The underdog Gophers were tied with Auburn 17-17 in the final minute of the Outback Bowl’s opening half. The Gophers had marched to Auburn’s 2, and then quarterback Tanner Morgan threw a pass that looked as if it might ricochet off an end zone wall at Raymond James Stadium.
Skyward went senior receiver Tyler Johnson, gripping the ball as best he could in his right fingers at the end of an extra-long reach. The toe tap that followed in the back of the end zone gave the Gophers a 24-17 lead, on the way to a 31-24 victory.
Johnson’s catch created a maddened celebration with the maroon masses in the stadium, and in homes throughout Minnesota.
“The McKenzies went crazy, I can tell you that,” Larry McKenzie said Friday. “And the first thing my wife, Pam, said was, ‘Tyler was up like he was dunking that lob in the state championship game.’
“I think everyone with a connection to this high school, to north Minneapolis, had the same reaction.”
McKenzie is in his sixth season as North boys’ basketball coach. He had spent nine seasons at Minneapolis Henry from 1997 to 2006, and the Patriots won four consecutive titles from 2000 to 2003.
He was coaching at Holy Angels a decade ago when the Minneapolis school administration announced its intent to close North High School. Johnson was going to be a high school freshman in 2012-13 and already was known to be an athlete of considerable potential.
The uncertainty over North’s future caused Johnson to get many invitations to start high school elsewhere. “I’ll admit it: I would have loved to see Tyler enroll at Holy Angels,” McKenzie said.
Tyler’s father, Tyrone, is a north sider through and through, and his son followed that lead. Tyler decided to stick with a core of friends, go to North and be part of a revival.
“I’ve coached in schools with a lot of good athletes, but I’ve never had a situation where so much of the success revolved around one person, and with someone having such a low ego.”
That makes Tyler Johnson more than one of the greatest athletes in city history. It makes him one of the most important — the highest profile of the freshmen of 2012-13, low in numbers, over-the-top in loyalty.
Charles Adams, the liaison officer for the Minneapolis police at North and football coach, put those freshmen on the field in the fall of 2012 and watched them go 2-7, but he knew he had something special when they spent the offseason showing up in the weight room at 6:30 a.m.
“We didn’t have much of a defense, and we didn’t really have a line to block for the run,” Johnson said of the 2012 Polars. “ … We would go out and throw on almost every play. That didn’t really work.”
This was two years later, an October night in 2014, after North had pounded St. Paul Harding 43-6 to get to 7-0. Johnson was a junior quarterback, when he wasn’t the running back or a receiver, or the punt returner, or the safety net on defense.
One season later, the Polars would reach the 2015 Prep Bowl before losing to Minneota. And then in March 2016, in front of a Target Center audience left gasping over Johnson’s soaring dunk of Patrick Dembley’s lob pass, North defeated Goodhue 68-45 in the Class 1A final.
“Tyler is the only athlete in City Conference history to be named the outstanding player in both football and basketball for three straight years,” McKenzie said. “He could have played high-Division I basketball. But he’s a smart person. And I think he looked at 6-foot-2 in basketball, and 6-foot-2 in football, and he thought there was a better chance to play pro football.
“I’ve coached in schools with a lot of good athletes, but I’ve never had a situation where so much of the success revolved around one person, and with someone having such a low ego.
“With Tyler, it was always, ‘We’re going to do this together.’ ”
And it’s not a stretch to say what Johnson and his freshmen pals of 2012 did was create the momentum for the survival of a high school.
“That’s not outrageous to say,” McKenzie said. “Sixty percent of our enrollment at North is male, and athletic success has a lot to do with that.”
North honored Johnson at halftime of its boys’ basketball game with Milwaukee Academy of Science on Saturday afternoon. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey also declared Saturday to be Tyler Johnson Day’ in the city.
“We set this up with Tyler a while back, for the community to salute him for a tremendous Gophers career,” McKenzie said. “What we didn’t know was that Tyler would go out like that — 12 receptions, 200-some yards.”
And now in homes on the city’s north, the Catch can live alongside the Lob.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.