Tyler Johnson was a standout quarterback, defensive back and basketball guard at Minneapolis North.
Now, he’s a magician.
How else to explain the impact he’s still having on that high school, three months after graduating?
Johnson has made a seamless transition to receiver for the Gophers, moving into a starting role as a true freshman, with an expanding highlight reel.
Meanwhile, the Minneapolis North program continues to blossom in Johnson’s wake. North football coach Charles Adams said he has about 60 players combined on the varsity and junior varsity rosters this year, up from about 40 last season.
“Tyler Johnson gives the whole side of North Minneapolis hope,” Adams said. “Those kids saw what he did, and now they want to be a part of it. The whole basketball team came out for football this year. I’ve seen the numbers drastically increase.”
A few years ago, the Minneapolis School Board was contemplating closing North’s doors, as the school’s enrollment dropped below 100. Instead of transferring to a suburban sports powerhouse, as many top inner-city athletes do, Johnson stayed home and made his own mark at the 128-year old school.
He was the varsity quarterback for four years. Last fall, he helped the Polars become the first public Minneapolis football team to play for a state championship since Washburn in 1977. North lost the Class 1A title game to Minneota at TCF Bank Stadium, but four months later, Johnson was celebrating a state basketball championship at Target Center.
“We have been thinking about this since [losing] that day [to Minneota],” Johnson said, during the celebration. “We wanted to bring something back. We couldn’t go back empty-handed.”
The Gophers didn’t make Johnson available for an interview for this story, restricting media access to him as they sometimes do with freshmen. But his teammates and coaches continue to rave about the impression he’s making.
“Very seldom do you see a person that plays their [high school] position come in and perform like he has,” offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “Nothing rattles him. He’s learning a whole new skill set and making plays for us, too, which is phenomenal.”
Three of Tyler Johnson’s six receptions have resulted in a first down, and one has gone for a touchdown. After making three receptions in the season opener against Oregon State, he started against Indiana State, with Rashad Still out because of a shoulder injury.
Johnson ignited the crowd with a second-quarter touchdown, taking a pass from Mitch Leidner, and diving past a defender for the pylon like he’d been playing receiver his whole life.
Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky said Johnson is “very mature for his age.” But the veterans are making sure none of this early college success goes to the freshman’s head.
“It was a funny thing,” Wolitarsky said. “He was watching himself on the globotron during the game. Had to pull him in the huddle and say, ‘Just watch that later, man. You gotta play.’ ”
Johnson has given his own pep talks, too. Just before moving to campus, he pulled his brother, Tayler, aside and urged him to go out for football.
Tayler Johnson is a junior who came off the bench for North’s basketball team last year. He hadn’t played football since ninth grade but took his brother’s advice. Now he’s a wide receiver and safety for the 3-0 Polars. Last week, he caught a 68-yard touchdown pass.
After Tayler went out for football, several friends followed. Some took note that Tyler, a prolific basketball player, had landed a full ride to Minnesota in a sport they were not playing. They wanted to expand their own scholarship options.
“I heard some people say that,” Tayler Johnson said. “Some are doing it just to stay active. But others saw what [Tyler] did, and they want to do it, too.”
At age 18, Tyler Johnson already has helped lift spirits and expand horizons for a community. The Gophers and North Minneapolis can’t wait to see his next trick.