Theo Johnson starring for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Johnson also played for the Windsor, Ont.’s Holy Names Knights. Johnson was the 107th best prospect for the NFL Draft, according to Bleacher Report. Photo courtesy Penn State

Gridiron hopes second to being a better man

  • April 25, 2024

Theo Johnson reconnected with his Windsor, Ont., roots in the days before being selected 107th overall by the New York Giants during the fourth round of the 2024 NFL Draft on April 27.

“I’m back in the places that built me up to who I am,” said Johnson. “Seeing my old high school reminded me a lot of the good times, bad times and days that led me to the success I am having now. It was a great reminder and helped me cherish this moment.”

The 23-year-old tight end worked out in the gymnasium of his old stomping grounds, Holy Names Catholic High School. His former coach, Rob McIntyre, said the once-star athlete of the Holy Names Knights was “big time” walking through the hallways. Current students and staff wanted to meet Johnson or at least get a glimpse of the member of the 2020 graduating class as he strolled through the hallway.  

It’s almost impossible not to notice Johnson in a crowd. After all, the man is a 6’6, 260-pound behemoth. His genetic gifts are similar to those of the former NFL star and Super Bowl champion with the Seattle Seahawks, Luke Willson (6’5, 255 pounds), who also hails from Windsor. Willson, now a TSN football analyst, attended St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic Secondary School.

Willson was chosen with the 158th pick in the fifth round in his draft year. The expert consensus that Johnson, who starred for the Penn State Nittany Lions the past four seasons, would be drafted higher than his gridiron hero came to fruition. His stock was steadily on the rise because of his performance at the NFL Scouting Combine from Feb. 29 to March 3. Among tight ends, Johnson finished first in the 20-yard shuttle (4.19 seconds), tied for first in the 10-yard split (1.55 seconds), and was second in the 40-yard dash (4.57 seconds), vertical jump (39.50”) and broad jump (10’5”).

Experts suggest Johnson has the upside to become a starting tight end. He is coveted for the skill that enabled him to post 77 career receptions for 938 yards and 12 touchdowns over four seasons at Penn State. He is also valued for his leadership potential. He captained the Nittany Lions during his final campaign, helping guide his team to a robust 10-3 record, and an appearance in the Peach Bowl, where the 13th-ranked Penn State dropped a 38-25 decision to ninth-ranked Ole Miss. 

But it was never an easy path for Johnson in getting this far in his athletic career. He, along with his mother, Amy, his brothers Dominic, Nathan, Levi, Michael and Keon, navigated periods of profound tribulation. 

Back in 2008, when Johnson was seven years old, Amy and her six children fled from their former home, escaping a physically abusive husband and father. For a time, the family experienced homelessness and hunger. It was Amy, and her faith in God, that helped the family endure.

“My mom has always told me that when she got to the lowest point, when she had no clue about how she would make it work and what our life would look like, she gave everything to God,” said Johnson. “She fully trusted Him and gave all her worry and stress to Him. At that point, changes started to happen, and things started coming around for us.”

God provided Amy with the strength and determination to raise six children while she attained a Bachelor of Arts in social development studies from the University of Waterloo and later a law degree from the University of Windsor. She is now a partner for Johnson Miller Family Lawyers in Windsor and Essex County.

As a witness to the example set by his mother, Johnson said he tries to let the Lord set his path “even though that is sometimes hard to do.” He remains ever mindful of this pledge by featuring Proverbs 3:5-6 in the bio for his X account (@theo_Johnson_). This passage, attributed to King Solomon, calls on us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

Basking in the adulation of tens of thousands of people, starring in pressure-packed NFL Sunday Night Football clashes and potentially competing in North America’s most popular sporting spectacle, the Super Bowl, are prospects that Johnson would embrace if and when those opportunities arrive. However, this young man has a different vision and definition of what constitutes life success.

“The biggest thing is not to lose sight of the overarching goal of continuing to improve, not just athletically, but as a person,” said Johnson. “Real success in life is doing what you can every day to become the absolute best version of yourself. I will work my tail off to have the best possible career, but in doing so, I want to work on myself and do things to give back. I want to find fulfillment in my life outside the sport because there is more to life. I want to keep my Lord in mind through it all.”

McIntyre, who coached Johnson to multiple Ontario Federation of School Athletic Association (OFSAA) high school football championships, praised his former student-athlete, whom he talks to every other month, as “a man who cherishes his faith, a great teammate and an all-around good person.” 

When asked to share his favourite memory of Johnson, McIntyre said a moment away from the field most stands out. The educator, who also scouts for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, was most impressed watching Johnson decide where he would play college football. In addition to Penn State, Johnson received offers from Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State.

“I went on some recruiting trips with him,” said McIntyre. “Going through this complex process and seeing him make a very difficult grown man’s decision at 18 years old was probably what I remember the most.”

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