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Kansas Student Athlete Spotlight: Steven Johnson
November 03, 2011

By Matt Franzblau
Big 12 Campus Correspondent

Over the years, there have been a number of well known movie scripts detailing a collegiate walk-on's burning desire to play football. Even though Lawrence, Kan. is a far cry from the bright lights of Hollywood, KU senior linebacker Steven Johnson is authoring an equally impressive script of his own.

Johnson, who sat at home and actually watched on TV as the Jayhawks celebrated their victory over Virginia Tech in the 2008 Orange Bowl, now finds himself right in the middle of KU's battles with the Big 12's best on Saturday's at Memorial Stadium.

"I would never take the whole walk-on experience back because it made me who I am today," Johnson said. "Because of it, I am a humble person, who wants to improve in life and in football."

Being humble is something that was taught to the Media, Penn. native straight out of prep school, when he was looking for a place to play football. Johnson tore his ACL and LCL during his final season at Wyoming Seminary College Prep School in 2007, meaning he had very few options at the collegiate level.

"There were some coaches who told me they did not think I would be able to play again, let alone be able to compete in Division I," Johnson remembered. "There were some that even told me to go to Division II or I-AA just to see if I could make it."

Instead of heading their advice, Johnson decided to wait it out and look for an opportunity he could make the most of; enter Kansas.

"From Colgate to Delaware and many other schools back east, no one gave me the time of day, except KU," Johnson remembered. "They were really the only ones who gave me an opportunity and I will forever be grateful that they did."

With his golden opportunity now seized, Johnson enrolled in classes at KU during the fall of 2007, knowing he would focus solely on his school work and look to get back to the gridiron the following spring. Little did he know, his season on the sidelines would prove to be one of the most memorable in Jayhawk football history. Still, the senior looks back on his decision as a wise one.

"My doctor advised me not to play football my first year here, because it would help me out in the long run," Johnson said. "My coaches at KU around that time were asking why I couldn't play, and I just told them I was going to listen to my doctor. Looking back on it, it might have been one of the best decisions I ever made."

When he finally did strap on the pads during his true freshman season of 2008, Johnson relished the small role he played during two games against FIU and South Florida, recording his first career tackle. Still, he could not help but think what his role could be if given the opportunity to make a regular appearance on the field.

"I was a walk-on and I was trying to earn a scholarship, but my family's money was thin, so I did not know how long that they could keep me here at Kansas," Johnson said. "Because of that, I used to get really down on myself and did not know where to turn, but my coaches would tell me to keep my head up and just to continue to work hard."

The senior remembers it looking so bleak, that at one point his own father was beginning to question his son's future at KU.

"It got to the point that my dad asked me if I thought I was ever going to play here," Johnson remembered. "I would just tell him, ‘dad I am here for a reason and that god did not put me here just to be here and not succeed.'
Once again that patient and persistent attitude paid off as Johnson was able to earn his scholarship his sophomore year.

"It was the last day of practice before school started (in 2009)," he remembered. "As we were warming up Coach (Mark) Mangino came over and pulled me to the side and told me that they were going to put me on scholarship for the upcoming season."

The news from his former coach gave Johnson the ability to breathe a sigh of relief and with it, the knowledge that he could put his financial concerns behind him, while finally focusing on just school and football.

"It was right in the middle of practice, so everybody was clapping with joy and tapping me on the helmet to say congratulations. I just wanted to take a second and cry but it was during practice and we were about to start hitting, so I knew I had to snap out of it."

While his celebration was short lived, he now knew his career in the Crimson and Blue wouldn't be. Now with the backing and financial support he needed, Johnson strapped on the pads and showed Jayhawk fans just what he was capable of.

In 2010, he led his team with 95 tackles, all while starting each of the 12 games KU played in. His senior season has been equally as impressive for the team captain as he again leads his fellow defensemen with 94 tackles, 5 of which were for a loss, through the first eight games of the season.

"He is playing really good football right now and is executing at a high level," said Kansas linebackers coach Vantz Singletary. "He has also worked very hard this summer and has prepared himself by working with our strength and conditioning staff."

But Singletary points to Johnson's prep work off of the field that may put him over the top, when it comes to his opponents.

"After one of our scrimmages this summer, Steve came upstairs and watched the entire scrimmage instead of viewing the film the following day with myself and the rest of the position guys," Singletary remembered.

"There are coaches who don't even do that, but he found the time to come up and grade it himself and even called me afterwards to tell me the details of what happened."

When it comes to being a team player, Steven Johnson knows all too well how to play that role. Whether it is putting in hours off the field or sweating it out on it, the senior linebacker does it all in the name of the two letters on his helmet and the one word across his chest.

"Not many people are going to remember my name," he said. "But people will always remember Kansas football."

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