It was Synjyn Days’ first road trip as a member of the Georgia Tech football team. He had earned the invitation to make the October 2010 trip to Wake Forest as a reward for his standout work on the scout team that week.
However, Days made a critical mistake on the trip – he was late for a team meeting. It was only by a couple of minutes, but when he arrived, the doors were locked. Teammates were texting him, asking him where he was. He was just outside the meeting room, panicked.
“I’m like, goodness, they’re about to kick me off the team,” Days recalled Thursday. “I had no clue what the consequence was. I had no clue at all.”
Thankfully for Days, the discipline was not dismissal, but coach Paul Johnson and quarterbacks and B-backs coach Brian Bohannon “ran me like crazy” the following Monday.
“That was the last time I was late,” said Days, who can now laugh about the episode with teammates.
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Days is a member of a group that is now finite in number – Tech football players who played for Johnson, who this week stepped down after 11 seasons as the Yellow Jackets coach. For those in that circle, the stories, experiences and lessons are many.
Five of them, including Days, shared with the AJC their perspective on what it was like to play for Johnson, a coach who was uncompromising and voluble, but also showed a side that few fans and outsiders ever witnessed, a combination that has engendered deep appreciation.
“He’s definitely going to be missed,” Days said.
Johnson’s searing candor was among the traits that players recalled most. In video-review sessions after games, for instance, there was little chance that he would gloss over something like a missed block.
“He definitely didn’t hold back and let you know you missed your assignment, but it was always to make you better, never to beat you down,” said Marcus Allen, a B-back who played 2013-16.
After spring practice in 2014, Jamal Golden met with Johnson in his office, as was standard for all players. Golden had begun the 2013 season as a starting safety but missed the final 10 games with a shoulder injury. Johnson had no interest in coddling him as he worked his way back.
“He let me know, ‘Hey, you didn’t perform as well as I wanted you to in the spring,’” Golden said. “‘Come fall camp, I don’t want you to think that anything’s going to be guaranteed for you. You’ve got to come out here and work.’”
Tackling was a particular issue.
“He was like, if you can’t get ’em on the ground, we’re not going to be able to play you,” Golden said.
It was a sobering moment for Golden, but the message came through clear. Golden said Johnson’s warning changed his game. He earned a spot in the starting lineup at safety and was named third-team All-ACC. He made one of the more memorable plays in Tech’s Orange Bowl victory at the end of that season, a punishing tackle that forced a fumble recovered by Tech.
“Him telling me that and letting me know that helped me up my game, and I always appreciated him for keeping it honest with me,” Golden said.
Will Jackson, an offensive lineman who played from 2010-13, similarly recalled what he called Johnson’s “brutal honesty” in words that he wasn’t sure he could repeat for publication. It could have been run blocking, weight lifting or some other aspect of playing for him – Johnson was unsparing.
“Anytime you’re in a situation with a coach like that, it probably rubs some people the wrong way,” Jackson said. “Me, personally, I appreciated it.”
David Sims, who played quarterback and then B-back from 2010-13, also recalled the language, which he described as “not necessarily PG-friendly.” Johnson’s coarse language might surface on the practice field as he oversaw the offense.
“It was always funny, especially as you got older because you could see it coming,” Sims said. “You wondered which one he would use.”
But that harshness wasn’t the only facet of Johnson that players experienced. On the field, Sims appreciated the confidence that Johnson showed in his offense by going for it so frequently on fourth down. Sims also said he saw Johnson grow more personable as his time at Tech went on. As Sims sought to get a job in coaching after his playing career ended, Johnson helped with career advice and by reaching out to colleagues, helping him get his foot in the door with a job at Shorter. Sims is now running backs coach at Furman.
When Jackson needed a letter of recommendation for application for admission into Tech’s MBA program, Johnson provided it.
“I think I got in without much issue, but I’m sure had there been an issue, he would have made a phone call,” said Jackson, now an investment banker at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “He was definitely fiercely loyal to players and people that worked for him.”
Without the lessons that Jackson said he learned from Johnson about hard work, toughness, facing adversity and attention to detail, “I definitely can say I wouldn’t be here without having played for him.”
Allen appreciated when Johnson sometimes eased off on the team in practice, allowing the Jackets to practice in “shells” (helmets, shoulder pads and shorts) instead of full pads if the team had been practicing to his standards.
When Allen closed his career at the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl (now the Gator Bowl), Johnson’s praise of Allen in an article helped him get his first job, Allen said.
“As long as you did right, did your job, were where you were supposed to be when you were supposed to be there, he was going to have your back,” said Allen, now working as a process engineer in Tennessee.
Days often attends home games and stands alongside fans on Yellow Jacket Alley as the team walks from the bus to the locker room. When Johnson spotted him, he made a point to come over to greet him with a hug.
Days recalled Johnson’s attempts at humor as the team stretched before practice.
“Sometimes they were good, sometimes it wasn’t so good, but we wanted to laugh because we were trying to get into the rotation at A-back,” Days said. “Maybe if we laughed, it might get us a couple more plays.”
In Days’ final game, at the 2014 Orange Bowl, he scored on a magnificent 69-yard run down the sideline and came back to the sideline.
“Coach Johnson, he came up to me and he said, ‘I love you’ and he gave me a hug,” Days said. “And I was like, what? I was like, my football career can officially be done.”
In January 2012, in Golden’s freshman year, his mother, Cynthia, died. Johnson and position coach Charles Kelly attended the funeral with two busloads of team members.
“That’s one thing I’ll never forget,” Golden said. “I really appreciated it. That let me know he was in my corner. He had my back.”
At Tech, Golden said he discovered a world bigger than his native Alabama and in the process became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college. He also met his wife at Tech. He is now a fleet manager and logistics coordinator and lives in Norcross. He pointed it all back to Johnson’s scholarship offer to become a Jacket.
“Coach Johnson, he’s a life-changer,” Golden said.
In ways large and small. Days’ tardiness as a freshman helped develop a habit that has served him in his work as a financial planner, four years after his final snap as a Jacket.
“If you’re not early, you’re late,” Days said, repeating a Johnson maxim. “Even now, when I go to meetings, that’s why I’ll show up 30, 45 minutes early and I’ll sit in the parking lot. I’m not going to be late.”