JOE COX: Stephen Johnson Will Never Be Forgotten
It is a walk which every athlete must complete.
It is a walk which every athlete dreads.
For many of us, the walk comes in Little League. We play the games, we try hard at practice, but we can’t master hitting the curveball, or outrunning the blockers, or dribbling around the defense. And one day, after one game, we walk off the field. Maybe we know it’s the last time, maybe we don’t.
For others, it comes at the end of high school. It can come in anonymity or in state championship glory, but the sacrifices required and the skills needed to play a game longer are beyond most of us, whether we want them to be or not. That was my walk back in 1998 at J. Frank White Academy. I remember grounding out to second base in a regional championship game. The last out of the last game. Inning over. Game over. Sport over.
For a lucky few, it’s in college or it’s in a professional stadium or an arena. Even the greatest competitors in the world hit a limit in their skills. Even the best of the best face a day when the game passes them by.
Last Friday night, Dec. 29, in Nashville after the Music City Bowl, minutes after his final pass, his last attempt to lead Kentucky to a noble and improbable comeback, glanced off the fingertips of Tavin Richardson and left Kentucky on the short end of a 24-23 score, quarterback Stephen Johnson took his walk.
Two years ago, few would have realized how significant and poignant that walk would be.
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Kentucky was Johnson’s third college—after Grambling, after a junior college called College of the Desert. He chose UK after senior QB Patrick Towles made a late decision to leave the program to transfer to Boston College for his fifth year. Kentucky’s scrambling coaching staff needed another player—another body, honestly—to add to the QB depth chart.
They found a guy.
They found a spindly young kid who had battled Tourette’s Syndrome, who had played a little, who could run a little, maybe pass a little. He was trying to decide whether to transfer to Hawaii or Arkansas State with his last two years of college eligibility. They signed him.
He played in spring practice. Showed a little mobility, but nothing to write home about. They penciled him in at second on the depth chart, behind a four-star signee with a rifle arm, Drew Barker.
I didn’t imagine Stephen Johnson would ever take a significant snap at Kentucky. When he made his first appearance, in relief of Barker in a 45-7 loss at Florida in 2016, a friend asked me about my impressions of Johnson. “You remember Necessary Roughness?” I asked him. “Remember the back-up QB who hides behind the referee begging him to blow the whistle? It looked kind of like that.“
The next week, Barker threw an interception in the first series against New Mexico State and left the game. It became Stephen Johnson’s team, almost by default. The staff could redshirt true freshman Gunnar Hoak and cobble together an offense around Johnson. Kentucky would run a lot, but pass enough to keep the defense honest. What few counted on was how tough Johnson was.
He passed for over 300 yards against New Mexico State, and then, just started winning. His mid-range passes were sometimes atrocious, but he was a brave runner, and could fling the deep ball with surprising skill. And mostly, he just won.
When Kentucky fell behind Mississippi State (admittedly largely on the basis of Johnson’s own fumble), he drove the offense down the field in the final minute to set up a game-winning field goal. When he was injured at the team faltered without him against Austin Peay, they taped him up, put him in the game, and watched UK become bowl eligible. The following week, he outplayed the Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, passing for 338 yards and rushing for 83 more in a UK victory over Louisville (in which the Cats were a 27-point underdog).
In 2017, it was more of the same. Sometimes, he won ugly—like against Tennessee, where he was 6 of 15 passing for 46 yards, but that included a huge pass to set up his own game-winning touchdown dive. Sometimes he was disappointed—shedding tears on the field after he drove Kentucky into game-winning field goal position against Florida only for a questionable holding flag to steal the game. But he was never broken.
Even in his last game, when his pick-six seemed to seal the game, Johnson did not quit. Playing with an injured AC joint in his throwing shoulder (he seemed to indicate that a halftime shot had allowed him to finish the game), he dashed, dove, and dinked the Wildcats back into the game. When Johnson ran into the end zone one final time, coach Mark Stoops put the game on his shoulder for a potential winning two-point conversion.
Alas, this is Kentucky football. There was no Cinderella finish. Two 7-6 seasons were amazing at Kentucky, but Johnson won’t make any Wheaties boxes. While youth at local schools and churches have heard Johnson speak about his faith and his struggles, he’s still fairly anonymous outside the Kentucky area. His career statistics—4,342 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 12 interceptions—are decent, but not amazing. The NFL probably won’t come calling, and today’s hero is tomorrow's memory.
And there was that walk to take.
* * * *
Johnson headed off the field, disappointed but not defeated. His head was up, his eyes shone, and a cold but appreciative Kentucky crowd that had gathered near the UK tunnel gave him a small ovation.
Johnson was recruited as a junior. This walk was certain from the day he was signed. But nobody knew what it would mean.
Kendall Randolph didn’t know. A fellow senior who was also taking the walk, he approached Johnson. The two hugged, and nearby TV cameras, while they didn’t pick up everything, did get a few seconds of the conversation.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to play with anybody else,” said Randolph at one point to Johnson.
I know what he means.
People sometimes ask me why I cover Kentucky football. I understand their question. There are a lot of interesting stories and events in the world. Kentucky football is the Charlie Brown of college athletics. On its best day, it runs to kick the football only for somebody to pull it away again. It’s been since 1977 that Kentucky had a team that was relevant in the SEC championship race and in the national top ten. In my lifetime, and in my years of covering the team, even the successes (Two seven-win seasons) seem tinged with defeat (how close was UK to a 9- or 10-win season?)
I cover it because of Stephen Johnson, because of his toughness, because of his courage, because of how many times he reminded me that recruiting stars matter for armchair quarterbacks, but real leaders, even one with rail-thin ankles and a half-crushed arm, win games and compete on grit, on moxie, and on strength of will. And when (not if, when) the Charlie Brown that is Kentucky football connects and blasts the football of life clean through the uprights, it’ll be guys like Johnson leading the way.
And surely someday that walk will be on to Atlanta or to the College Football Playoff.
But last Friday, after a hug for a family member, the walk was up the tunnel in Nashville. Stephen Johnson left the field. I miss him already.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written six books. His most recent, "The Immaculate Inning," will be released February 1st and can be pre-ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Jamie H. Vaught