Antonio fights his way back to the field

Sitting in a room at the L’Auberge Casino Resort in Lake Charles during Southland Conference Media Days in July, Javon Antonio looked into the camera and dispensed some advice to whomever would see the short video clip.

“Get your reps in the classroom, too. Just like the coaches say, ‘Get your reps after practice.’ Do the same thing in the classroom,” Antonio implored viewers.

“It built up,” Antonio said a little more than two months later. “It’s shown that I’m proud of myself in the classroom like I’m proud of myself on the field. It’s coming together at the right time.”

After sitting out the 2021 fall season because of academic issues, Antonio found his footing in the classroom and made a noticeable impact on the Demons’ 35-27 Southland Conference-opening win against Lamar this past Saturday.

Antonio snared a season-high nine catches for a season-best 127 yards and tied his career high with two touchdown catches in his first home game in nearly 18 months.

“It felt really good to be out there, hearing the fans call my name, remembering who I am,” he said. “It was amazing. It was love out there, really.”

Antonio’s road back to the Demon roster came on the heels of a dominant five-game debut season in the spring of 2021.

A 6-foot-4, 220-pound product of East St. John High School and Hinds Community College, Antonio hauled in 31 passes for 521 yards and four touchdowns that spring, earning second-team All-Southland Conference honors.

However, Antonio did not perform up to the level needed in the classroom and was unavailable for the fall 2021 season.

A year later, Antonio is back in his lead receiver role, wearing the jersey No. 1 that holds a place of great importance in recent Demon history.

“That is a number that is significant offensively as far as a receiver,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “He’s put himself in position to wear that. When you wear that, there are things that come with it, including making plays, and he was able to do that.”

Sitting out the 2021 fall season could have taken a toll on Antonio, but he used the time to buoy himself both athletically and academically.

While unable to play on Saturdays – something he “most definitely” missed – Antonio spent the week giving the Demon defensive backs a challenging assignment, one that helped sharpen each participant.

“We learned a lot from each other,” said junior cornerback Cedric Anderson, who stands 6-4 alongside Antonio. “We bring different things to the table. We’re not going to sit there and do the same thing every time and expect a different result. We mix it up and make each other better. We keep each other on our toes.”

Antonio has kept defenses on their collective toes throughout his nine-game Demon career. Four times in those nine games, he has topped 100 receiving yards, highlighted by a 190-yard performance in an upset of nationally ranked UIW in the Demons’ spring 2021 finale.

He also has emerged as a leader with younger receivers such as freshman Jaheim Walters turning to Antonio for words of wisdom.

Despite the significance of the No. 1 jersey in the NSU receiver room, Antonio was reluctant to don it at first.

“At first, I was like, ‘Do I have to wear the jersey?’” Antonio said. “Then I talked to some of the guys – Kendrick Price, Quan Shorts, Jazz (Ferguson). They were telling me, ‘You have to be a guy to wear that number.’ Kendrick said, ‘You were that guy in the spring season. You’re going to be that guy this year.’”

That positive reinforcement opened Antonio to sporting the jersey that has been worn by a pair of school record holders in recent years.

“I just wanted to set my own goals,” Antonio said. “Then I saw who I was coming behind. It was tradition. Jazz Ferguson went to the (Seattle) Seahawks. Quan Shorts broke records here. Then what Kendrick did.”

Antonio’s embracing of the number and the elevated expectations it entails was unsurprising to Laird, especially given what Antonio battled through the past 18 months.

“He’ll be the first to say he put himself in that situation where he was not able to play,” Laird said. “How he responded not necessarily in games, but how he responded last year on the scout team when he could play (was impressive). He comes out here day in and day out to get better. He’s not going to sit out a practice. He wants to get better. You see the competition in practice made him better. It’s been fun to watch him grow, not necessarily as a football player, but as a person, in the past 18 months.”

While Antonio will be front and center Saturday when the Demons welcome Nicholls to Turpin Stadium for Northwestern State’s annual #ForkCancer game, he can simply look to the left or right – depending on the quarter – to be reminded of how he got to where he is.

“Sitting out, I didn’t want to be an on-the-field guy,” Antonio said. “I was in the stands, watching from a different view, thinking if I do what I did again, this is where I’ll be. I needed to focus on my grades. Looking from the stands, I thought, ‘If I don’t pick this up, I’ll be here for good.’ I needed to lock in.

“I was always taught as a player and as a person to keep fighting. That’s what I’m doing.”