I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, and a “memory” of one of the articles I shared exactly one year ago popped up.
“It’s not time to jump off the Stephen Johnson bandwagon… not yet at least,” it was titled.
Kentucky was coming off a close victory against Vanderbilt at the time, but questions surrounding the team’s starting quarterback were starting to mount.
You can read the entire article here, but to give you the Spark Notes version of his performance against the Commodores, it wasn’t great. He finished the day 10/24 for 49 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. He rushed for one touchdown and converted on a massive fourth-and-one to put the Wildcats in position to win, but he was putrid in the passing department. At least six times throughout the contest, the SEC Network commentators said “That ball was nearly picked off,” or some variation of the phrase, with one of Johnson’s misfires easily landing in the hands of a Commodore defender.
Drew Barker was out with a back injury, and at the time, it was uncertain when he would return to action. Johnson was struggling, and with talented freshman Gunnar Hoak impressing in the Spring Game, many fans felt it might be time to pull his redshirt and give him a shot.
The memory instantly brought me back to the day I wrote that article, and honestly, I didn’t know if I truly believed in what I said at the time.
I believed Johnson was far too skinny, inexperienced at the division-one level, and above all else, had an average arm. In his first three games as a Wildcat, he beat a mediocre New Mexico State team, the running backs carried the weight against South Carolina, and though the Wildcats showed fight, they lost to Alabama by four touchdowns. When he looked out of place against Vandy, I wanted to believe in him, but my doubts for Johnson as a long-term option outweighed the optimism.
But still, I wanted to trust the coaching staff, and give him a shot to right the ship.
And right the ship, he did.
Johnson led the Wildcats to seven regular-season victories, their most since 2009, a road win against rival Louisville and eventual Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson, and a New Year’s Eve bowl.
We saw a resurgence of excitement around Kentucky football that we haven’t seen since the Rich Brooks era. We saw a dominating run game develop before our very eyes, a reliable and effective deep ball, and most importantly, victories. Kentucky just learned to win football games.
This season, Kentucky is off to a 5-1 start with a legitimate shot to manage the most regular-season victories the program has seen since the 1970’s. At least one bowl projection has the Wildcats playing in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
As for Johnson? He’s currently a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Award, the award given to the nation’s best quarterback at the end of the year.
On the field, Johnson has proven to be calm, efficient, and intelligent. He may not have the sexiest arm in the nation, and he’ll make some mistakes from time to time, but he always manages to bounce back.
In his career under center at Kentucky, Johnson is 12-5. In his last 16 regular-season games, he is 12-4, the best Kentucky record since 1977-78. He has helped lead the Wildcats to victories in eight of their last 10 home games, and six of their last 10 SEC games, the first time for both since the 2006-07 season.
Above all else, he’s a winner, and that’s something this football program hasn’t seen in quite some time.
Off the field, Johnson has been everything you can ask for out of the face of your football program, and then some.
As a child, Johnson was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, an adversity that helped shape his faith and the man he is today.
After winning his own battle with Tourette Syndrome, he’s now helping other children overcome theirs, including 10-year old Wildcat fanatic Samuel Doster.
Former UK quarterback, KSR writer/podcaster, and dear friend of mine Freddie Maggard had his heart ripped out on the final day of September when his 11-year old nephew, Dalton, was rushed to the ICU, and soon became mostly immobile and unresponsive. He was later diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called Acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
One day, Dalton was having fun at soccer and golf practice. Three days later, he was in a hospital bed with excruciating pain, diagnosed with a condition seen in just 10,000 cases a year, the first of its kind at the UK hospital in 13 years.
After hearing the heartbreaking news, Johnson showed up with Mark Stoops to give Dalton and his family whatever support they needed, a gesture that would be appreciated more than they ever realized.
In an interview with Jen Smith of the Herald-Leader, Maggard went in detail about the impact Johnson’s presence made on not only Dalton, but the family as a whole.
At one point, the Kentucky quarterback handed the 11-year old boy a signed football he and Coach Stoops brought along as a get-well gift. Dalton immediately made an effort to gesture to Johnson that he wanted to play catch, a moment that made the entire room fill with emotion.
“At that moment, it was just two kids wanting to play catch,” Maggard said. “I had to stand back because I was getting too emotional.”
“He kept getting in Dalton’s ear and telling him he’s a warrior, he’s going to get through this, he’s praying for him,” Maggard said. “And he talked about how he got through a tough time at about the same age and was just talking to him like they were having a conversation.
“I could see the care in his eyes, the empathy in his eyes.”
This wasn’t just a photo-op for retweets and likes. Video cameras weren’t rolling for the latest heartwarming TV feature. This wasn’t about the publicity. It was a child, a father, and a friend, coming together and fighting this battle together. It was bigger than football.
This goes without saying, but this kid is unlike anything we’ve seen in quite some time. He’s special.
One year later, be thankful the coaching staff stayed the course and allowed Johnson to find his groove.
One year later, Stephen Johnson is my quarterback, and I’m proud of it.
Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR