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Hakeem Johnson is the 2016 Fauquier Times Liberty Boys Athlete of the Year

Monday, Jun. 27 | By Jeff Malmgren
Liberty's Hakeem Johnson showed athleticism in football, basketball and track as a senior. --Photo by Doug Stroud
Hakeem Johnson never quite perfected the high jump this spring.

Perhaps he should have inserted a ball into those events during the Liberty Eagles' track and field meets. That's because Johnson, 17, excelled as a leaper during his senior year when he had an object to pursue during the football and basketball seasons.

He led Liberty's basketball team with an incredible 3.7 offensive rebounds per game en route to earning a spot on the all-Conference 22 second team. He also led the Eagles' football team with four interceptions and 31 receptions en route to claiming a spot on the Class 4A all-state second team as a defensive back.

Johnson's speed helped make him successful in those sports, too, and that translated better to track and field season. At the Conference 22 championship meet he finished as the 100-meter dash runner-up.

Those accomplishments, spread across three sports, helped make Johnson the 2016 Fauquier Times Liberty Boys Athlete of the Year.

“In my 10 years at Liberty, he was the best defensive back that I've ever seen,” Eagles football coach Sean Finnerty said. “He ended up being one of the better kids [overall] that I've coached.”

Regardless, Johnson produced his best statistic during basketball season. The senior finished with 82 offensive rebounds in only 22 games.

“Good god,” Liberty boys basketball coach Pat Frazer said. “He brought a whole lot else to us, but this one stat is mind blowing.

“His athleticism is just tremendous,” Frazer said. “It's his desire to get the ball and just being in the right place … and knowledge of where shots are going to go. He was always moving.”

Frazer compared Johnson's rebounding instinct to that of Ryan Ramirez, the 2012 Fauquier Times Liberty Boys Athlete of the Year.

That prowess manifested most during the Eagles' final two games of this season. Johnson amassed 14 offensive rebounds in those two contests against Kettle Run.

So he finished the winter with more offensive rebounds than Liberty's next two leaders combined; center Chris Mighty had 39 and wing David Milton had 37.

Johnson credited football for helping him develop the skills needed on the basketball court.

“Playing defensive back, you get a sense for the ball,” the Remington resident said. “When the ball goes up, I go get it. … You have to have good ball skills and use your body and be physical.”

Johnson certainly didn't avoid contact on the football field. As a defensive back, he amassed 64 tackles (seven for a loss) and two forced fumbles while also deflecting nine passes.

“He wasn't just a shutdown corner, he was also a physical corner against the run,” Finnerty said. “He'd beat the wide receiver’s block and make a big tackle at the line of scrimmage.”

That's one reason Johnson earned a full football scholarship from West Virginia State University (Institute, W.Va.). He will play defensive back for the Yellow Jackets, but he also excelled as a wide receiver for Liberty.

Johnson led the Eagles this past season with eight receiving touchdowns and finished with 501 yards, including a team-best 75-yard play.

“Hakeem had great hands,” Finnerty said. “And he was the fastest kid on our football team. Whenever he got in space, he was gone.”

Johnson led Liberty with 18.6 yards per kick return and Finnerty even gave him seven carries on offense. The senior ran for 86 yards while helping the Eagles finish with a 6-5 record, including a first-round loss in the Class 4A West region playoffs.

“The goal was to go back as far as we did my junior year,” Johnson said of the 2014 Liberty team that advanced to the 4A state semifinals. “But it was still a good experience [in 2015]. I had a lot of fun.

“Winning the Bird Bowl again, that's always a good highlight,” he said of the Eagles' 13th consecutive victory over Fauquier in the regular-season finale.

Late bloomer

There was hope in change for Hakeem Johnson.

He entered high school as a 5-foot freshman running back, safety and point guard. He graduated as a 6-2 shooting guard and wide receiver with a college scholarship as a cornerback.

