GREENWICH — Cornelius Johnson traveled to Ann Arbor, where he enjoyed watching Michigan and Ohio State renew their storied football rivalry last year. Next year, Johnson will be a part of one of the sport’s most anticipated matchups.
Everyone inside Brunswick School’s Baker Theater Wednesday morning was quiet until Johnson proudly put on a Michigan hat and said, “I am blessed and thankful to announce my commitment to the University of Michigan.”
Loud applause from Johnson’s Brunswick classmates followed, as a dramatic decision-day ceremony reached its peak.
Johnson, a highly-recruited senior, made it official, signing a National Letter of Intent to play football at the University of Michigan in 2019.
Four other hats representing Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State and Stanford — rested on the table on the theater’s stage where Johnson sat, but Michigan’s fit best.
“Ultimately, I went with my gut when I made my decision,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 198-pound wide receiver. “It felt like home when I visited there and I liked the support and the energy there. That’s what influenced my decision.”
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A Greenwich resident, Johnson is receiving a full athletic scholarship to Michigan, which he chose to attend this week.
“I felt great when I visited there recently, I like the coaching staff and their energy,” said Johnson, who spent four seasons on the Bruins’ varsity football squad. “The campus is beautiful, I knew I could really picture myself there. It feels really good to get my decision off my chest and finally commit.”
A phone call to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh Tuesday morning and Wednesday’s signing sealed Johnson’s decision, which involved four other schools (Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State, Stanford).
Johnson was joined on stage Wednesday by his parents Claude Johnson and Cassandra Tribble and his younger brother Carnegie. His mother is a University of Michigan graduate.
“I’ve always had a passion for Michigan football, so to get awarded a scholarship is very humbling,” Johnson said. “I like their offensive style, I feel like I could fit in at outside receiver and I’ve been to games there before — the atmosphere when they played Ohio State last year was crazy — I could tell it was a great atmosphere to play a game.”
Claude Johnson fondly recalled when Cornelius started playing football.
“In 2008, he started playing organized football for the Boys and Girls Club (of Greenwich) in a flag football league,” said Johnson, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, who got his post graduate degree from Stanford. “He always loved it and kept developing and growing.”
Johnson’s first experience in tackle football came when he competed with the Riverside Gators of Greenwich’s GYFL. A standout running back on a Gators team that went undefeated over three seasons, wide receiver became the perfect position for Johnson as he grew taller.
“He always loved catching the ball anyway,” Claude Johnson said of Cornelius. “He forced his way on to the varsity team at Brunswick as a freshman and never looked back. Based on what I’ve learned about the University of Michigan, it’s the best comprehensive choice for Cornelius.”
During his gridiron days at Brunswick, the speedy, sure-handed Johnson amassed 2,167 receiving yards to go along with 33 touchdown receptions.
The Bruins’ 2018 season saw him catch a team-leading 50 passes for 826 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to earning All-New England First Team and All-Erickson League honors. He was also selected as the Erickson League’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year.
“It feels so great to see this happening to Cornelius,” Brunswick football coach Jarrett Shine said. “It’s something that’s never happened here before. He is a special player and he’s home-grown, from here in Greenwich. I spoke with him at length about his decision and academically and athletically it’s a good fit for him.”
Selected as the 2018-19 Gatorade Connecticut Football Player of the Year, Johnson was chosen to play in the All-American Bowl, which takes places Jan. 5 at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas, at 1 p.m.
“Some of the most fun times of my life came from playing Brunswick football,” Johnson said. “I’m grateful to my parents who have supported me and helped me accomplish my goals.”
Shine saw Johnson make the spectacular look routine numerous times on the field each season.
“We knew we were going to take him on the varsity team as a freshman and his sophomore year, we knew he was going to be big time,” Shine said. “I have all these coaches on speed dial because of him. He’s put Brunswick on the football map.”
Said Brunswick offensive coordinator Joe Early: “His freshman year he played all three wide receiver spots and tight end and we knew he was something special. This year, it got to the point that when our team was in the huddle, I would say, just throw it to No. 5.”
Including Johnson, five players from Connecticut will further their football careers at Michigan next fall. Tarik Black, who was a wide at Cheshire Academy, and Jack Stewart, a New Canaan lineman, are among the list of future Wolverines.
“Having Tarik Black join the team definitely makes it more comfortable,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have a guy from the area on the same team.”
With his decision made, Johnson is now anticipating what the challenges that come with competing at the collegiate level.
“The Big Ten is only going to help me get better, so I have to put in a lot of hard work and trust what I can do on the field,” he said. “I’m excited for the big rivalries. We will be at Penn State on Oct. 19, so I’m definitely to that and many dates for sure.”