ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Todd Johnson had to make a difficult phone call. He had tell Karan Higdon’s mother that her son was earning a “C” in Spanish class.
Johnson, who was the football coach at Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., offered Samantha Christian an alternative. Higdon could transfer to another class with a different teacher, who would focus on helping Higdon learn the language and help raise his grade.
“She told me, ‘He’s going to learn Spanish, and he’s not going to get a ‘C,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘He’s going to show the teacher that he can get an ‘A’ in that class.’ ”
Higdon earned the “A,” and it wasn’t just a testament to his mother’s insistence. It was a testament to his family’s values and character.
“Family is definitely vital and important for me,” said Higdon, a junior who rushed for a career-high 200 yards and 3 touchdowns in Michigan’s 27-20 overtime win Saturday at Indiana. “I do everything I can for my family. I would bleed, sleep and breathe every day for my family. My biggest thing is to make sure I’m the most productive male I can be for my family.”
Higdon has blossomed into a capable running back, rushing for 401 yards with a team-high 5 touchdowns this season. Away from the field, he uses his family values and strength of character to better his community.
As Riverview golf coach and former longtime football coach John Sprague explained, “Karan always looks for the good in people.”
‘I told you I wasn’t going to leave’
Higdon’s family moved to Michigan to follow his football and his academic pursuits, but he remains faithful to Sarasota.
He returns to Riverview High School to speak with former classmates, current students, and members of the Rams football team. When he talks, he doesn’t talk about what he has accomplished, or what he wants to do with his life.
“He talks about the standards he lives his life to,” first-year Riverview coach Josh Smithers said. “Making good decisions off the field. Academics. The importance of surrounding yourself with people who have your best interests, instead of people who use you to their own advantage.
“Because he lives to a very high moral standard, he sends an important, strong message. And the kids love it. They buy into it.”
Smithers formerly coached at nearby Cardinal Mooney in Sarasota, and in the summer, his teams competed against Higdon’s in 7-on-7 football. He knew Higdon got questions about why he was staying at Riverview and not transferring to a higher-profile program.
“He stayed loyal to Todd Johnson, and he never batted an eye,” Smithers said. “That showed a lot of character in a day and age where kids may want to leave a program that may not be successful. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to play on a team that didn’t win eight, nine or 10 games a year or made the playoffs.“
Even Johnson, who played in the NFL, had to have that talk with Higdon once or twice a year. Finally, when Higdon was a junior, he took the reins and had a heart-to-heart conversation with his coach.
“He told me, ‘When I came here, I told you I wasn’t going to leave,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘I’ll be here for four years, and I’m going to be a Riverview Ram for the rest of my life.’ ”
That conversation, Johnson explained, was a remarkable show of maturity for a 15-year-old. First, to have the bravery to say it. Second, to have the maturity to follow through.
An eye on the future
Sprague coached Higdon’s mother, Samantha, at Riverview High School in the 1990s, when she was a sprinter on the track team.
“I never saw a bad attitude out of her,” Sprague said. “Her relay team would lose a close race and she’d say, ‘We’ve got to work harder.’ That’s how Karan is, too.”
Higdon originally committed to play football at Iowa. On National Signing Day in 2015, Sprague bought his former student a pair of Hawkeyes earrings as a gift to celebrate her son’s college decision.
Higdon’s family arrived at Riverview High School that morning, wearing Michigan gear. He asked why Higdon chose Michigan over Iowa.
“If I didn’t play football, I’d want a degree from Michigan,” Higdon told Sprague.
Higdon organized and hosted the “Who Next Football Camp,” in May in North Port, Fla., about 35 miles southeast of Sarasota. The camp was held on the same fields where he played Pop Warner football.
“I’m always about giving back to the community, and helping people as much as I can,” Higdon said.
He knew what it took to reach the college level, academically and athletically. He knew that he could set an example.
Higdon plans to host another camp next spring in North Port. He also started a mentoring program for at-risk students with former Michigan teammate Wayne Lyons.
Higdon takes every opportunity to go back — and give back — to the area where came from. He owed that to his mom.
”She’s always pushed me to give back,” Higdon said. “If I get blessed with something, give a blessing to someone else. Now that I’m on a platform to really extend those blessings, why not do it?”