Tyler Johnson steps through a set of double-doors into a windswept cement courtyard between the two buildings that make up Minneapolis North High School, looking nothing like the superman he’s become.
There’s no cape on his quarter-zip gray sweater, and the closest thing to an “S” on his chest is a North Polars logo. Fawning adoration is hard to detect. He gets a handshake from one of the few students enjoying a sunny, late autumn day, a bro-hug from another. In this setting, Johnson is more Clark Kent than his alter ego.
But make no mistake, the 6-3 185-pound quarterback is clearly someone worth noticing. His movements, on and off the football field, are measured yet graceful. He’s lean, but there’s no sign of awkwardness, even with his pants slung low in the current fashion mode. He’s one of those kids who moves easily through space, cool without trying to be.
“His level of humility is amazing,” North boys’ basketball coach Larry McKenzie said. “He’s different than most young athletes in that he’s very humble. He doesn’t let things go to his head.”
Johnson will lead Minneapolis North in the Class 1A championship game in Saturday’s Prep Bowl, the first Minneapolis public school to play in the 34-year-old tournament.
It’s a crowning achievement for the school, once targeted for closure due to falling enrollment, and speaks to Johnson, who also stars in basketball, as arguably the most influential prep athlete in Minnesota.
On the football field, Johnson is clearly the man. He’s completed 140 of 244 passing attempts for 35 touchdowns and nearly 2,500 yards. He’s even better with his feet, having rushed for 1,173 yards — averaging almost 11 yards per carry — and 20 touchdowns. He’s intercepted three passes, too.
Not counting plays in which he has handed off — even Johnson steps out of the spotlight occasionally — North scores a touchdown on roughly one of every six times he handles the ball. Said receiver Patrick Dembley: “Every time he has the ball, I’m thinking touchdown.”
Detractors point to North competing in Class 1A, with Johnson putting up stats against overmatched opponents. North coach Charles Adams has an answer to such comments.
“Regardless of what school he plays for, he’d be the best player on that team,” said Adams, who is also the school’s resource officer and known by his nickname, O.A. (Officer Adams). “He’d be the best player for Eden Prairie. He’d be the best player for [Totino-Grace coach] Jeff Ferguson.”
The University of Minnesota’s football coaching staff thought enough of Johnson’s freakish athletic abilities to offer him a football scholarship. He is projected as a defensive back.
For many from Minneapolis’ embattled North Side, that is a source of intense pride.
Not only will Johnson lead the first Minneapolis public school team to play for a state title since Washburn in 1977, he’ll follow that up by being the first North player anyone can remember to don the Maroon and Gold.
“It means a lot to the community,” Johnson said. “North’s never won a state [football] championship before. People are coming out to support us. That says a lot about North Side pride.”
Johnson’s youth is typical of many at North. He’s lived in four different houses in north Minneapolis. For the oldest of four siblings, sports always have been his calling card. For the longest time, it was thought that basketball, not football, would be his future.
“In eighth grade, I sat down with my mom and said I didn’t know if I wanted to play football in high school. I thought I was too little,” Johnson recalled. “She went and talked to my dad. A few days later, he came back and said ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to be all right.’ I remember thinking ‘Dang, that changed quick.’ ”
It didn’t take long for Adams to notice Johnson’s special talent as a freshman.
“We were doing 7-on-7 in the summer before his ninth-grade year,” Adams said. “I saw his vision, his ability to throw, how he could run. I knew he had something. It didn’t bother me at all to start a ninth-grader at quarterback that year.”
That was about the time that the Minneapolis School Board was debating closing the now 127-year-old school. Enrollment had dropped below 100 students barely 10 years after North competed and held its own in the state’s largest basketball class.
The community rallied and rescued the school, devising a plan for its rebirth, stressing academics and community involvement. Athletics were an integral part of that.
“It was the perfect time for a kid like Tyler,” McKenzie said. “With the challenges North has had, it was great to have Tyler, who is not about to do something crazy, who gets good grades, who is respectful and represents the school.”
His basketball exploits have been just as vital to North’s revitalization. The school’s basketball reputation, the result of five state championships before 2003, had waned. But with McKenzie, a four-time state championship coach at Minneapolis Henry, and a group of exciting young players led by Johnson, the Polars forced their way back onto the basketball map.
Johnson says his most memorable high school moment came in basketball last season, when he dribbled the length of the court and dunked over a Rushford-Peterson defender. The dunk has more than 5,000 views on YouTube.
“So far, that’s the greatest moment,” Johnson said, making sure to save a space for what might happen in Saturday’s Prep Bowl. “But playing for a state championship, and doing it for North, that will be special, too.”
Despite all the accolades thrown Johnson’s way, North is far from a one-man team. The Polars have not had a close game against a team near their size this season. Their only loss on the field was by a single point to Class 5A St. Paul Central (the outcome was reversed when Central was disciplined for using an ineligible player). Johnson missed most of the second half against the Minutemen because of severe leg cramps, but returned late and almost led the Polars to victory.
“When I saw him come back in behind me, I remember thinking ‘OK, here we go. Let’s go win this,’ ” said center Isaiah Matthews, Johnson’s best friend on the team. “He always makes you feel like you’re gonna win.”
The credit Johnson gets is shared by all, Matthews said.
“He’s a blessing for us and for the community,” he said. “His name getting put out there is North’s name getting put out there. We want to win a state championship. We want to make history.”