TEMPE — “King!” a teammate shouts from across Tempe High School’s crowded weight room.
My-King Johnson, an imposing figure even in a room full of football players, looks up mid-push-up, and responds to the summons to the coach’s office. He glides across the room in seconds, then slides into a chair in coach Brian Walker’s office. The chair stresses to contain his 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound frame.
Johnson leans back, breathes and smiles. It’s been a couple weeks since Johnson signed a national letter of intent to play at the University of Arizona, and he says he’s “still excited to be a Wildcat.”
The UA is happy to have him too — after all, the senior defensive end has the potential to make an impact on the team the moment he arrives. Johnson’s physical ability and potential attracted attention and offers from college football’s blue-blood programs. He verbally committed to UCLA before flipping to Arizona.
Johnson talks about football, family and his future.
Also this: He is set to become the first active openly gay scholarship player in major-college football history.
When Johnson told UA assistant Vince Amey about his sexuality while being recruited, the coach’s reaction — “We want you to be a Wildcat” — was exactly what he wanted to hear.
Now, the 17-year-old is an unintentional trailblazer.
“I do feel like when I say that, it can put a target on my back,” Johnson said about being open about his sexuality.
An “old soul”
Nadette Lewis is ecstatic that her only son has a full-ride college scholarship.
“Where I grew up, I didn’t have any kind of opportunities,” she said. “Nobody told me about these things, and I grew up in the ’hood, where nobody went to school.”
Lewis attended South Mountain High School in the mid-1990s. She put her athleticism to good use, playing both basketball and volleyball, all while navigating one of Phoenix’s most gang-infested neighborhoods.
Less than two years into high school, her athletic career ended.
“I was pregnant,” Lewis said, “so I didn’t get to play too much sports.”
At age 16, Lewis had her first of three daughters, Lonnie.
When Lewis had her son three years later, his father wanted to name him My-King. A few years later, they named his sister A-Queen. The youngest sibling is 10 years old and named Nadette.
Neither mom nor son say they know the reason for his unusual name. Johnson’s father has been in and out of jail since his son was born. The two are not close.
Lewis juggled two, and sometimes three jobs to keep herself and her family afloat, she says, “to make sure we weren’t on welfare, that we weren’t a statistic.”
Two years ago, Lewis moved to Seattle. She gave her son the option of staying in Tempe with his grandmother as long as he kept his grades up and focused on his future. So Johnson carries a 3.8 GPA.
Johnson has always been smart and quick-witted; his mom calls him an “old soul” with a maturity beyond his years. Johnson played tuba in the Tempe High School band for two years, performing at halftime while wearing his football jersey and cleats. Johnson loves music — for a time, he considered quitting football to focus on his other passion.
Walker convinced him otherwise.
“I knew athleticism was in his family, and he’s got all the tools,” Walker said. “He’s always had a work ethic. You couple that, along with his frame, and the sky’s the limit.”
Johnson was 12 years old when he came out to his friends and family.
He barely remembers how he did it, just that he recalled it being difficult. He called family and friends, and told others in person. He saved his mom for last.
Johnson told her during a trip to the grocery store.
“I love you for who you are as a person,” Lewis told him. “Sexuality? It doesn’t matter. … That’s how I teach my children. Love who you are no matter what you are, or what you look like. You have to love yourself. If you love yourself first, then everybody else will respect that and have no choice but to love you.”
Being gay, Johnson says, is simply a part of who he is.
“I’m a very honest person,” he said. “I just don’t see how I could be living an honest, truthful life and have that in the background.”
By the time Johnson arrived at Tempe and went out for the football team, he already knew most of his teammates from playing middle school football together.
And they knew him — Johnson was, and is, open about his sexuality.
Teammate and friend Alfonso Arispe calls Johnson’s honesty “cool.”
“I love how open he is,” Arispe said. “He doesn’t care because he’s focused on what he’s doing, and he’s focused on himself. Clearly, it shouldn’t affect anyone else, but no matter what, he doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t bother him one bit.”
A welcoming coach
When Amey played college football and in the NFL, the idea of a teammate coming out of the closet was taboo.
That’s starting to change. Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002 after an eight-year NFL career. Missouri’s Michael Sam came out as he prepared for the 2014 NFL Draft. Arizona State offensive lineman Chip Sarafin, a walk-on, told his teammates he was gay later that year. Princeton’s Mason Darrow did the same in 2015.
Those handful of names are it.
“It is going to, until many generations die off, it is still going to be a stereotype, that gay men are weak and can’t play sports and can’t play big, tough sports like football,” said Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of OutSports.com. “Even with defensive ends like Esera Tuaolo and Michael Sam — big, strong, masculine men — coming out, we still have the stereotype. … (Johnson) will chip away at that, but that takes generations to go away.”
