Most college athletes spend their offseasons lifting weights and conditioning. Johnell Wortham spent his last few years working the graveyard shift in a Wal-Mart freezer just to make ends meet.
Wortham was a running back at AU in 2013 before leaving school a year later to work full-time. During his lone season, he led the team in rushing and gained 840 total yards in 10 games. The now 26-year-old running back is ready to prove he still has what it takes to play college football.
“I had a nine-to-five job and I was still taking classes,” said Wortham. “I was trying to stay in school and not fall too far behind. Through all that, I kept working out and staying in shape to potentially make a comeback. I wanted to redeem what happened before. I wanted to come back and be the change that AU needed, as far as football, and also get my degree.”
Wortham was contacted by his former teammate and current graduate assistant Codie Flecker.
Flecker knew Wortham had another year of eligibility and had been staying in shape.
“My relationship with Coach Fleck was a big part of me getting back into the mix,” said Wortham. “Coach Rock is a great guy too, he’ll do anything for you. He’s given me nothing but love since I got here. He welcomed me in and gave me my shot, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Physically, there’s a lot to like about Wortham. His 6’1” 215 pound frame bruises defenses and makes him very hard to take down. For comparison, he is the same height and 16 pounds lighter than Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley. He’s also a year older than Gurley.
Not only does his physique stand out, but also his demeanor. Wortham is a humble, veteran presence on a very young Ravens team, with just shy of 50 freshmen on the roster.
“I’m coming back with experience,” added Wortham. “So I can say to these guys, ‘This is what we need to do. This is what this should look like.’ From a competitive standpoint, I’m here to show them how the game is supposed to be played. It’s a competitive sport and the best way to help these guys out is to lead by example.”
Wortham was able to show off that experience in AU’s 34-21 win over North Park in their season opener. He took a handoff up the middle for a 64 yard go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, sealing the win for the Ravens. Wortham finished the day with 17 carries for 121 yards.
He and sophomore running back Reggie Lipscomb split carries on Saturday, giving the team a nice one-two punch at running back, and allow for Coach Rock to keep fresh legs in the game at all times. The two also have a great working relationship, despite competing with each other for playing time.
“Reggie is a young running back with a ton of potential, the sky’s the limit for him,” said Wortham. “I feel like I took him under my wing, with me being older and having more experience. I wanted to pass on some knowledge for him to use going into his junior and senior year after I’m gone.”
Wortham has embraced being a leader for the team. He noted that he loves the new culture the Ravens have and how it truly feels like they are a family. Part of the comradery, Wortham said, is due to living in the dorms with most of his teammates.
The opportunity to finish his degree might have been one reason Wortham returned to AU, but the main thing was his love for football.
“For me, the best thing about football is that it’s a competitive sport, and I love to compete,” said Wortham. “You can prove people wrong in this sport. If you had a down season or a down game, you can come back and prove people wrong in football. It’s just the best game on earth.”
Wortham will be looking to help lead a talented AU offense this season, which will be his last. After receiving two redshirts, this is his senior season, and possibly his last chance to play football.
“AU football is way different, this is a 360 turnaround,” added Wortham. “Sometimes I feel like I’m at a different college, that’s how much has changed since I was here, but my goal has stayed the same: get to the postseason. We haven’t done that in a while and I’m just trying to be the change.”