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East High quarterback Johnnie Lang is less than 24 hours from playing in the Class 4A semifinals at Rice-Eccles Stadium and less than seven months from surrendering for his 90-day sentence after his arrest for two counts of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling in Florida in March.
Yet neither football nor his transgression tells the whole story of the teenager who wants to secure his future and improve his mother's.
Lang began playing flag football when he was 5 years old, but he was enamored with the sport after fastening his chinstrap for full contact. Lang describes the endorphins from reaching the end zone as "the best feeling," one he has enjoyed over and over.
Lang led Manatee High to the Florida Class 8A semifinals as a junior with 2,106 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. As an incoming senior, he'd hold the title as the returning leading rusher in Florida's highest classification. He worked tirelessly to defend that honor in the off-season, sweating the hills routinely at 7 a.m. each morning before reporting for secondary workouts at school.
"I want to be the best at what I do," Lang said. " 'Grind hard, shine hard' is my motto."
But after one decision, he would jeopardize his football career and his freedom.
Finding trouble • Tasked with raising two children in a single-parent environment in Bradenton, Fla., Lang's mother preached the importance of association.
"Watch your company," she warned Lang.
Trouble lurks in Manatee County. It found Lang's incarcerated father. "It's real rough there," Lang said. "Not a lot of us make it out."
Statistics from the Manatee County Sheriff's Office indicate 1,511 violent crimes were committed in the county of about 320,000 people in 2014. That year's data include a 200 percent rise of criminal homicide and a 40 percent increase of forcible sex offenses from the previous year.
Unlike many of his peers, Lang says he avoided mischief throughout his adolescence before "a few knucklehead friends tried to drag me into the streets."
The choice of crowd correlated with his biggest mistake. One evening in March, Lang "told my mom I was going somewhere else." Instead of being honest with his mother, he went with two teammates to eventually commit burglaries.
Lang pleaded no contest in September and entered a plea agreement consisting of 90 days in jail, followed by five years of probation, 150 hours of community service, a requirement to obtain his high school diploma and $4,500 payment of restitution to the victims with letters of apology, according to a report by the Bradenton Herald.
"I can definitely use those [punishments] as learning lessons because once you make a mistake, you have to give back," Lang said. "Writing letters, I feel that's important because I'm letting them know I'm really sorry. That's not me as a person, that's not my character."
Starting anew • Daymon Murray's family was in the process of relocating from Florida to Utah for business. Murray had befriended Lang in middle school. Their parents had known one another for ages.
Murray's uncle Rashaad Cooper moved to Salt Lake City in 2007 after meeting his wife, a Utahn, and described the pleasantness of the area, which prompted his nephew to invite Lang on the journey into East High School's boundaries.
"I have five kids of my own," said Cooper, a Manatee High graduate who provides food and shelter for Lang. "It's a humbling experience to do this, to be able to take them away from there. … Utah has done him great."
Lang was in the wrong circle of friends, traveling down the troubled road where so many are lost. Utah wasn't an escape it was a second chance.
"He's still staring down the pipe of his consequences. He hasn't run away from anything, but if he's still there, the problems could be a lot worse," East coach Brandon Matich said. "This is a better situation for him as a human being to enable himself to grow and have opportunities that he wouldn't have there."
Matich is no stranger to adversity. He's dealt with teenagers testing the law several times during his time at East, so he fought for Lang's hardship waiver from the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA), which issued approval moments before the Leopards' fourth game of the year Sept. 18.
"The panel determined that he had presented evidence sufficient to grant the hardship," UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said. "He was ineligible in Florida. That ineligibility could be corrected by obtaining a deferral of adjudication, which we call a plea bargain. When that happened, he was eligible to play based on the judgment of the principal of the school."
Lang's eligibility proved controversial, with numerous complaints from those in favor but irritated with the process and from those against the decision fluttering into the UHSAA offices after the ruling, Van Wagoner said.
"He's going to show people different," Cooper said. "They're going to read about him and think he's a thug; he's far from that. People can judge him. When you actually get to know him, he's totally different."
'The Blind Side' • Lang's favorite movie is "The Blind Side" the story of Michael Oher, who was drafted to play in the NFL after overcoming homelessness with the help of his adoptive family.
"I feel like I relate to that movie," Lang says.
Lang is determined to redeem himself from his crime. He's accounted for 1,639 total yards and 19 touchdowns in eight games this season. He's established a personal goal to never fall below a B average in the classroom, which he's on track to achieve. He says he has solid offers from Tulane, Temple, Kentucky and Utah State, as well as strong interest from Florida State. Lang plans to play college football and study sports management or engineering with the intention of helping his mother escape the dangers of his old neighborhood.
He's inherited a leadership position within the Leopards' program, and he's trying to teach teammates to "think before you do, think of the consequences, think of your future."
Lang understands he's not defined by touchdowns or a few misguided hours in March. Lang is a humble teenager, growing into manhood after his mistake, intent on making the most of his second chance.
"You can overcome anything if you have a positive attitude," Lang said. "I knew I made a mistake and I had to get myself together, and [I] know this wasn't it for me."