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Comeback kid

Utah’s Johnson paid his debt, looks forward to playing

Perhaps the new tattoo on Marty Johnson's left forearm — Against All Odds — says it best.

After battling two season-ending injuries, being arrested twice for DUIs, serving 30 miserable days in jail, undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse and adhering to stringent guidelines set by his coaches for nearly a year, Johnson is back.

The 6-foot, 225-pound running back, who showed glimpses of greatness in three games he played for Utah during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, will be back in uniform Thursday night in the Utes' opener against Texas A&M. Monday he was allowed to speak to the media for the first time in a year at the weekly press conference at the U.'s Smith Center.

Johnson answered every question from a throng of reporters and pulled no punches while talking about all the lows he's been through over the last couple of years. He talked about the frustration of his injuries, his problems with alcohol, the treatment he went through, which he had to pay for himself, how he hangs out with a whole new group of friends and how he has changed his overall lifestyle.

Although he won't be allowed to start, Johnson will be back on the field for the Utes for the first time in nearly two years, since he injured a knee in the fourth quarter of a win over Indiana in September 2002. Johnson began practicing with the team during spring drills but wasn't officially on the team until the start of fall practice.

"I'm ready to play," Johnson said. "It's been two years since I played. It's been so fun to be back with my teammates in practice. I've even started to like practice."

Johnson's problems began soon after that knee injury, which happened a year after a rib injury knocked him out a year earlier. He was leading the nation in rushing with more than 400 yards in two games, but without football in his life, he got into trouble in October when he drove his vehicle into a parked car. He was convicted of a class B misdemeanor DUI and a class B misdemeanor for leaving the scene of the accident.

Meyer took over for Ron McBride after the season, and Johnson was given a chance to redeem himself by his new coach. But last September, Johnson crashed his car over a curb and was arrested with his blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, two years probation, 120 hours of community service and fined $1,500. He also was ordered to continue alcohol treatment, which he had to pay for out of his own pocket.

He gives a lot of credit to Meyer for overcoming his alcohol problems.

"Coach Meyer helped me realize it was a problem and that I should take care of it," said Johnson. "I really didn't think it was a problem until I started looking at myself."

"I've done this for 19 years and dealt with more than 2,000 football players over the years, and I don't know if I've ever seen anybody reach the bottom as far as he did," said Meyer. "He had depression, no desire to compete and really had to crawl out of a hole."

What really opened Johnson's eyes was the month he had to spend in jail.

"There were some nice people in there, but even they talked to me and said that wasn't where I should be," he said. "The judge said if I got in any more trouble, I'd go back for a year, and I couldn't imagine doing it for a year. That month was hard."

Johnson was not allowed to be part of the team last spring and had to fulfill several requirements to get back on the team, including finishing his degree in sociology, staying clean from alcohol and staying out of any trouble.

"I was willing to do anything it would take," said Johnson. "I wanted to play football so bad."

Last March before spring practice began, Meyer had said he wasn't concerned about Johnson's ability on the field.

"I'm worried about him not being a guy who is a menace to society, and if he is going to be a guy who will do the right thing. I think there is some good in that person, and if we can pull the good out, then we've done our job," Meyer said at the time.

So far, so good.

"He's been great," Meyer said Monday. "He has his degree, and he's doing what he loves to do, which is play football. He's living his life for the first time the way he's supposed to live it."

Instead of partying, Johnson does things such as watching movies with his girlfriend and playing video games or cards, or "hanging out" with guys such as Alex Smith, Morgan Scalley, Eric Weddle and Bryan Borreson.

"At first I was like, 'What am I doing hanging out with the kicker (Borreson),' " Johnson said with a laugh. "But I started having fun, playing cards and stuff."

While Johnson won't be allowed to start the first two games as part of his punishment, he will play Thurday night.

"He's going to play and play a lot," said Meyer.

Johnson is excited, saying he's already been waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, thinking about the game, something that usually doesn't happen until the days right before the game.

He said physically he's in the best shape of his life and that his "body feels great."

"He's obviously changed his lifestyle," said Smith. "He's worked really hard to get where he is. I can't say enough for him how hard he's worked."

E-mail: sor@desnews.com