By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Cliches are interesting to me. They are little kernels of truth wrapped up in an over-used phrase. You know, ones like “actions speak louder than words” or “every cloud has a silver lining” or maybe even “what goes around comes around.” They can be valuable information, but the information is so valuable that each phrase becomes, well, over-used.
One of my favorites is “don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s one of my favorites because I do it all the time, “judge a book by its cover,” that is. Not something I plan to do but it just happens.
It’s kind of like a middle school basketball player — we’ll call him Mike — trying to impress everyone with how talented a player he is. During a big game, with all his friends and family in the stands, Mike is playing well and his team is winning. Then, during the next timeout the opposing coach substitutes in a player for the player Mike is guarding. The new player is a short, skinny kid with hair that sticks up on his head and he wears glasses. His uniform looks two sizes too big and hangs off of him. Mike sees him and thinks, “This is going to be easy. Time to take a break.”
Then the other team brings the ball down the floor, two quick passes and boom, Mike’s opponent hits a 3 from the corner before he can get out on him. Somewhat embarrassed he thinks, “Beginner’s luck, that won’t happen again.”
Next time down the floor Mike’s opponents run the same play. Two quick passes, but this time Mike comes charging out to the corner to pick up his man. His man, the scrawny kid with the floppy uniform, head fakes and drives right past Mike to lay it in the basket. Next thing you know Mike’s on the bench watching the game. What just happened? Exactly what I’m talking about — “judging a book by its cover.”
My second favorite UK football player of all-time falls right into this category. When he first showed up at Kentucky — all 6-0 and 165 pounds of him — UK center Drake Jackson thought he was a walk-on punter. Little did he know that this guy would become the heart and soul of the Kentucky football team for the next two years.
Of course, I’m talking about Stephen Johnson. The Stephen Johnson that led UK to a 14-10 record over his two-year career at UK. Some might say that a 14-10 record is not that impressive until you consider the situation Johnson was thrust into. Drew Barker, Kentucky’s starting quarterback, went down with a season ending back injury two games into the 2016 season. Enter backup quarterback Stephen Johnson. A couple of incomplete passes later Johnson was back on the bench and the defense was headed out onto the field.
I’ll let Darrin Hinshaw explain what happened next. “I got on the phone and said, ‘Stephen, Drew is being carted off on a Gator right now and he’s not coming back,’” Hinshaw recalled. “I said, ‘You are our quarterback right now. Go out and play. Nobody else is coming in. Go out and play.’”
At that moment Johnson knew he was the starting quarterback. It was his team. This is what he said about that timely phone call from Hinshaw, “It was a very straightforward conversation, ” Johnson said. “It was very real. It put my mind where it needed to be — I’ve got to get this done or we don’t get it done as a football team and everything comes crashing down. That conversation with coach Hinshaw settled me down and got me going.”
And from that point on Johnson took the ball and ran with it, literally and figuratively.
He led the team to two bowl games and two winning seasons at a time when UK fans had grown accustomed to packing up the football equipment at the end of November.
But not anymore. Since Johnson took over on that fateful day in September, 2016, Kentucky has continued its climb from mediocrity, at best, to becoming a contender in the SEC East Division each season. But Stephen Johnson had to pay a personal price for that rise to the top.
In 2018, Johnson retired from football after his senior season. He then had surgery to repair a torn PCL and MCL ligaments in his knee and recuperate from a shredded hamstring. He also opted not to do surgery on two damaged shoulders. But the twist of this story is, those injuries never caused him to miss a complete game in 2016 or 2017. Johnson completed 15 games in a row with some of those injuries and continued to play like a champion.
Here’s how Stephen Johnson described playing each game with injuries, “There was a lot of pain,” Johnson said. “But I mean, it wasn’t a problem. It is what it is. I think most of the team knew about it, but it’s not something I was telling everybody.”
So when a person looks at the end result — 14-10 overall record and two bowl games to go along with a win over Tennessee and a win over Louisville plus a second and third place finish in the SEC East during that time period — one has to see that Stephen Johnson was an extremely tough and successful SEC quarterback. We’ve seen how successful he was but how tough was he really?
Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said, “The toughest kid I’ve ever coached, and he had the biggest heart. And sometimes”, Gran said, “toughness led to concern because Johnson never asked to be taken out of a game.” Johnson had his shoulder injured against Tennessee in 2017. But, in true Stephen Johnson fashion, he went back out on the field and rushed for the game-winning touchdown. “That’s why I liked being on the field,” Gran said. “I could look at him in the eyeballs. Are the eyes in the back of his head or can he look at you straight in the eye and talk to you? He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached. Ever.”
And it wasn’t only the coaches who noticed Johnson’s toughness and leadership. Naquez Pringle, Johnson’s former roommate said, “There were times you’d look at him on the field, (It was) like, ‘Brah get up… get up Steve, just get up…’. It’s his will and determination to get back on that field,” Pringle says. “He’s not gonna let nobody down, no matter how bad he’s hurt. He might not tell you when he’s hurt but as someone who’s been around him, you know when he’s hurting. He can’t give up. That’s just who he is.” Sometimes after games, Pringle said, “(Johnson) was so sore he could barely get out of bed and make it to treatment. But by Monday he was back on the practice field and by Saturday –- behind center, ready to go to work.”
That toughness is what every Kentucky fan loved about Stephen Johnson. Who can forget in 2017, against the Tennessee Volunteers, when number 15 In blue and white came running out of the tunnel and onto the field after spending time in the locker room during the game for yet another shoulder injury? As the Kroger Field crowd broke into wild applause, Stephen Johnson strapped on his helmet and headed back into the game.
What he did after that was magical. He rallied the Wildcats to a 29-26 win against the Volunteers that included a 3-yard quarterback carry that ended up with Johnson going airborne to reach the end zone and score the winning touchdown. One more time Stephen Johnson suffered an injury that would have knocked most players out of the game but, as always, he played through the pain to carry the Wildcats to the victory.
So for Stephen Johnson the personal sacrifice was high. Very high. But like a prize fighter who has been knocked down and is at a count of nine, Johnson always got up. He might have been wobbly, sometimes looked like he was running on one leg (which he was), but he carried Kentucky football and the Big Blue Nation to a spot in college football that allowed the 2018 team to build on Johnson’s success and create a winning season of their own with an historic 10-3 final record and Citrus Bowl win over Penn State.
None of that would have been possible if a skinny kid from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., had not turned down a scholarship offer to Hawaii to become a legend for Kentucky Football.
that’s why Stephen Johnson is my second favorite Kentucky football player of all-time.