“He was a little scrawny, and all of a sudden he just shot up,” Johnson's mother, Shirley, said. “He was doing good at the size he was, but once he shot up I think it helped.”

Johnson grew to 5-11, 150 pounds by his junior year and earned a starting role on Liberty's football and basketball teams. Then he hit 6-2, 180 by the end of his senior year, and his production increased correspondingly.

“Our weight lifting coach helped me get faster and bigger and stronger,” Johnson said. “Junior year I was an average player, but … I just worked and worked.

“I've always wanted to play in college, but because of my height I didn't think I'd be able to get a scholarship,” he said. “All my life I was short.”

At age 4, Johnson began playing for a Fauquier Youth Football team because he wanted to emulate his older brother, Darrell Yates. During Johnson's ensuing youth years, he often played running back and quarterback – also a run-heavy position.

“I was usually the fastest person on my team,” he said. “So all my life I've been running the ball. I thought I wanted to [in high school], but I knew it was impossible because of my size. Throughout high school, I couldn't gain weight.”

So Liberty's head coach, Sean Finnerty, moved him to receiver and cornerback as a freshman. Johnson did not play a snap on varsity that season, but as a sophomore he showed promise on the junior varsity team.

During the 2013 Evergreen District JV championship game, for example, Johnson scored the winning touchdown. An Eastern View defender intercepted a pass by the Eagles, but Johnson then stripped the ball from him and ran it for a touchdown in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

“Just rips the ball out of his hands. Just a phenomenal play,” Finnerty said. “Showed us what kind of player he was going to be. … He was still fairly small, but he was a good football player.

“Everybody was like, I think this kid's really going to help us,” Finnerty said, “and I probably even underestimated how much he was really going to.”

Johnson became a two-way starter by his junior season and made the all-Conference 22 first team. As a senior he made the all-4A West Region first team as a defensive back and the all-Conference 22 first team as a receiver and cornerback, in addition to an all-state spot.

“He's probably an FCS corner,” Finnerty said of the highest level of NCAA Division I football, “but he came on the [recruiting] scene later just because his size came late.”

So West Virginia State University – a D-II team – ended up with some value in Johnson, and switching from a running back and safety to a receiver and defensive back worked out for him.

“Playing those positions got me a scholarship,” said Johnson, who also hopes to play professional football, “so I don't regret anything.”

In basketball, meanwhile, his position change happened much later. Johnson primarily played as Liberty “two” guard during his senior year after spending most of his life as a point guard. He began playing that position at age 6 for a Warrenton Youth Sports Club team while dreaming of emulating NBA player Allen Iverson.

“That's why I wear No. 3. That's why I wanted to be point guard,” Johnson said of the former Philadelphia 76ers star. “His crossover – he used to just put people on skates and score at will.”

Sports began to consume Johnson's days.

“From the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed, it's sports on TV,” his mother said. “When he was 4 or 5, that's all he talked about: He wanted to go to college and be a professional football and basketball player.”

Johnson joined Liberty's varsity basketball roster as a sophomore after point guard T.J. Jones suffered an injury. Johnson felt hesitant about moving up from junior varsity, Eagles coach Pat Frazer said, because he lacked confidence and his best friends remained on JV.

Nonetheless, Johnson adjusted and took over the starting point guard role as a junior. Unfortunately, the Eagles went only 5-14 after finishing his sophomore season with only a 1-19 record.

“It was tough, especially with a lot of friends in school coming and watching,” Johnson said. “To see you only win one game, people start making comments.”

All those losses helped convince Johnson to switch to “two” guard as a senior, though.

“I'd do whatever was helpful to win,” he said. “I got tired of losing, and [the move] made sense because I grew. … My role was to score more. I had a different mindset.”

The Eagles finished the 2015-16 season with a 10-12 record. Johnson averaged 12 points and 8 rebounds per game as he played with more confidence.

That showed perhaps most when he dunked for the first time in his career Feb. 8 during a 67-64 win against the Fauquier Falcons.

