Prize nearly in his hands; Football: A physical anomaly on the field, senior Richard Johnson has grown at Milford Mill into a top Division I prospect, spurred on greatly by his mother's tutelage and work ethic.; HIGH SCHOOLS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Betty Swayne remembers that frightful October night a year ago, when her son, Milford Mill quarterback Richard Johnson, crumpled to the ground beneath the weight of an Eastern Tech defender during a football game.

"My baby was laying flat on his back. My baby was not moving. Tears were running down his face. That was the first time he'd ever been hurt like that," said Swayne, who leaped over a fence to be at her son's side.

"I told him, 'Hey, you don't have to go back in.' He was like, 'Nah, Ma, I'm all right,' " she recalled. "Then he goes back in, fourth quarter, and he's throwing left-handed [Johnson is right-handed] and catching passes. I was like, 'Man, my boy is something. My boy's a die-hard.' "

Swayne is not alone in the appreciation of her son's talents: Most NCAA Division I-A programs know who he is.

Johnson, a senior, is rated the state's No. 1 player by ACC Journal, and listed as the nation's fourth-best cornerback by National Recruiting Advisor. His versatility has allowed him to play punter, kicker and "every position except lineman or linebacker," coach Reggie Brooks said.

Johnson's improvisational skills -- "He's the only player I've seen who can turn a 10-yard loss into a 70-yard touchdown," said one coach -- and his 4.4-second speed drive opposing coaches crazy.

"I've coached in Ohio high school football for 10 years, and Richard Johnson is one of the most elusive kids I've ever seen," said Dulaney assistant R. J. Windows, a former two-way lineman on two straight Ohio State champion football teams. "I've seen a lot of good football, but few talents like Johnson; few players who can control the game like he can."

Wilde Lake coach Doug DuVall calls Johnson a "scouting nightmare," and "a big-time player." Baltimore County coordinator of athletics Ron Belinko, who has coached at Overlea and Eastern Tech, calls him "simply the best player I've ever seen."

"The kid plays with the confidence and the knowledge that he's capable of beating you in a number of ways," said Edmondson coach Pete Pompey. "Thing is, it's a confidence that is not cockiness, just a focused head for the game."

But the 6-foot-2, 170-pound Johnson -- whose third-ranked Millers are 9-0 and in quest of the Baltimore County 3A-4A League title -- said that all the accolades should go to his mother.

Swayne has been there, Johnson said, "when it's, 'Yo, Moms, can you please ice down my shoulder.' " And when Johnson got "the praying hands" tattooed on his left biceps.

"If I have a bad day, she picks me up," Johnson said. "She's my best friend. I can tell her anything. She's got my back."

This same tough mom is the one who made her son go to church, like she did, growing up. The one who told him he has to treat women with respect. Do his homework.

Swayne is the single mother who rough-housed with her son, took him to Little League, football and basketball practices and played catch with him in the yard -- all while earning a business degree. She also had Johnson give her away in marriage to Rodney Swayne.

"Rick's real dad wasn't instrumental in his life," said Betty Swayne, 39. "It was up to me to teach him everything about being a man."

Today, her son is the man, considering full scholarship offers from top-ranked Florida State, No. 3 Virginia Tech, No. 15 Michigan, No. 18 Purdue and Maryland.

A student with a 3.4 grade-point average, Johnson wants to go down in history as one of the best athletes ever to emerge from Baltimore County. To be mentioned alongside Milford Mill alumni Brian Jordan of the Atlanta Braves and Reggie White, a lineman with the San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots and New York Jets, "would be a thrill," Johnson said.

Concerned he would not be "discovered" at Milford Mill, Johnson nearly transferred to Dunbar as a sophomore.

Swayne changed his mind.

"I said, 'If you're good, you'll get noticed wherever you are. Trust me, if you're good, they'll find you,' " Swayne said.

Now Johnson couldn't hide from recruiters even if he wanted to.

"They all say they're looking for a player who can make big plays," Johnson said. "They say I'm the first person on their chart, that I fit right into their lineup."

Johnson turned down offers from Nebraska and Syracuse.

"They're saying I can quarterback in their option offense since it's what we run at Milford Mill," he said. "Truth is, I want to be a college wide receiver.

"Wide receiver's a position that doesn't depend so much on size as it does your ability to get open. For my field vision, senses, being able to feel linebackers coming, quarterback's a position I've been able to make big plays. But I never really liked it."

Having led the Millers' basketball team in scoring (20 points a game) and rebounds (10) last season, Johnson earned the nickname "Baby Chuck" from assistant football coach Mike Jones. The moniker is a reference to former Florida State quarterback and basketball guard Charlie Ward, currently with the New York Knicks.

In 2 1/2 seasons of football, Johnson has passed for 2,923 yards and 39 touchdowns, rushed for 2,490 yards and 24 scores. He has returned eight kickoffs and punts for touchdowns, and caught four passes for scores.

Dundalk coach Eric Webber was left amazed after watching Johnson engineer a 36-0 shutout of his Owls.

"On one play, we had him 12 yards deep, scrambling in the backfield. But he broke loose -- six guys had a hand on him and never tackled him," Webber said. "He can beat you deep, he can run the ball and he can make you miss. I've never seen a better high school football player than Richard Johnson."

Johnson has been throwing passes to teammate Brandon Thompson since early childhood.

"We live like 10 seconds apart, and we'd work out in the back yard all the time," said Thompson, a senior who's a double-threat with receiver Renard Stancil. "I'm able to tell him if I don't like something, he understands, and vice versa. We have a great bond."

"Did he tell you about their audible system?" Brooks asked.

"They put it in themselves. It's something I know nothing about," Brooks added. "I don't have any idea what they're going to do, and as a coach, I'm not ashamed to say that. They get up there and do it, and I'm as surprised as everyone else at the results."

But Johnson had one of his worst outings in a recent 24-19 win over Woodlawn, being sacked four times and losing two of three fumbles. Johnson had passed for 14 touchdowns entering the game, but threw none that day.

Before the game, however, Woodlawn coach Reggie White said, "Richard can have a bad day and out-shine most people. He can still beat you on his worst day."

Johnson made him a prophet, breaking two tackles along the sideline to score the game-winner on a 55-yard run.

"With Richard, all eyes are always on him, like, 'Which spectacular move is he going to do to win this game?' " White said.

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