By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
No doubt, Tyler Johnson has taken an orbit or two around the wide world of sports.
The Haskell High graduate and standout at both running back and linebacker was signed by Tulsa out of high school to play football, but instead chose baseball. He signed with the Los Angeles Angels and spent six years in the minor leagues as an outfielder and first baseman and much of 2004 injured.
It never panned out as well as he wanted and he took the option to return to college. In this, his junior year, he’s played in 10 games and totaled 21 tackles, 18 solo, four for losses and one interception.
He did it while moving from linebacker to defensive end. He’s not starting but he’ll see plenty of time when the Cowboys take on Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl Jan. 1.
He’s the old man of the team at 27 and is just happy to be here. And that’s not a bad thing.
“I’m blessed to have played two sports I love,” he said. “The things I’ve been through, I’ve learned so much about life and sports.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy awarded a scholarship to Johnson in preaseason camp. It was icing on the cake since Johnson, by way of his baseball contract, was assured four years of paid college. It merely changed his status.
And it helps others look up to him — if not statistically, by the wisdom-from-age bit. It’s his maturity, his appreciation for a shot at school after having found out what it’s like to work for a living.
“From the baseball side, it was learning a lot of stuff, having to mature and deal with different personalities. Having that opportunity has allowed me to grow up a little bit,” he said. “As opposed to some of the young guys who come in here right out of high school and find out coaches here aren’t going to care how great you were back where you were came from. You’re all the same. And just like baseball, coaches are going to get on you and it was up to you whether you were going to accept the coaching and grow or act like you’re better than anybody and suffer the consequences.”
Johnson gave up a position he loves to go to one he’s undersized for at 6-1, 240 pounds. And according to his cousin, former NFL (Arizona, New York Giants) running back LeShon Johnson, there were some apprehensive moments.
“He called me about 2 o’clock one morning upset,” LeShon said. “The first thing I told him was ‘Dude, with your speed, just take aim coming around the corner at the quarterback. It’s definitely easier than coming out of the backfield as a running back. Then after a couple of practices, he told me he loved it.”
Defensive coordinator Bill Young once described Johnson as strong and "tough as a boot." Call it family loyalty or call it the intuition of a man who has made it to the highest level of the game, but LeShon thinks with another year, Tyler could find his way there too.
“With his brother (Chris), some D1s recruited him as a linebacker but he wanted to be a running back and ended up at NSU playing running back, but I always thought his true calling was as a linebacker,” he said. “I think any NFL scouts who look at Tyler will ultimately look at him as an outside linebacker. Well, if he works on getting off the block from where he is now, he’ll be dangerous.
“And he can do it up front. There’s no way a big tackle should match up with his speed if he’s coming off the ball like he should. Next year, I think he’ll be better. The main thing is he has to play with a motor that just want stop. Scouts pick up on that real quick. I think he can get there.”
Tyler isn’t thinking that far down the road yet, but has appreciated tapping into his cousin’s wisdom of the game.
“LeShon’s always been someone I could go to for advice,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn where I’m at. But again, to get this chance after baseball, I can’t tell you how blessed I feel.”