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Apr 27, 2022

BERKELEY – When asked about Cal junior defensive lineman Brett Johnson, Travers Family Head Football Coach Justin Wilcox didn't hesitate: "That dude's a brute."
Wilcox is not known for hyperbole. When he makes a statement, he means it, and Cal defensive line coach Andrew Browning backed him up. "That's a pretty accurate description," Browning said.
The sentiment is not only a testament to Johnson's abilities on the field, but also for his resolve to rehabilitate from a broken hip suffered in an automobile accident a year ago that kept Johnson off the field for the entire 2021 season. He is back at spring practice this April and on track for a full return in the fall.
Johnson made an immediate impact for the Bears as a freshman in 2019, starting nine games for Cal's Redbox Bowl-winning team and registering 26 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. As a result, he earned third-team Freshman All-American and third-team All-Pac-12 honors from Pro Football Focus. During Cal's COVID-shortened season in 2020, Johnson started all four games and tied for third on the squad with 20 tackles.
Expecting an even better year in 2021, Johnson's season ended before it began due to the accident. Instead, he spent the next 12 months working with Cal's high performance coaching staff to rehab and rebuild following successful hip surgery.
Now, Johnson is donning the pads again and has his eyes set on the upcoming season.
"For him to come back like he has speaks not only to his physical capabilities but his mentality," Wilcox said. "Not many people would be able to do that. It's really encouraging."
In the immediate aftermath of Johnson's injury and subsequent surgery, he turned his focus onto getting better. While others may have doubted his ability to return to football, Johnson knew that he would be back out with his teammates before long.
"It was difficult, but I think I handled it well," Johnson said. "Every once in a while I'd catch myself down in the dumps. It was a really unfortunate event, but I'm not playing victim too much about it. It happened to me. I've got to bounce back. I've got to get better. I can't change anything. I can't change the past. All I can do is try to set myself up for success in the future."
Johnson kept his attention on what he could control, which covered both the physical elements of healing and the mental aspects of learning and doing what he could to help his teammates off the field.
"One of the biggest things that we talked about when it happened was just staying engaged and not focusing on what happened," Browning said. "There are still ways to grow even when you're not playing football. He was in every meeting, taking notes, asking questions, and asking questions when we were out on the field. I really believe that when we got on the field this spring, even though he hadn't taken physical reps for a year, he's gotten better. He knows the game better from being an active participant even though he wasn't taking physical reps."
If anything, the coaches have had to limit Johnson's activities in practice – Wilcox and defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon liken it to staying on a pitch count – and not allow him to overextend himself. The goal is for him to be ready for the season opener against UC Davis on Sept. 3.
"We knew going into spring ball that he'd be back," Browning said. "We've kind of had to reel ourselves back from putting him out there too much, making sure we're conscious of how many reps he's taking. To be honest with you, I can't tell the difference from before he was injured to now. In terms of his power and his movement, I can't tell the difference."
During the spring, Johnson is participating in all of the running and movement drills with his teammates, but has been held out of some contact situations. He also has a modified weight-training routine to continue to take care of his hip joint.
"I'm working as hard as I can to be ready for fall," Johnson said. "At this point, I just have to get my strength back. I'm definitely well more than halfway there. I wouldn't say that I'm 100 percent yet, but that's what this time out here is for."
Given his attitude and work ethic, everyone associated with Cal football fully expects Johnson to be back in the lineup and looking like his old self by the fall, anchoring the defensive line and disrupting opponent offenses.