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Viewpoint Cornelius Johnson chooses Michigan and warms his mom’s maize-and-blue heart

December 20, 2018

GREENWICH — Dr. Cassandra Tribble opened her jacket to display the unmistakable maize block M on the upper left side of her shirt.

“Right here,” she said. “Close to my heart.”

Tribble, an anesthesiologist at Greenwich Hospital, received her medical degree from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1990. She is a Detroit girl. She drops Bo Schembechler and Fab Five references.

So sure, that maize block M is close to her heart. Even closer to her heart is her son, and on a Wednesday morning when Cornelius Johnson signed to play football at Michigan, Mom was thrilled that he had found his own destiny.

“Top schools in law, medicine, business, a great alumni network,” Tribble said. “In terms of his choice, Michigan’s one of the few places where you can get the best of academics and football.

“But I truly wanted him to have his own process, to have his own experience. I didn’t force. I didn’t encourage. No way. I just wouldn’t do that. It’s too important. This is his journey. This is not my journey.”

Around the nation, around the state, top players pulled out their pens on national signing day. There was Clemson-bound quarterback Taisun Phommachanh at Avon Old Farms. Over in Montville, a handful of St. Thomas More players signed with Division I schools. Up in Storrs, there was UConn coach Randy Edsall discussing his 11 recruits.

Matters were a little different and considerably more exciting at 9:15 a.m. in a packed auditorium at Brunswick School. Others in state already had given verbal commitments. Johnson, the 6-foot-3, 198-pound senior wide receiver and the state Gatorade Player of the Year, had not. There was drama surrounding the consensus four-star recruit.

“Seeing all these people sort of bugged me out a little, but I was able to stay composed,” Johnson said. “It was cool to see all the support from my classmates.”

So there he sat on the auditorium stage, flanked by his family, behind five caps. Notre Dame, Alabama, Stanford, Michigan and Penn State were his finalists. Big-time schools.

“After prayer and guidance from my God,” Johnson said, “I’m blessed and thankful to announce my commitment to the University of Michigan.”

The auditorium erupted with applause. He put on the Michigan cap.

“Go Blue!” Johnson said.

After making his official visit to Michigan over the weekend, he solidified his decision. On Tuesday morning, he called coach Jim Harbaugh, confided in family and Brunswick coach Jarret Shine and waited to make his decision public. The kid who started playing flag football at age 8 at Greenwich Boys & Girls Club — the place where LeBron James famously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach — is taking his talents to Ann Arbor.

“It feels like home,” Johnson said. “I like the energy there. I like their offensive style. I feel like I can fit in as an outside receiver. I’ve followed Michigan for a while. I’ve always had a passion for Michigan football. For it to all come together, with a scholarship, is very humbling.

“Coach Harbaugh said, ‘Great choice!’ He was hyped about it.”

Tribble says her boy is passionate. He’s hard-working. He’s funny. He’s intelligent. He loves his family.

“And,” she said, “he has loved football from the first time he went to a Patriots-Browns (game) when he was five or six. From that point on, he began drawing stadiums. We still have some of them. Stadiums captivated him. One of them had ‘Lions’ written on one end, so I was good with that. The people, the game, it’s such a blessing to have a passion in your life and the sooner you have it the sooner you can focus on it.”

And now Cornelius Johnson can draw the biggest football stadium in America.

“Yeah, the Big House,” said the 39th nationally ranked receiver in the Class of 2019. “I went to the Ohio State game last year. It was a crazy atmosphere.”

He had 50 catches for 826 yards and 12 touchdowns in leading Brunswick to the NEPSAC Class A Mike Silipo Championship Bowl. Johnson has sure hands and a vertical leap of nearly 37 inches. He also has a breathtaking one-handed helmet catch video clip against Taft — a la David Tyree from Super Bowl XLII.

“I had a gut feeling that Michigan was the best fit for him,” Shine said. “I actually told the coaching staff that not long ago. When he let me know yesterday, I was very happy. The way they run their offense. I think he really connected with Jim Harbaugh. He had a good relationship with the other schools as well, but the visit last weekend really put it over the top.

“He makes incredible plays. And they can happen at any moment. He’s fast. He’s bright. He’ll be able to go into any offense and understand techniques and what they’re trying to accomplish. People say he has some of the (celebratory) antics on the field, but he’s a humble guy, really quiet. Nothing fazes him.”

Johnson goes to prep school in Greenwich. He’s also a Greenwich kid. He went to North Street and Glenville and Central Middle schools before heading to Brunswick in the sixth grade. He was a stellar running back in the GYFL for the Riverside Gators until he went to a Football University youth camp and one of the experts correctly pointed out he’d probably grow too tall for the position.

“Cornelius loved catching the ball anyway,” his dad, Claude Johnson, said. “Side yard, backyard in the house, we had a ‘tackle room.’ Games we played with his brothers, he got way more than his 10,000 hours of catching the ball.”

Malcolm Gladwell would be pleased. It also paid off for his older brother Cassius. He’s a cornerback at the University of San Diego. A mutual friend sent Shine video of Cornelius playing for the Gators and the rest is ... well, the rest is another Connecticut kid going to Michigan.

With New Canaan offensive lineman Jack Stewart and Johnson, there will be five Connecticut guys in with Michigan 2019. Fullback Ben Mason of Newtown, offensive tackle Andrew Stueber of Darien and wide receiver Tarik Black from Hamden and Cheshire Academy already play for the Wolverines.

“A lot of credit goes to Don Brown,” Claude said. “He knows where to look.”

The Michigan defensive coordinator and the region’s recruiting coordinator is the former defensive coordinator at Yale, UConn, Boston College and, yes, interim Yale baseball coach. Don Brown is a New England guy. He knows the back roads. Brown was the first Michigan coach to visit Johnson at Brunswick.

“There are a lot of great players from the state,” Shine said. “I think coaches are starting to realize it. Michigan is doing a great job recruiting this area.”

“And going up there this past weekend sealed the deal,” Claude Johnson said.

Claude got his graduate degree at Stanford. He smiled when it was pointed out there was an unused Cardinal cap from the press conference.

“Honestly, based on what I’ve learned, the relationship with the folks there and the overall picture, Michigan is the best comprehensive choice for Cornelius,” he said.

Dr. Tribble would agree.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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