Johnson echoed a similar sentiment, crediting his sister and parents for largely shaping his ideals — athletics and otherwise — and for inspiring his writing, which he said is mostly a way for him to take a deep breath and unclutter his thought process.
“It’s calm and relaxing,” Johnson said of his poetry, which ranges in topic from the goings on of a student-athlete and girls to his life outlook and attitude. “I can go sit in front of my dorm or anywhere quiet and just think of stuff to write.”
The connection between a strong family life, academics and athletics could stem only from Johnson’s naturally reflective demeanor, but studies suggest that creative writing could play a role as well.
Sherrie Gradin, professor of English and director of the Appalachian Writing Project, said significant gains can be seen because of reflective writing, especially when going through turbulent situations, such as a cross-country relocation, in Johnson’s case.
One such study, Kitty Klein and Adriel Boals’ “Expressive Writing Can Increase Working Memory Capacity,” states that regularly putting pen to paper promotes mental health and recollection.
In one experiment, the pair assigned 71 incoming college freshmen daily reflective writing assignments. Specific topics were assigned to 36 of the students, while the rest were instructed to interpret their thoughts and feelings. After a semester of reflection, the latter students performed better on memory tests.
Another semester-long study showed that students who write about negative experiences compared with those writing about uplifting ones reported greater declines in upsetting feelings.
Gradin said that, judging by the studies, if there’s truth in psychology such as Klein and Boals’, it is likely that student-athletes such as Johnson promote a holistic self-image and can alleviate stress by writing — therefore performing at higher levels on the field.
She said examples of such student-athletes, from an instructor’s perspective, are few and far between.
“We come to expect athletes to spend less time reading and writing and be less engaged with literacy,” she said. “That may be unfair, but nonetheless, that’s what makes it so shocking. This totally blows that out of the water.”
Freshman wide receiver Malik Rodriguez, one of Johnson’s closest teammates, said Johnson isn’t often open to sharing his poetry, but is proud of the fact that his ability to string together stanzas is far from pedestrian.
“At times, it feels kind of weird,” Johnson said of his love for poetry. “With me growing and being in college, most men would be like, ‘You write poetry? That’s weird.’ I don’t even care.”