Story by Israel Mitchell
MEQUON, Wis. - When we think of some of the greatest comeback stories in sports history, a few key events may come to mind. Some may think back to Super Bowl 51 when the New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 lead to come back and defeat the Atlanta Falcons. Others may think back to the 2016 World Series when the Chicago Cubs overcame 3-1 and defeated the Cleveland Indians. What both of these great comeback stories have in common is that both teams that were down but never gave up. No matter what the media, experts, or critics said, they continued to fight and achieved their goal. Concordia University Wisconsin ACHA Men's Hockey goalie Brian Johnson is creating his own special comeback story.
In Brian's senior year of High School, his lumbar 5 sciatica 1 bone became misplaced in his back. This basically meant that Brian had a bone in his lower back out of place and it was rubbing against his spinal cord, causing tremendous pain. Against medical advisement, Johnson played out his senior year, putting his hockey career and future vocation in jeopardy.
"For me, the risk was worth it," said Johnson. "I did not want to let my teammates down, as I was the reigning and defending three-time MVP. I was a leader and captain on the team, so I did whatever was necessary to try to be there."
Playing through the back injury furthered the damage to his spine and the pain began to grow. Brian eventually came to CUW to play hockey and had aspirations to start as a freshman. Those aspirations quickly faded as his injury grew worse.
"One day I woke up for class, and I was lying in my bed and I realized I could not get up. I mean I tried, but the pain in my back was too much," said Johnson. "I called my brother Eric and he drove me to the hospital. My parents eventually came up and we decided that I needed surgery on my back."
Brian electing to have the surgery meant that he would have to sit his freshmen season of hockey and it would be the first time in his life that he would miss a season. The surgery also put Brian's dream of becoming a police officer in jeopardy as the surgery could have changed his ability to perform up to standard.
"I was devastated . . . I could not play the game I grew up playing and watching my entire life, and I didn't know how I would be after surgery. I knew that I might not be able to pass the police physical exam with a bad back. It was such a tough time for me," explained Johnson.
The surgery ended up being a success for Brian as the doctors were able to replace the bone that had been rubbing up against his spine for over a year. But the good news came with a catch. The doctors informed Brian that he might never be able to play hockey again. They strongly urged him to retire and warned him that the sport and workload would be very demanding and that he could reinjure his back.
"I was finally elated to not have pain in my back, but when the doc hit me with the news, I was like c'mon man really? I couldn't catch a break, and I couldn't just get a win," expressed Johnson.
Brian decided to consult his family about his future playing hockey. Brian grew up in a family of hockey players, his father Dwyane played hockey in college, and Brian played along with his brother Eric from the time he began playing the game. His family ultimately told him to do what he felt was right for him.
"I talked stuff over with family, but my mind was already made up. I was not going to give up the one thing that I have loved my entire life," said Johnson. "I knew the road back would be tough, but I was willing to do whatever it took to get it done. The people that doubted me along the way only fueled my fire and will to want to get back on the ice."
Brian spent the rest of his freshmen year training and rehabbing for a chance to return to the ice in his sophomore year. Brian described his freshmen year as one of the most difficult points in his lifetime.
"It was hard, point blank period," said Johnson. "All I wanted to do was skip to the end and be back in the net playing hockey. Everything was such a slow process for me. I had my surgery in October of 2016, and I wasn't cleared for skating on the ice until June of 2018. It was so frustrating."
All of Brian's hard work eventually paid off as he pushed through all of the rehab training and became medically cleared to play hockey once again. Brian would be one of two goalies on the roster and have to be the backup in the beginning.
"I was just grateful to be back playing hockey, the game I grew up playing. I knew I had to adjust to playing at the collegiate level, and that I had been out of the game for over a year, but I was ready to step into the net whenever my number was called," said Johnson.
Brian eventually did get his opportunity to play during his sophomore season as he posted a record of 4-2, led the team with a 4.69 goals against average, and finished with 153 saves in 320:03 of action.
Coming into this season, Brian wanted to elevate his game to an even higher level and prove to his doubters that his back injury had fully healed and that he was better than ever.
"People still were doubting my abilities after my sophomore year, so I just trained harder, and pushed myself to my limits to show what I'm about. I even hold the bench press record for our team in the weight room. The haters do nothing but motivate me to dominate," stated Johnson.
This season Brian is the starting goalie for the ACHA hockey team, has a save percentage of 94% and recently was named the male Chancery Student-Athlete of the Week. In response to his recent success, Johnson commented saying, "I think what is happening now is a testament to hard work and believing in yourself. I never wanted to quit, and it drove me to where I am today. Winning an award like male athlete of the week is a huge honor and it is one that I don't take for granted."
With Brian off to great start this season, the Falcons will look to their starting goalie to keep proving the doubters wrong and continue his incredible comeback story.