By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. – Before becoming one of the best players in the history of Ole Miss soccer, Danielle Johnson discovered her love of the game growing up in Baton Rouge, La., where she crossed paths with a few inspirational figures on her way to Southeastern Conference stardom.
Following the lead of her older brother, Johnson started playing soccer at the age of five. She knew from the start that she enjoyed being on the pitch, but came to a crossroads several years later in middle school when she had to choose between soccer and basketball. Due to scheduling conflicts, she knew she would not be able to move forward playing both sports, so she stuck with one and has never come to regret her decision.
“I chose soccer and haven’t looked back since,” Johnson says now.
Johnson played club level ball for the Baton Rouge Soccer Club from age 11 until 18, where she was introduced to three mentors who would go on to play crucial roles in her development into an elite defender.
“During that span of time I had three coaches who greatly influenced me: Marvin Smith, Willie Davis, and Gary Buete,” Johnson recalls. “Each coach brought a different coaching style and approach to the game, but they all shared one thing – they all believed in my abilities and potential as a player.”
It was that belief that Johnson feels was the key to their influence. After all, instructing a young player is a crucial component of coaching, but shaping and inspiring a player is another aspect altogether.
“As a result,” Johnson says, “They laid the foundation to mold me into the player that I am today, and for that I am forever grateful.”
By the time Johnson entered her junior year of high school, her talents had caught the eye of Steve Holeman, who started the program at Ole Miss as head coach in 1995 and remained at the helm in Oxford until 2010 when he took the reins for Georgia in Athens.
For Johnson, Ole Miss was the perfect fit for her on and off the field. When asked about the factors that led her to Oxford, there was no shortage of positives.
“The atmosphere surrounding the college town, the camaraderie of the team, the facilities, and playing in the SEC,” Johnson said. “I felt like I could really succeed under the coaching of Steve [Holeman] and [assistant coach] Derek Greene at the time.”
Once she arrived in Oxford, Johnson’s work ethic was apparent from day one and separated her in the eyes of her coaches. Danielle pushed herself to work hard, improve and learn new skills, and she then made it a point of emphasis to translate that improvement into execution on the playing field during games.
“During my 19 years of coaching Division I soccer, there have only been a few players that literally brought their very best to every training session and every game,” Holeman said. “Danielle was one of them. Her work ethic was above and beyond what you could ask for as a coach.”
Johnson was taught to give 100 percent effort early on, but finding motivation to do so on a daily basis was never a problem for her.
“Both my parents are very hard workers and I'm sure they instilled it in me at a very young age,” she says. “But to be honest, not working hard was never really an option. I wanted to do my best and be the best.”
During her time as a Rebel, Johnson developed into one of the conference’s fiercest defenders. Her exceptional 1-on-1 defensive skills earned her freshman All-American honors in 2006, and she went on to become the only Ole Miss player to ever receive All-SEC and All-Region honors in each of her four years in Oxford.
In addition to being an all-conference defender, Johnson’s well-rounded game allowed her to contribute elsewhere for Ole Miss whenever the team needed her services. After establishing herself on the backline, Johnson moved up to play midfielder for the Rebels when injuries to teammates mandated the move.
Despite playing out of position at times, Johnson was never fazed. She filled the void in order to help her team, and she filled it at an elite level. Holeman praised Johnson’s ability to control the ball on the attack, as she rarely gave the ball away to opponents from the midfield spot.
“She may be one of the only players in SEC history to be named first team All-SEC as a defender one year and as a midfielder the next,” Holeman said.
Johnson continued to grow and develop throughout her career at Ole Miss, and as a senior captain in 2009 she led the Rebels to one of their best seasons ever. The ’09 squad posted a 13-6-2 record, finished second in the SEC Western Division and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss was ranked for six consecutive weeks that season, climbing as high as No. 17 in the Soccer America polls.
By the time her career at Ole Miss had come to a close after 81 collegiate starts, Johnson had left a lasting impression as one of the program’s all-time greats.
“She was the most complete player I ever coached and was the best defender to ever play at Ole Miss during my 15 years there,” Holeman said of his star pupil.
As incredible as she was as a player for the Rebels, it would be hard to believe that she was equally impressive as a student and a person. But Johnson’s list of off the field accolades drives that fact home without a doubt.
Johnson was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll three times – including an Academic All-Region honor in 2008 – and she was a member of the 2009 SEC Community Service Team.
Her crowning achievement came in 2009 when she was named the recipient of the UM Eugenia Connor Award, which is given annually to the outstanding junior or senior female athlete that exemplifies a true Lady Rebel with character and leadership on and off the field. Receiving the award was special for Johnson, who called the distinction an honor and a blessing.
“It could have gone to a number of worthy athletes at Ole Miss, so I am very humbled to have been chosen,” she said.
Johnson has since gone on to a career in the pros, becoming only the second Ole Miss player to make a professional roster. Johnson currently plays in Australia as a member of the Melbourne Victory, and she will begin her second year with the club when the season kicks off on Oct. 21.
Life as an international pro has been an adjustment for Johnson, but the experience has been a memorable one so far.
“The key for me is staying grounded,” Johnson said. “I consider it a blessing that I get to travel around the world while still playing the game I love. I know that it could end at any moment, so I'm just trying to enjoy the process and the experiences that God has given me.”
As Johnson continues to add to her already stellar legacy across the globe, the mark she left in Oxford will continue to set the standard for the program for many years to come.
”I consider it a blessing that I had the opportunity to coach her,” Holeman said of Johnson, who still calls him “Coach” to this day. “She possessed all the qualities you could ask for as a coach. Not only was she extremely talented and hardworking, but she was very humble and the ultimate team player.”