Amey lights up when he talks about Johnson, mostly because he believes he can be an impact player. But the idea that Johnson will be a pioneer in being an openly gay athlete also has the coach “pretty excited.”
“When I found out, I really couldn’t sleep,” Amey said. “And it wasn’t like I was uncomfortable with it. I was just like, all right, it’s different, it’s new. … I said, ‘Look, you are who you are, I am who I am, and I’m going to coach you the same way. I’m going to treat you the same way. I’m going to get on you the same way as everybody else. There’s no difference. You do what you do.’ I said, ‘When the players find out, especially my room, I’m going to tell (those) dudes: ‘Look, you gotta have his back.’”
Amey’s enthusiasm for Johnson joining the team isn’t surprising. Arizona was the first college to offer Johnson a scholarship, and Amey — the former Arizona State standout turned Wildcats assistant — led the recruiting effort.
Amey gave Johnson his space when USC, UCLA, Oregon, Texas A&M, and Arizona State showed interest. But the UA coach let Johnson know that he was there for him.
Arizona reappeared after Johnson and UCLA parted ways just before signing day. He flipped to the Wildcats soon after.
The Wildcats need him. Johnson amassed 22 sacks as a junior, including 6½ in one late-season game against Seton Catholic. He added 21½ more sacks, 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles as a senior.
The scouting report on Johnson: he’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, he’s physical. More than anything, though, it’s his motor that sticks out. The kid never gives up on a play. His highlight reel is filled with plays where an offensive lineman brings him down, or shoves him to the side, and Johnson emerges to make a play.
Johnson’s Tempe team traveled to Tucson in August for a game against Catalina Foothills. Tempe was defeated quite handily — final score: 35-7 — but the Falcons had trouble containing Johnson, who sacked the quarterback three times and hurried him twice.
That quarterback? Rhett Rodriguez, an Arizona signee and the son of UA coach Rich Rodriguez.
On one hit, Johnson sped around an overmatched defender and floored Rodriguez’s blind side. The force of the hit knocked the ball out of Rodriguez’s hands before he could throw it, and it took him a few seconds to stand up and gather himself for the next play.
“I play football,” Arispe said, “but he’s a football player.”
Johnson will fit in nicely on the Wildcats’ revamped defense, Amey said. Amey likes to talk about the underdogs and overlooked athletes who fill his defensive line room.
“It’s no different than (nose tackle) Parker Zellers: OK, he’s only 5-10, 240, but he’s a football player,” Amey said. “Everybody’s got their own background. Who they are, what they are. … I’m fine with it, and honestly I can’t wait to get him here and get it going.”
Amey has reason to be excited. Those kids of are a rarity. Rarer still are the ones that choose Arizona.
“I can’t wait to be like, ‘Yeah, I got to coach the first openly gay kid to be an All-Pac-12 defensive end,’ ” he said.
It’s Wednesday, and Johnson’s track and field practice is starting. He finishes his workout and darts outside.
In Seattle, his mom is finishing up her shift as a nurse. As always, Lewis is thinking about her son and what his future holds.
Mother and son speak every day. She worries about him. She worries how he will be treated.
Lewis wondered how he would be welcomed in a high school football locker room. Tempe’s players accepted Johnson, but that’s no guarantee that things will be the same in college. Factor in opposing fans, message boards and the spotlight that comes with making history, and Johnson could face a hard road.
“It’s hard enough being a black kid in America,” Lewis says. “Then I worry about him being a football jock, then I worry about him being gay because it’s still not so accepted. Everybody perceives him as a dumb jock because he is a football star, which he’s not, but then you’re gay and a football player? That’s not heard of yet, and maybe it’s still not accepted in the football world.”
The support Johnson has received doesn’t surprise Zeigler, the co-founder of OutSports.com.
“Unfortunately, we continue to talk about it in sports as if gay athletes should be afraid. We perpetuate that fear,” he said. “The reality is, when LGBT athletes come out, it is the rare exception that it is not accepted by their teammates. So his experience, whether he came out at 12 or 20, it’s going to be pretty much the same thing.”
Johnson says he’s ready for whatever comes.
When he was a baby, a doctor heard his name and his eyes widened.
“That’s one hell of a name for a guy to have to live up to,” the doctor told Lewis.
“He’s done an excellent job living up to his name,” his mother says.
Johnson is aware of the expectations his name carries.
“My name definitely motivates me,” Johnson said.
“When someone’s looking down at a roster, or they’re looking at a page, they’re going to say … let me see what he’s about.”