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Originally published Sunday, August 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Tripper Johnson gave up his major-league quest to walk-on for Huskies in football

A year ago this week, Tripper Johnson was taking bus rides to Potomac, Md., and Salem, Va., putting the finishing touches on his eighth...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Oregon, 7 p.m., FSN

A year ago this week, Tripper Johnson was taking bus rides to Potomac, Md., and Salem, Va., putting the finishing touches on his eighth season of minor-league baseball.

Unknown to him, it turned out to be his last.

"At the time I didn't think it was going to be," said Johnson, who was a member of the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats.

But in the unforeseen directions life sometimes takes, Johnson finds himself this week preparing for his first college football season, one that begins Saturday in Eugene against the Oregon Ducks.

And after dusting off his football skills, the former Newport High multisport star has impressed coaches to the point that he seems almost certain to see the field in some capacity, be it as a reserve safety or on special teams.

"I'm a little nervous," Johnson, 26, said last week. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. But I'm also very anxious and very excited."

Johnson hit .270 last season for the Hillcats, a Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, with 10 homers and 72 runs batted in. When the season was over, the Pirates told him he wasn't in their plans, and Johnson returned home to assess his future.

"It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to play college football, that it was my dream," Johnson said. "But it didn't really start to unravel until I was a free agent in November. At the time, I thought I was going to sign back with the Pirates and get a chance to go to AA. But that didn't really turn out the way I wanted, so I decided to pursue my dream."

Johnson had been an All-KingCo Conference pick as a high-school senior in 1999 as a defensive back and running back, but turned to pro baseball when he was the 32nd pick in the 2000 Major League Baseball draft by the Baltimore Orioles. He signed a contract that included an estimated $1 million signing bonus and spent the next eight years trying to make it to the majors. But he never got past Class AA and was cut loose by the Orioles after the 2006 season.

Getting cut again by the Pirates a year later convinced Johnson it might be time to try something else, so he came home and inquired about his options, including talking to his former coaches at Newport. They suggested he look into walking on at UW, where he had signed a letter of intent to play baseball for the Huskies before opting for the pros.

"I gave baseball my best shot," he said. "No regrets. I did everything I could. I worked hard. Just one of those things that didn't work out."

UW coaches embraced his efforts to walk on, and Johnson enrolled and joined the team last spring.

Teammates, some of whom were in grade school when he was cashing his first baseball checks, were curious about their newest member.

"I You-Tubed him and found his highlight tape and said, 'Man, this guy is playing for us? He's real good,' " said redshirt freshman cornerback Quinton Richardson. "All I can do is respect him."

While he hadn't played football in more than eight years, coaches said Johnson's athletic ability was evident from the start, noting his skills in tracking a baseball may make him a natural for the secondary.

"He has been a pro baseball player, a pro athlete, so he came in this spring and did some good things and just let his natural ability flow," said secondary coach J.D. Williams. "He has some ability. Now it's just a matter of picking up the defense and everything. He's a smart kid, so I'm pleased with his progress right now."

In one practice last week, with Victor Aiyewa and Jason Wells injured, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Johnson lined up with the first team at one safety spot.

"It took me a while to figure things out and spot different formations and different tendencies in the offense," he said. "It took me a while to kind of get my mind back in football mode. But it's coming along, and I'm starting to see things now before they happen and my instincts are coming back."

If there's been a disappointment, Johnson thought he would have four years to play when he first looked to walk on. But he's since found out that some courses he had taken at Bellevue Community College and online during his baseball days counted against his eligibility. He's officially listed as a junior but said he hopes he might be able to earn a third year.

If so, he could be 28 before his playing days at UW are done, and his age has earned him some of the inevitable "old man" nicknames from teammates.

"To me he's like the cool uncle," Richardson said. "He kind of stays in his own world. I'm just happy to have him part of the team. He's going to make some things happen. I can feel it."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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