By Phil Stacey
---- — HAVERHILL — Johnnie Spears is up at 5:30 every morning.
He gets ready for school, hops in his car and makes the 15-minute drive from his home in Haverhill to Lawrence. From there, he boards a bus that takes him one hour away to South Hamilton, where he arrives at the Pingree School by 7:45 a.m.
“I don’t mind the commute,” said the 18-year-old Spears. “Going to Pingree was one of the best moves of my life.”
The folks at Pingree aren’t complaining, either.
Spears, who scored a school-record 18 touchdowns in just six games last fall, is back as Pingree’s top weapon. The Highlanders began their season yesterday at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island, the first step in what they hope will end with another prep school championship.
Quite simply, Spears is the best North Shore football player you’ve probably never seen play live.
“When college coaches call asking about Johnnie, there’s one word I always use: electric,” Pingree head coach Chris Powers said. “When he touches the football, it’s just electric. He’s really fun to watch with the ball in his hands.”
Unique is also a good word to describe Spears. The fifth-year senior isn’t big — 5-foot-8 and generously listed at 165 pounds — but he runs like a deer, can pack a wallop when he hits and has a football IQ, said Powers, that is off the charts for a high school player.
“Johnnie gets absolutely everything out of his ability,” said Pingree’s ninth-year head coach, who started the program a decade ago. “When he sets foot on that field he won’t ever take a single play off. That’s part of his special makeup.
“When I say Johnnie is quick, I don’t just mean forward and backward quick. He can be running in any direction and change, at full speed, without losing a step. It’s amazing.”
Most of the time, Spears lines up in the slot. In the Highlanders’ no-huddle, fast-paced spread offense, they love to get the ball to their athletes in space and let them do what they do best. No one is better at this than Spears, who often has absurd mismatches when linebackers try to cover him 1 on 1.
“Sometimes I’ll see (a linebacker) across the line from me and just give him a smile,” said Spears with a soft chuckle.
“We run a lot of screens, which is where I get most of my receiving yards. I like to joke with our quarterbacks that if (they) throw me a screen, that’s the quickest way to get (their) passing yards up.”
Last year he led Pingree in catches (24), receiving yards (607 for an impressive 25.3 average) and TD catches (7).
Pingree will also line him up in the backfield, where he carried 48 times for 595 yards and 10 TDs.
That means Spears had 72 touches either rushing or catching the football last year and scored an amazing 17 times — or nearly a quarter of the time. He also returned a punt to the house.
“And coach said I can plan on getting the ball a lot more this season,” said Spears, whose brother Jaymie started at defensive back at Amherst College as a freshman in 2012. “I’m ready to make the most of those.”
Defensively, Spears is a demon at cornerback who packs a wallop.
“It’s either take a hit or give a hit, and I’m not taking too many hits,” said Spears, who played at Georgetown High for two years before transferring to Pingree and repeating his sophomore year.
College football coaches love what they see in Spears, a player with long arms, superb leaping ability (a basketball all-star at point guard, he can easily dunk) and natural athleticism on the gridiron.
A plethora of schools — Villanova, New Hampshire, Maine, Bowdoin, Bates, Stonehill, Amherst, Colby, Williams, Lehigh, Springfield, Western New England, Endicott, Curry and UMass Amherst have all expressed interest in him. And that doesn’t even include the schools recruiting him for basketball. He averaged 15 points and 5 steals last winter for the New England Class C finalists.
“He’ll have good choices when that time comes,” said Powers.
“As of right now, I’m leaning towards football,” said Spears. “I think about after college, which (sport) I’d have more of a chance to keep playing, and It would definitely be football. But at the end of the day, it’ll come down to what’s best for me and my family.”
Spears is driven to succeed.
He said, “You let up for even one play, and you’ve got to watch it in film the next day and won’t feel good. I don’t ever want to feel that way.”
Spears has it all wrong. Usually, it’s his opponents that are left with a pit in their collective stomachs after trying to stop him.
Johnnie Spears’ junior year:
Games Rush Yards Avg. Catches Yards Avg. TDs
6 48 595 12.4 24 507 25.3 18
Touchdown breakdown: 10 rushing, 7 receiving, 1 punt return