“I've had many opportunities to dunk, but I wasn't confident enough,” he said. “You don't want to miss a dunk. It's kind of embarrassing.”

Johnson, however, got a perfect opportunity against Fauquier, using a steal in the first quarter to begin a fast break.

“Everyone watching,” he said. “The adrenaline's running in a big rivalry game. … To see the crowd and how hype they got” was incredible.

A dash of speed

One tenth of a second took three months for Hakeem Johnson.

He joined the Liberty track and field team for the first time in his career this spring with the hope of improving his 40-yard dash time in preparation for his first college football season with the West Virginia State.

It worked. He cut his time from 4.56 seconds to 4.45 by the end of the season and also earned some track medals for the Eagles in the process.

“It was a fun experience,” Johnson said. “And I got a lot faster.”

Naturally, the 100-yard dash became his best track event. He finished second at the Conference 22 meet with a time of 11.32 seconds and 16th at the Class 4A West Region meet in 11.75.

“He's just fast; you can't teach speed,” Liberty track coach Helene Lehr said. “He's got a natural ability, so you could barely tell [he was new to track], but he's [also] really quick on picking things up like learning how to do blocks to get that start just right.

“He was really committed to working,” she said. “He's going to be missed next year. … He was a huge asset.”

Johnson helped Liberty's boys 800 sprint medley team qualify for the New Balance Nationals Outdoor meet. He then joined Markael Gaskins, Austin Allen and Chris Hill to place 15th in the Emerging Elite division of the nationals 800 with a time of 1:38.06 at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C.

With Johnson running the second leg of that relay (100-100-200-400), the Eagles set a personal-record time and outperformed their No. 30 seed.

“It went really well,” Lehr said. “He's such a fun kid to work with.”

Johnson, of course, offered the most to his Liberty football team. So he was named the team MVP as a senior.

“He's a quiet kid and leads by his actions, and you never had to worry about his actions,” Eagles coach Sean Finnerty. “But he plays with a lot of emotion. … He plays with a lot of passion.”

- - - - -

The Hakeem Johnson File

Family: Father, Buster, is a construction worker. Mother, Shirley, is a Culpeper County custodian. Brother, Darrell Yates, 23, is a former Liberty football player. Brother A.J., 13, is a Cedar Lee Middle football and basketball player.

Favorite football situation: "On defense, passing situations when you know they're going to pass and you get an opportunity to get an interception. I like playing man-to-man. Last year I was up against the best [receiver] every single week. ... I like to compete – just to shut the other player down. You have no help. It's just you and him. If you win, it feels great.”

Football jersey: Chose No. 1 because cornerback Vernon Hargreaves wore that at the University of Florida. “He was my favorite DB in college. He was small, but he still fought for the ball every play. He was aggressive.”

Oops: “Playing little league [football at age] 7, he caught the ball and he went in the wrong direction,” Johnson's mother said. “He was happy because he thought he was going in the right direction. But he turned around and laughed it off.”

Favorite movie: "Straight Outta Compton." "I just like the history, learning about NWA,” Johnson said. “Ice Cube, I didn't know he was a rapper" before he became an actor.

Favorite restaurant: Buffalo Wild Wings. "Every time I get the honey barbecue boneless, and I like to watch the basketball and football games.”

Favorite football team: Dallas Cowboys. "My older brother, Darrell, he liked them, and I used to follow his footsteps. But my parents like the Redskins. It's intense: for bragging rights."

Favorite athlete: Dez Bryant. "He's aggressive. I like the way he plays."

Favorite basketball team: Boston Celtics. "Rajon Rondo, I liked him, his style of play and his passes. So I started liking the Celtics.”

Favorite TV show: "Everybody Hates Chris." "It's funny, and I like learning about Chris Rock and his childhood."

Favorite music artist: Lil Uzi Vert. "I like his sort of music. I like what he raps about."

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