Football: Going back to Cali (12/10)

By By Chris Kamrani

By Chris Kamrani

Most U students know Robert Johnson as the free safety from south-central Los Angeles that almost single-handedly sent the then-mighty UCLA Bruins home with a loss. But now the sophomore is someone else-just a happy-go-lucky student athlete.

Johnson grew up in Watts, Calif., in a notoriously dangerous part of L.A., and has since made his positive attitude evident on and off the football field.

“Growing up, it was like you either played sports, or became a gang-banger,” Johnson said.

Johnson chose the first of the two options.

Whether it was participating in football, basketball or track, Johnson excelled at many different sports in high school, but never really planned on playing football after graduating.

“My older brother played (at Los Angeles Southwest College), so I just wanted to go do it for fun,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s long-term plan was not to transfer to some big university and play football but rather to focus on school and enjoy football as much as possible.

However, Johnson’s skills outweighed his laid-back demeanor, and soon big-time football programs were coming to watch No. 17 roam the secondary at L.A. Southwest.

The decision came down to two schools — Washington State and the U. Johnson took his first recruiting trip up to Salt Lake City, where he felt comfortable because it was a large city, and Johnson — being the city kid that he is — respectfully turned down the small town of Pullman, Wash. to don the crimson red.

“It was my first time out of California, out of Los Angeles, and when I came here to visit, I was just happy,” he said.

After sitting out the season-opening loss to Oregon State, U fans got a glimpse of what kind of player Johnson could turn out to be.

When Johnson quickly made up more than 15 yards of ground to bring down an Air Force running back, he opened some eyes. But the grand introduction came the following week.

In his first collegiate start, against No. 11 UCLA, Johnson made his presence known loud and clear. Johnson went on to pick off two passes and force a fumble at the two-yard line.

Johnson spoke about how he had been trash-talking to his Bruin acquaintances before the game.

“It was just crazy, so many players on their team were my rivals in high school, and I never got to beat them, never,” Johnson said.

Overnight, Johnson had gone from a backup safety on a 0-2 team to a budding star. The picture of the guy’s interception was all over the Utah Athletics website.

After an illustrious seven-game win streak, teammates were trying to explain to Johnson the magnitude of the Utah-BYU rivalry. He soon learned first hand.

“Most intense game? Hell, yeah,” Johnson said. “When you’re in that game, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t wanna shake your hand.'”

Now people will know why so many people love this guy: his sincerity and passion for what he represents.

Johnson was recently given an honorable mention for the Mountain West Conference.

“I’m hoping to excel my game, hopefully be the best defensive player in the conference,” Johnson said. “I think I can make a big difference.”

When asked if his dream was to go on to the NFL, Johnson quickly and sternly replied with an emphatic “No.”

“I told my mom I was going to work on my degree, and finish my degree,” he said. “Football can come and go at anytime, but an education lasts forever.”

The last game of the season is awaiting Johnson and the Utes — the Poinsettia Bowl, which will be played close to Johnson’s hometown in San Diego.

Johnson spoke of the many family and friends who are going to attend the game and how important it is to come home to Southern California and show people that he has made something of himself.

“I am doing something, and that is important to me and my family,” he said.

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