Like most high school football players, New Canaan’s Johnny Wise found himself in a state of uncertainty late last summer. The calendar year started with optimism: Wise had just led the Rams as a junior with 668 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
Wise’s future was bright: he was set to be the featured back for a program always in contention not just for state titles but the No. 1 ranking in Connecticut. FBS schools had already started to take notice of the 6-2, 205-pound back.
But Covid-19 would turn the shine into darkness for many, and Wise was no different. After six weeks of delays, the state canceled the fall football season. Without any games, Wise was not going to be able to make any additional positive impressions on schools.
Wise did, however, have an escape hatch. His family has owned a lakeside home in Lincolnton, GA., a town of about 1,850 citizens less than two hours from the South Carolina border. Wise’s father, John, had reached out in early spring to Lee Chomskis, the new football coach at Lincoln County High School, about the possibility of Wise moving down to play football in the fall.
Five months later, Wise had a difficult choice.
“When things first got canceled I was kind of debating it. What I should do. My dad talked to Coach Marinelli and he said definitely do it,” recalled Wise, referring to New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli’s recommendation to play in Georgia. “I was getting interest from FBS schools but I didn’t have any offers. With everything canceled in Connecticut I wasn’t going to get the opportunity and with a postgrad year with everything going on I didn’t know what would happen. After talking everything over I knew it was going to be a tough decision to move but it was definitely the right move for my future.”
The next time Chomskis heard from John Wise, he gave him a message: Come on down to Lincoln.
Everything would break perfectly for Wise at every turn. By the time the season ended 24 days ago, with a loss in the state quarterfinals, Wise, who said he had played one series on defense at New Canaan, led the Red Devils in tackles and was named the Region 8A Defensive Player of the Year.
After being converted to linebacker in his first game, Wise shined. He already has an offer from the U.S. Naval Academy and hopes to have others forthcoming.
“I definitely enjoyed playing defense,” Wise said. “It was a lot different than playing running back. I had a lot of fun.”
If timing is everything, Wise arrived in Georgia with metronomic precision. He lived in the family home with his father, who regularly splits time for work between here and South Carolina. Lincoln County had a bye week upon his arrival after losing its opener.
Wise had a week to get acclimated from a football standpoint, and to a new school with a student body of 330 kids. Chomskis inherited a team that, due in part to Covid, had just 35 players and five seniors.
“We are a little bitty town; you can throw a rock from the doctors’ office to where we practice,” Chomskis said. “We were really in need of a linebacker. He’s built like one. All his film was running. He’s a heck of a runner too. He has incredibly soft hands.”
Chomskis runs a Wing T and already had two solid running backs. Wise was still getting up to speed with the playbook leading up to his first game for Lincoln County, against Westside.
“Initially I was going to play offense like I did at New Canaan and then someone got tired during the game on defense so I went in and made three tackles in a row and ended up playing the rest of the game,” Wise said. “This was before I had learned all the plays on offense.”
Wise finished with nine tackles in a 7-6 win, had a season-high 16 two games later and, despite missing one more game due to a concussion, finished with 99, including 14 in the season-ending loss.
Wise also had three receptions that all went for touchdowns, scored two more rushing and one on an interception return.
“Lincoln County is rural and really into football, and it is a really high level,” Wise said. “Players are a lot faster and stronger at the skill positions than what I would be facing here. Kids with FBS and Power 5 offers at skill positions. It was a lot of fun and a good challenge to go up against.”
One of the biggest fears expressed by parents who explored moving to other areas last summer for football season was whether their kids would be accepted by teammates that grew up playing together for years.
That was never a problem for Wise, due, Chomskis said, both to circumstances and his best defensive player’s demeanor.
“If we had been here a long while as a staff and had 60 players on the team and everything was kind of set, with a big senior class coming back, I could see where it would take a special young man to make it work and a special group of young men in that town to make it work,” Chomskis said. “But we didn’t have that scenario. We were very thin. Our kids want to win. Winning is important in this community. I’d be lying if I said every parent was excited but I never had a problem with our team. Our kids embraced him. And Johnny’s very easy to embrace because he’s very quiet, he’s very humble. He doesn’t want a lot of attention. Because of who he is as a person it made it work very well and it made it work quickly.”
Added Wise, “My teammates were great. They are really competitive and really wanted to win and were really unselfish. They were welcoming to me and I was very fortunate to go to that situation.”
Chomskis never heard of New Canaan before this year but said he feels after coaching Wise that he now has some familiarity with the town’s football team.
“I want the head coach up there to know what a quality football player we received,” Chomskis said. “I give all the credit to his parents and that coaching staff in Connecticut. They sent us a finished product. He wasn’t just an athlete. He was a football player. That doesn’t happen unless you come from a quality program.”
Wise will finish his semester at Lincoln County two weeks from Wednesday. He said he is undecided whether he will stay there through the school year or return to New Canaan.
For Wise, a calculated gamble hit the jackpot.
Asked if he thought he would have the offer from Navy if he had stayed here, Wise said, “Probably not because I wouldn’t have been playing defense in New Canaan. I don’t know what would have happened but going to Georgia definitely opened doors for that.”