Chicago — Tyler Johnson was faced with a difficult decision seven months ago. The Minnesota receiver could pursue his dream of playing in the NFL and declare for the 2019 draft, or he could suit up for the Golden Gophers for one more season.
In those situations, players often put themselves first — as they should. But for Johnson, the decision he was staring in the eye was bigger than one person. It was about his family, his community and his teammates.
Johnson opted to return to Minnesota to finish his football career with the Gophers. More importantly, the star receiver decided to spend one final year in Minneapolis to earn his degree.
“I just thought it would mean a lot to my siblings and people in my community. Not a lot of people where I’m from get a college degree,” Johnson told Saturday Tradition at B1G Media Days. “I just took all that in and made it a priority.”
Earning a college degree isn’t something that many star college athletes are too concerned with in the moment. For a lot of future NFL players, it’s something that can be accomplished when the helmet and shoulder pads are stuffed away in a closet somewhere.
But Johnson has the opportunity to be the first member of his family to complete a college degree, and set an example for his four siblings (one brother and three sisters), and the people in his Minneapolis community. To head coach P.J. Fleck, it’s that kind of attitude that sets Johnson apart from so many college football players.
“When he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I want to get my degree,’ there’s not a lot of players who would sit there and say that’s a first thing,” Fleck said. “First it was his degree, then it was the team, then it was all the individual things.”
Those individual things that Fleck mentioned, by the way, are the ways that Johnson feels he can improve as a football player. He wasn’t concerned with re-writing Minnesota’s record book and finishing with B1G-leading statistics, it was all about the little things.
“Pretty much everything,” Johnson said, when asked what he can improve heading into 2019. “There’s nothing that I’m top level at. I feel like, pretty much everything I need to work on. Route running, catching, speed, stuff like that.”
It’s important to remember that those words come from a receiver who finished with 1,169 yards (2nd in B1G) and 12 touchdowns (T-1st in B1G) a season ago. Johnson ranks in the top 10 in Minnesota’s history in nearly every receiving statistical category. Not many with his credentials would say they need to work on “pretty much everything.”
Again, it’s that approach and attitude that makes Johnson a different kind of player.
Not only did Johnson impress Fleck with his decision to put education ahead of all else, it’s Johnson’s quiet confidence that the head coach admires. Coming off such a tremendous season, it would’ve been easy to bolt to the NFL, believing he just completed the best year of his career.
Johnson’s confidence drew a comparison to former Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis, another Fleck pupil. Davis, facing a similar decision, also decided to return for his senior season. The result? Being selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the fifth overall pick.
“It’s pretty amazing when you have somebody that humble but that confident in their ability to do it again,” Fleck said. “Some people would say ‘I don’t know if I can do that again.’ He’s gonna be just fine. Tyler’s very talented in everything he does. He’s really developed in his leadership and I’m proud of him.”
Leadership is really the perfect word from Fleck, because of Johnson has proven anything over the last seven months, it’s that his mission is to set a positive example for everyone. It extends past the field and past the locker room. Yes, Johnson decided to return to Minnesota to earn his degree, but he’s doing it for his family, for his community and for himself.
The decision to return for one more year was a tough one for Johnson to make, something he doesn’t deny. But it’s one he’s comfortable with, and one he made for all the right reasons. And this spring, Johnson will be rewarded by earning his degree in Business and Marketing Education.
“It was a tough decision, but I felt like I put everything in God’s hands and I know he had a plan for me,” Johnson said. “I’m happy with the decision I made.”
So is the rest of Minnesota.