Record Newspapers Player of the Year: Plano’s Waleed Johnson carried team to playoffs, capped stellar career

All-State running back rushed for over 1,300 yards, scored 20 touchdowns

Plano’s Waleed Johnson picks up yards against Dixon Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 in Dixon.

Rick Ponx did not know Waleed Johnson before Johnson first set foot on a Plano football field three years ago, but the veteran coach recognized a special talent when he sees it.

It wasn’t hard to see it in Johnson.

The young man had never played organized football before moving to Plano from Chicago prior to his freshman year. It didn’t take long to make an impression.

“We watched him, and I remember the freshman games he was running all over people and he didn’t know what he was doing,” Ponx said. “He was all over the place. We said if we can harness this he’s going to be a superstar.”

In three varsity seasons Johnson rushed for almost 3,000 yards with a combined 41 touchdowns rushing and receiving. Johnson helped lead Plano to the playoffs in two of his three varsity seasons, with a spectacular Week 9 game at Marengo this fall clinching a postseason bid. And this week Johnson received a full ride to Division II Findlay University in Ohio, becoming the first scholarship kid Ponx has coached at Plano.

“And he is definitely worthy of it,” Ponx said. “I’m surprised more Division III schools didn’t talk to him. They’re missing the boat.”

Johnson has been hard to miss at Plano. This season he rushed for 1,303 yards, and also led Plano in receiving (210 yards) and kickoff return yards (232), as well as 20 touchdowns. The Kishwaukee River/Interstate 8 Blue offensive MVP, Johnson was named an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 4A All-State pick in November.

And he is the Record Newspapers Player of the Year.

Johnson saved his best performance of the season for the biggest moment. In the regular season finale against Marengo, a win-and-in matchup of 4-4 teams, Johnson carried Plano into the playoffs with 240 yards and four TDs, including a spectacular 72-yarder. He also had five tackles on defense.

“It meant a lot. That was our goal from Day 1, was to get back to the playoffs,” Johnson said. “To achieve those goals I had to come out and compete. I knew what was at stake and I showed up. I’m hungry. I just want to win every time I am out there.”

Ponx wasn’t at all surprised to see Johnson’s competitive streak shine through when the Reapers needed it most.

“His drive to be successful – he never turns it off,” Ponx said. “He wants to win at everything he does. He is a competitor and that is what it takes at the next level. I don’t care if it’s college or NFL, you have to want to compete. It’s not just saying it, it’s the way you practice, the way you carry yourself, lift weights – everything you do is competing. I think he’s going to be really good in college. No guarantee, but he wants to go in and compete immediately.”

Plano’s Waleed Johnson leaps over a defender against Dixon Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 in Dixon.

Johnson, while a newcomer to football when arriving at Plano, is no stranger to competition. He dabbled in a little bit of everything growing up – cross country, soccer, basketball, even boxing. At Plano he is a three-sport athlete – football, basketball and track.

“I always thought football was a cool sport,” Johnson said. “When I got out here to high school it was a perfect opportunity. I gave it a shot and ran with it.”

As a sophomore, his first year on varsity, Johnson provided a speedy complement to senior running back Ray Jones Jr., who rushed for almost 1,200 yards. Johnson rushed for 258 yards and three TDs and caught nine passes for 197 yards and two more TDs.

“We knew we had Ray, and Waleed created competition for Ray. I think one of the reasons Ray had such a good senior year is he had Waleed behind him,” Ponx said. “Waleed learned and saw Ray do so well and it created a hunger in Waleed.”

“At the time Ray was who I looked up to. Ray taught me everything,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be like him or better than him. I stepped into his role and shined.”

Indeed Johnson did, rushing for 1,285 yards at 8.7 yards per carry, with 17 catches for 235 yards and 16 total TDs. He was honorable mention All-State.

Johnson is not afraid to grind out the tough yards in between the tackles, but he is most dangerous getting the ball in space.

“You could put him on other teams and move him to receiver. He can be like [Miami Dolphins receiver] Tyreek [Hill],” Ponx said. “He can return punts and kickoffs, there is so much you can do because of his speed. Get him in open space and people can’t tackle him.”

It was no secret that Plano wanted the ball in Johnson’s hands, especially as the season wore on. When Andrew Cox went down with an injury, the Reapers moved quarterback Armando Martinez to fullback.

“Everybody knew that’s what we had, especially when Cox got hurt. We didn’t have a quarterback,” Ponx said. “Teams knew we would have to hand the ball off to Waleed and they still couldn’t stop him. The only team that did a good job was Dixon and they had 11 guys to the ball.”