A car drives past Tyler Johnson as he stands outside the North Community High School football field on a sunny summer afternoon. A man leans out the passenger side window and shouts, “Northside for life!”
Johnson raises his hand, gives a nod of acknowledgment, before focusing back on the memories. Of walking three blocks from the high school to the field after school, pads in hand. Of then crossing the street a couple hours later for post-practice chicken wings and cheese fries at a “legendary” local favorite. Or of leading a team that won just twice his freshman year to the state championship game as a senior.
These recollections aren’t just Johnson’s personal history. It’s part of the fabric of his community. When Johnson earned a scholarship to play for the Gophers, north Minneapolis traveled the five miles to campus with him. Minneapolis is literally inked in black cursive across his chest, along with the downtown skyline.
And yet, north Minneapolis — wedged between highways and a regional park north of downtown — is often misunderstood as an area known mostly for gun violence and poverty, according to Northsiders.
“It’s definitely not what people think it is,” Johnson said. “When people hear ‘north Minneapolis,’ they just think all the negative things, like dangerous things.”
What people from outside the community don’t see is how neighbors sit outside their houses on lawn chairs, playing soul music from car stereos and chatting with each other. How every July 4th, the block with Johnson’s late grandmother’s house shuts down for a big party, including fireworks and her still-famous mac and cheese. How the community comes together to support one of its favorite sons.
Now in his senior year as a star receiver for the Gophers, Johnson has one season left before likely embarking on an NFL career that could take him the farthest he’s ever been from the community he loves. But north Minneapolis and Johnson are so interwoven, those threads might stretch taut, but they won’t snap.
“Representing my city is something that means a lot to me,” Johnson said. “I want to do whatever it is that I can just to let people know, just to let my city know, that I care for it so much.”
Even as a little boy, Johnson was very intent on being good.
Not just good at sports — though that was apparent even from age 2, when he would always seem to find a football, basketball, baseball, anything for playing catch. But a good person.
“He never wanted to get in trouble,” his mom, Lacreasha Johnson, said. “If I even said, ‘Hey, you slammed that door too hard’ or something, he would just get these huge tears in his eyes. And so he always tried to do the right thing.”
Lacreasha Johnson and husband Tyrone Johnson had their oldest of six children while still young. In fact, there’s a picture of little Tyler Johnson, not even 1 year old, dressed in a mini cap and gown alongside his mom for her graduation from North High.
While his father moved to north Minneapolis from Indiana as a boy and his mother’s family has lived in the area for a couple generations, Johnson almost left the neighborhood as a teenager. His athletic prowess even as a middle schooler drew attention, and he could have bused 15 miles south to the Academy of Holy Angels private school to play football and basketball.
That’s a common theme for the area even now, with parents opting to send their kids to schools like Minnetonka or Hopkins, seeking a better school or a safer environment. The north Minneapolis area where Johnson grew up has the highest rate of violent crime in the city.
Johnson’s own decision was last-minute. At the time, choosing to stay at the school that was just seven blocks from his house only meant one key thing: not having to wake up as early on weekdays. But the impact reached much farther than that half-mile.
The year before Johnson went to North High, the total enrollment was about 200. The football team had lost all its games with about 25 players in the entire program. The once dominant basketball team hadn’t made the state tournament in nearly 10 years. The school was on the verge of closure.
By the time Johnson graduated and left for the Gophers, his football team had made it to the state championship and his basketball team had won the Class 1A title. From his freshman year to this past school year, athletic participation in both sports, as well as the school’s total enrollment, has doubled.
“It started with him,” North High football coach Charles Adams said. “Now we have transformed to a mind-set of, ‘Why not us?’ We’re going to get to the state championship. We’re going to do everything that everyone else says they can do. It doesn’t matter where we’re from. We know what we can do.”
Adams and North High basketball coach Larry McKenzie said Johnson has opened the door for more area kids to not only participate in organized sports but also to hope for a chance at a college career. McKenzie recalled a road game in Johnson’s junior year when even two hours away in Rushford about 100 kids lined up for Johnson’s autograph. He signed every one.
With the Gophers, Johnson went from starting just one game as a freshman to starting 10 his sophomore year before a broken wrist cut his season a bit short. His junior year was a breakout, garnering him All-Big Ten honors with his single-season school receiving records of 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He could have left for the NFL draft and a significant payday, avoiding risk of injury or pressure to up his game one more time. But he stayed. Sure, because the Gophers expect to be good this year and because increasing his speed could improve his draft stock even more. But the main reason was to graduate and become the first in his family with a four-year college degree.
Johnson wants to establish the precedent, not just for his younger brother and four little sisters, but for the entire community of kids and parents following him.
“There’s not a lot of players who would sit there and say [graduating as] the first thing,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “So that’s pretty amazing when you have somebody that humble but that confident in their ability to do it again. Some people say, ‘I don’t know if I can do that again.’ He’s going to be just fine.”
North High has two main buildings that skyways connect above a small courtyard.
Johnson and his friends used to kill time between classes tossing a football over those obstacles, a good 25 feet in the air. That is, until someone’s throw inevitably fell short, landing on the roof.
That’s when a disgruntled janitor would have to go on a rescue mission, kicking the ball back down to the kids instead of politely tossing it.
“It kept us from doing other stuff,” Johnson explained. “So they pretty much didn’t care.”
