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DETROIT — There is some question as to who had the upper hand when Matt Johnson and Artie Rowell faced one another in high school.
“The best thing I can say is that Artie never sacked me,” Johnson said with a smile. “He got close a couple of times. … I’m proud to say I never met him during a game.”
When Rowell was asked if he ever tackled Johnson, he said, “He claims not, but I got him a few times.”
It’s the kind of back-and-forth you would expect from friends. So do not misunderstand: While Johnson, the starting quarterback on the Bowling Green State University football team, and Rowell, the starting center for Pittsburgh, will stand on opposite sidelines for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Thursday, they are still friends.
It was a friendship forged on the fields around their hometown of Harrisburg, Pa. And it is a friendship that already has withstood the tests of time, distance — and competition.
“We played each other in little league baseball, basketball, all that stuff,” Rowell said. “We went to middle school together.”
But in high school their paths split: Johnson chose to play quarterback at the city’s private school, Bishop McDevitt, while Rowell played offense and defense for the public school, Central Dauphin.
“A lot of my friends are older than me — and they were already at McDevitt,” Johnson said about his decision. “Plus, I knew coach [Jeff Weachter] had a great track record of getting guys into Division I programs.”
Did Johnson try to recruit Rowell to McDevitt?
“Absolutely! He’s a monster,” Johnson said.
The two friends split their four high school meetings, as Rowell’s Central Dauphin team won their freshman and senior years, while Johnson’s McDevitt team won their sophomore and junior seasons.
Their paths seemed to separate forever when Johnson signed with Bowling Green and Rowell joined Pitt. But both have blossomed this season, their first as full-time starters.
Johnson took over as the Falcons’ starting quarterback and excelled, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,195 yards and 23 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He led BG to the Mid-American Conference’s East Division title, then a win over No. 16 Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game that made the Falcons 10-3 this season.
Rowell said he wasn’t able to watch too many of the Falcons’ games this year, but did tune in for their 47-27 win against the Huskies, in which Johnson completed 21 of 27 passes for 393 yards and five touchdowns.
“The things he was doing in that game looked like his high school days when he was wearing McDevitt colors,” Rowell said.
Meanwhile Rowell started all 12 games at center for the Panthers, anchoring a line for an offense that averages 160.6 rushing yards per game and 374.1 yards of total offense per contest. He helped Pitt finish with a 6-6 record, including wins over Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division champ Duke as well as Notre Dame, along with the team’s sixth consecutive bowl appearance.
Although the two schools were not scheduled to play one another during their careers, the two redshirt sophomores stayed in touch. Then, as luck would have it, Bowling Green and Pitt were paired in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl — and the excitement for a reunion grew.
“Even before [the announcement], when there was a potential that we might play them, we were texting back and forth,” Johnson said. “There was no trash-talking; it was more about getting together, maybe taking a picture together after the game.”
Well, there was a bit of trash-talking by Johnson on Twitter, who expressed the hope that he would get to face the Panthers after Pitt failed to offer him a scholarship in high school.
“He’s a good athlete, great leader, good kid,” Rowell said of Johnson. “I know he said some things on Twitter or whatever but hey, it is what it is. It’s college football.
“People come up to me in the locker room and ask me, ‘Hey what’s up with that?’ I can’t defend him, I can only say he’s a good guy.”
Their friendship will be put aside for four quarters on Thursday. Then it will certainly continue as two lifelong friends continue to pursue their passion.
“We shared the same dream — and I’m excited that we both accomplished our dream of playing Division I football,” Johnson said. “We never thought there was a chance we would play one another, because the only way would have been in a bowl game, and that’s such a rare opportunity.
“It’s going to be great for both of us.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer Sam Werner contributed to this story.