Before Saturday, My-King Johnson had managed to lay low for six months.
It’s not that Johnson disliked the attention; it’s that, like all would-be college freshmen, he was content to be seen and not heard.
So the defensive end turned down interview requests from ESPN and CBS Sports, among others. He moved to Tucson, began working out with his teammates and became employee No. 59 for an Arizona Wildcats program looking to become relevant again following a 3-9 season.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to keep anything low-key, but it was just like — interview, interview, let’s talk,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘I haven’t even played a game, I haven’t even practiced. It was like, you guys are asking me all these questions and I haven’t even had a chance to play Division I football.’
“That’s why, after the interview in February, I just stopped talking, because it was like, I’m still in high school.”
Johnson made headlines for becoming the first active Division I scholarship football player to say he was gay. At the time, Johnson — a Phoenix native and product of Tempe High School — told the Star he anticipated having a “target” on his back.
Johnson’s new teammates have been overwhelmingly supportive. Defensive lineman Kurtis Brown, Johnson’s roommate and best friend on the team, was the first to message Johnson back in February.
He told him not to worry about anything, that the rest of the players had his back.
“I said ‘you’re here to play football, and we’re here to kick some butt,’” Brown said.
Johnson appreciates the support, but says he doesn’t necessarily need it. There are bigger things to worry about.
“I was just like, you don’t even need to say that,” Johnson said. “I’m sorry but I’m not here for you to all be my best buddies. I’m here to make a name for myself, build my brand and do the best I can. I’m like, with or without your support, I’m going to do what I have to do.”
Luca Bruno is a senior defensive lineman, one of the team’s most eccentric personalities and a team leader. Bruno sees it the same way — they all support him, but they support everyone. Johnson is another player, another teammate, competing for playing time on Saturdays.
“He’s a freshman and he’s trying to prove himself,” Bruno said. “Somebody said this to me recently, I forget who, but I hope they’re talking about him more when he’s leaving then when he was coming in. I have a lot of high hopes for him, along with all the other freshmen. I have a lot of high hopes and I can tell they’re all hungry to play. Not only ‘King’ — all these guys are hungry to play.”
Johnson is hungry in another way, too. The 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pounder must put on weight if he hopes to see the field. It’s one of the reasons why Johnson is a likely redshirt candidate, even though the Wildcats are in dire need of impact players on defense.
“I gotta keep him up with me in the meal line,” defensive ends coach Brian Knorr said.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez called Johnson “a talented guy” who needs to get bigger and stronger.
Johnson used his natural strength an athleticism to overpower opponents in high school. As a senior, he managed 22ƒ sacks, including 6ƒ in one game. Johnson’s pass-rushing ability is what helped him secure scholarship offers from UA, ASU, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Texas A&M. He verbally committed to UCLA, then signed with the UA.
When Johnson moved into Arizona for the summer, nerves set in, the anxiety was overwhelming. Johnson said he lost 10 pounds while dealing with the stresses of school and football.
“I wasn’t eating. It was bad,” he said. “But I’m fine now. Now I’m just focused on getting bigger, faster, stronger.”
Johnson isn’t shying away from his role as a trailblazer, either. He understands the role he’s playing as an openly gay college football player. Kansas State offensive lineman Scott Frantz came out in July, becoming the second player — behind Johnson — to make headlines.
“The aftermath is still happening. My social status has definitely moved up,” Johnson said, laughing. “It just happens. There’s just people talking about me now. I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon.
“I love being an inspiration,” he added. “I love being the change, so I definitely don’t have a problem with that.”