Three main factors helped Johnson thrive in north Minneapolis: a strong family, a close group of friends and sports. The latter kept Johnson and teammates busy, a strategy Adams and McKenzie employ during the school year. They encourage young men to participate in football, basketball and track, so they’re occupied from about 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., every weekday, nine months of the year.
“I want to do whatever it is that I can just to let people know, just to let my city know, that I care for it so much.”
“It’s the greatest crime prevention that there is,” McKenzie said. “One of the things that I always say to families is, ‘If your son is in our program, and he’s with me, I know he’s not out hanging out in the street. I know he’s not gang banging. I know he’s not selling dope.’ … It’s a comforting thing. It also gives the kids an out.”
While there are other activities centered on the arts, plus some community centers, the coaches say many typical hangouts for young people — from movie theaters to bowling alleys — don’t exist in north Minneapolis. Instead, there are parks like North Commons, where kids walk and bike for pickup games of football and basketball.
A year ago, North Commons was also becoming the home of a weekly summer get-together for hundreds. A community kickball league morphed into a neighborhood barbecue, with music playing and kids running around with Popsicles. That changed July 22 last summer with the shooting death of 19-year-old Nathan Hampton on a corner just across the street from the park.
Johnson’s father is the kickball league commissioner, has a trophy from it proudly displayed in his late mother’s home. He was playing in the game, his wife and three of their daughters watching. Lacreasha Johnson remembers hearing the pops, thinking they were fireworks before spotting people running, grabbing her children to crouch under a table. Tayler Johnson, after seeing someone’s livestream of Hampton’s last moments on Facebook, was the one to call his older brother and tell him what had happened.
“The relationship me, Ty and Nate had, like, if it wasn’t Ty, it was Nate. We were so close,” Tayler Johnson said. “It brought me and Ty closer because it really taught us a lesson.”
Tyler Johnson doesn’t talk much about what happened to his friend. He was supposed to go to that kickball game but didn’t. He had just talked to Hampton that morning, and he can’t help but think there was more he could have said to him.
Johnson scored the first touchdown of the season last year for the Gophers, a month after Hampton’s death. He ran into the TCF Bank Stadium end zone, pumped his arms, made the sign of the cross and kissed his hand before raising it to the sky, thumb and pointer finger extended.
“Up north, people say to remember Nate, throw L’s up because he’d always throw L’s up,” Tayler Johnson said. “… I was so happy to see that. He still holds a big hole in our hearts. We think about him every day. I know that.”
Reshaping the narrative
Outside Hook Fish & Chicken — the place for fried chicken and cheese fries — a passerby saw Tyler Johnson and immediately assumed the role of hype man.
“Best thing coming out of Minneapolis,” he said. “He’s causing a lot of happiness for a lot of kids coming out of North High.”
Those encounters aren’t uncommon. Johnson comes back to North whenever he has free time, to hang out with his family, attend football or basketball games, speak to his former teams, eat at Hook for a cheat meal. Kids and adults alike approach him for photos, autographs or just a chance to tell him how much they admire him.
“I’m always shocked that he doesn’t get overwhelmed with it,” Lacreasha Johnson said. “Because to have so many people looking up at you, you’re like, ‘Oh, don’t go left whenever you should go right.’ ”
Tyler Johnson, though, doesn’t see it that way. He said he looks forward to setting the standard and acting as an example. And he’s not only doing that for those within his community, he’s showing a different side of north Minneapolis to those outside it.
According to Fifth Ward City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, the main challenges for his constituents are job security, income and affordable housing. In the summer, the peak concern is safety from violence.
Ellison doesn’t know Johnson personally, but as another born-and-raised Northsider, he said basically everyone in the community knows of Johnson, with his “impossibly impeccable” reputation as a sweet, humble, relatable guy.
“The best thing about someone like Tyler is that he’s proud to be from north Minneapolis,” Ellison said. “So many people want to sort of chase this dream of, like, ‘getting out’ of their neighborhoods, and they distance themselves from where they’re from. And the fact that Tyler is proud to be from north Minneapolis, I think that’s what makes … him an appropriate role model.”
North High football has already unofficially retired the former quarterback’s No. 10 and doesn’t even let kids wear it for summer practices. But all this success and expectation don’t seem to faze the soon-to-be 21-year-old. Johnson fends off questions about his personal goals for his senior season with deflections to his teammates. The first word people use to describe him is laid-back. And while he’s generally soft-spoken, he becomes an animated goofball around his friends.
He’s not perfect. Neither is his community. But both are trying to be their best.
For Johnson, that’s acting the big brother to his core. Not only to his siblings, the youngest being just 4 months old, or to a neighborhood, but to a young Gophers receiving corps. He doles out advice, takes responsibility and leads, with a bit of teasing along the way.
Even if his professional career takes him away from north Minneapolis, Johnson has future plans to run football camps there and open a community building for youth.
“Those are two I definitely think about all the time that I want,” Johnson said, “and I know I will make happen for sure.”
In the meantime, little parts of north Minneapolis will stay with him permanently. He has ideas to ink more detail onto his chest tattoo, maybe add a few more symbols — like the 612 area code — elsewhere on his body.
But his next planned design might be the most telling. At first glance, the rendering of the NFL logo on his inner right forearm will seem like a slightly premature celebration of Johnson’s impending pro career in the National Football League.
Look closer, though. Turns out, that’s not what it is at all.
“Northside For Life.”