A year ago today, Sean Johnson was confined to his couch with a blood hose coming out of his elbow and his arm wrapped up in gauze, stabilized by a sling. It was not an ideal place for a guy expected to anchor the back end of the Ole Miss weekend rotation in 2015. Johnson was a day removed from the most significant elbow operation a baseball player can have: Tommy John surgery.
Tommy John surgery is every pitcher’s worst nightmare. It involves replacing the ulnar collateral ligament in the patient’s elbow with another tendon extracted elsewhere in the body. It is risky. Damage to the ulnar nerve can cause permanent nerve issues in the elbow. Some pitchers come back stronger from it, some come back and re-aggravate it, and some never come back at all. You just never really know.
“You can’t really think like that,” Johnson said. “You have to expect the best.”
Johnson was on a journey that had led him to this very couch in his apartment in Oxford. It was the lowest moment of his baseball career, and yet he had traveled so far just to get there.
A Durango, Colorado, native, Johnson grew up with a different favorite sport.
“I was a hockey player growing up,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know I was going to play baseball until my senior year.”
After playing shortstop, pitching and batting .440 his senior year, Johnson determined that baseball was his future. He lettered two years at Iowa Western Community College, where he won a national championship in 2014, going 10-1 with 88 strikeouts and 16 walks.
After his two years in Iowa, it came time for Johnson to find a different place to play baseball. He received offers from Louisville, Oklahoma and Ole Miss, among others— but after taking a visit, his mind was made up. He was coming to Oxford.
“My parents were really surprised I didn’t go to Oklahoma. I was born and raised a Sooners fan,” Johnson said, laughing. “But when I came down to Ole Miss and saw the atmosphere, saw the football game, and saw what it was all about down here, I couldn’t say no.”
Ole Miss was coming off its most successful season in 42 years, one that ended with a trip to Omaha, and there was an opening in the weekend rotation.
As he went through fall and winter ball, everyone expected Johnson to compete and land one of the Rebels’ weekend rotation spots. As the season got closer, he noticed some tightness in his right arm.
“We thought it was tendonitis in the forearm. It was lower elbow,” Johnson said. “Some of my mechanics changed and things weren’t feeling right.”
As a precautionary measure, coach Mike Bianco chose not to start Johnson on opening weekend, and instead pitch him an inning of relief to see where his arm was physically.
“I think I had so much adrenaline going I didn’t really feel it out there,” Johnson said of the outing.
But when he came out of the game, that adrenaline faded, and as he went down to the bullpen to throw some more, he knew it was something worse.
“I was throwing to Henri (Lartigue), and I couldn’t even get the ball to him it hurt so bad,” he said.
An MRI later that week confirmed his fear. Johnson’s ulnar collateral ligament was partially torn, and surgery was needed. Johnson called Dr. James Andrews and on March 3, 2015, Johnson underwent surgery to repair the torn ligament in his elbow.
So, there he was. Two weeks removed from being on the mound, Johnson was stuck on his couch, unable to pitch and his future uncertain.
“It was really hard to watch, it really was,” Johnson said. “I knew I was supposed to be out there winning games for us, but I couldn’t.”
That day also marked a new beginning— the start of his rehab and journey back to the mound, where he feverishly desired to be.
“All I knew is that I had to work my ass off,” Johnson said. “It just added drive to my work ethic. It made want to work harder to come back and really make an impact this year.”
The rehab began. He started from square one – regaining full range of motion in his arm – a process that usually takes four weeks. Johnson completed it in two. Next came strengthening, legs three times a week. The three-month mark came, and Johnson began doing upper body workouts. At four months, he was throwing again at 45 feet. Six weeks later, Johnson was throwing at 150 feet.
“The big thing was that a lot of people have hiccups during the process and have to take a week or so off,” he said. “I didn’t have any time off during throwing, except for maybe four or five days.”
At the six-month mark, he threw 15 pitches on a mound, which doesn’t sound like much but in actuality was quite a feat. Two months later he threw 90 pitches, 60 at full speed. He then threw live ball action for two weeks, which seemed unheard of nine months before.
“Coach (Bianco) was very impressed because I had command of all four of my pitches, and my velocity was 90-92 and I hit 93,” Johnson said.
Then the moment finally came; on February 21 2016, the one-year anniversary of his injury, Johnson threw on his powder blue number 33 jersey and ran out to the mound to start for Ole Miss.
“I had some jitters out there, I’m not going to lie,” he said.
He reached back and delivered an 88 MPH strike. Less than one year from his injury, he was finally back.
“I was just happy to be out there,” Johnson said. “I was just happy that I was able to come this far and just ‘Wow, I’m really doing this.’”
All of the rehab, and workouts and tedious 45-foot throwing sessions had paid off. He didn’t get here alone, and credits team trainer Josh Porter for helping him get to this point.
“Josh Porter is really the man that helped me get through it all. He was with me every single day, pushing me harder than I could push myself.” Johnson said. “I’m very fortunate to have the best trainer in the country on my side.”
Johnson is back, and that impact he so badly desired to make in 2016 is already being felt. He’s 2-0, and just earned a win against then-second-ranked Louisville, securing the series for the Rebels.
“That’s just who he is, just competing every day,” sophomore first baseman Will Golsan said of Johnson.
As Johnson’s success continues to grow, he said he can’t help but see what that injury brought out of him— and what he learned about himself.
“Honestly, it showed how bad I wanted to play baseball,” he said. “Just sitting out and having to watch for an entire year, it really eats inside of you. You want to get back out there. I think It just showed my love for the game.”
With his health back and the injury behind him, it’s just simply about playing the game he loves again.
“Just shut teams down. Go out there and compete for my team and throw strikes. I know I have one of the best defenses in the nation behind me,” Johnson said. “It’s just baseball. I just get to run out there and throw the ball and not worry about anything. It’s kind of like the world has been lifted off of my shoulders.”
– Brian Scott Rippee