KNIGHTDALE — A football isn’t the only thing former Knightdale quarterback Marquavious Johnson carried with him on his quest to becoming a Division I athlete.
Johnson, a high school quarterback who will play receiver at East Carolina in the fall, has carried a unique work ethic, battling to be first, even in warm-ups, ever since playing for the Wendell Rams in his youth football days. But before practice is where Johnson, the N&O’s male athlete of the year, and brother Marcell began setting themselves apart.
“Before practice we would be out there practicing with our stepdad,” Johnson said. “We would just do punt return drills, kick return drills, passing, catching; just practicing before practice and working harder than everybody else.”
The Johnson boys were in Wendell until eighth grade, and many were excited about watching them play for East Wake. But that never came to be.
Wanda Pittman, the boys’ mother, moved to Knightdale, consequently changing her sons’ base school.
“It was a lot of disappointed people,” Pittman said.
The rivals Johnson and his brother grew up playing against became high school teammates instead. And that’s exactly what their stepdad, Derrick White, wanted.
“A lot of the East Wake kids were kids they grew up with,” White said. “It would have been Cinderella for them to stay there and keep that going, but I wanted to challenge them.”
By taking them out of their comfort zone, they were put in a different environment, where they learned a valuable life lesson, White said.
“An opponent doesn’t mean that he’s an enemy,” White said. “There’s going to be plenty of kids from (Knightdale) who are going to go off to college and end up on the same teams or playing in the same conferences against each other. But they all represent Wake County.”
Both boys embraced their new opportunity and accepted the challenge, ultimately helping turn the football program around, claiming track championships and also contributing on the basketball court.
Knightdale won just seven football games their first two years. But for Pittman, Knightdale’s 3-7 season in 2010 was one to remember.
“That was an exciting year because I got to see all three of (my sons) play,” Pittman said. “It was awesome.”
That season ended with a breakout play for Marquavious, who scrambled to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown against East Wake.
The transition from recreational football to high school was seamless for Johnson, and it got easier every year. His challenge was academics.
“I didn’t expect what I went into,” he said. “But I got better in the class and on the football field. And as I got better, things got easier.”
Johnson amassed more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 64 touchdowns in his career, which ended in the Knights’ deepest playoff run after beating Garner to claim the Greater Neuse 4A Conference title.
Old Dominion was the first school to offer Johnson a football scholarship. That’s when he realized he had a future in the game. But the seven-time state champion also had a passion for track.
“Signing Day was real big,” said Johnson, who signed his letter of intent alongside his brother. “I always watched it on TV, and we always wanted to one day be up there.”
On Feb. 5, he signed to play with East Carolina, where he will also run track, as Marcell signed to play football at James Madison. Friends, family, coaches and other supporters were there to celebrate their accomplishments.
“It was amazing,” Johnson said. “It felt like we were already a celebrity.”
It was an emotional day for Pittman, too, who admitted she teared up.
She wasn’t athletic, she said, and neither was their father. Yet she was watching her sons sign scholarships to play Division I sports.
“People get scholarships, but for me, my family, to get two from the same household, oh, that was awesome,” she said, smiling. “I was very happy. I was also happy because everybody that has played a part in their lives, most of them were there to help us celebrate that day at Knightdale.”
Johnson and his parents believe ECU was the best fit. He couldn’t choose between football and track, and with the Pirates he didn’t have to. But it wasn’t just that. It was the coaches, too.
“We built a great relationship,” Johnson said. “They showed me everything that I would need for my educational side and everything I would have when I go on the football field. I just fell in love when I went there for the visit.”
Johnson will return to what he believes is his natural position as a receiver at ECU, where he plans to study law and justice in hopes of becoming an investigative firefighter.
After football, Johnson just wants “to be the person that can save lives and stop fires.”
“Growing up, kids always want to be the next Michael Jordan or Mike Vick,” Pittman said. “Quay always wanted to be a firefighter. That never changed.”