April 30, 2011
TCU safety Tejay Johnson was one of three All-Americans to go unselected in the 2011 NFL draft (Stanford center Chase Beeler and Florida punter Chas Henry are the others), but for Johnson, the real story is that while he may very well have been thought of as a draftable player -- Rob Rang, Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, told me that he had Johnson with a fourth- to fifth-round grade -- the football player had other things in mind.
Despite his status as the unquestioned leader and engine of a TCU defense that has been one of the NCAA's best over the last few seasons, Johnson has retired from football to work with the deaf. Instead of going to the pre-draft all-star games and scouting combine, he stayed in school, determined to finish his degree in habilitation of the deaf and hard of hearing.
Johnson's friends didn't see it the same way, at least at first. He played like a kid who had received 48 offers from colleges as he came out of high school, but he was always a different breed of cat. Always thinking of others. The oldest child in a family of 11 children, he was constantly helping his parents whenever and however he could. That family feeling facilitated the event that changed his life and widened his focus.
He tried to talk with a deaf cousin. "I'd slow my lips down so she could try to read them," he recently told the Modesto Bee. "She could talk a little. She could put together phrases. But it was hard."
So, he bought a book on sign language, and a new journey started. More and more, Johnson found a life outside of football. He joined the school's gospel choir and its NAACP chapter. He wanted more from his life.
Of course, with a legitimate shot at the NFL, it was hard for some to understand. Receiver Jeremy Kerley(notes), his roommate at school, excelled at the Senior Bowl and was drafted on Saturday in the fifth round by the New York Jets. He called Johnson from the Senior Bowl and told his friend that he was "better than anybody else out there."
Johnson refuted that notion, insisting that he was just in the right place at the right time to make all those plays. Not true -- you don't become the centerpiece of a defense that good with average performances. Scrubs don't amass 169 tackles, seven interceptions, 15 passes defensed, and five forced fumbles in 49 games. The three years he was a starter were the three years TCU led the nation in total defense.
But Tejay Johnson is a good reminder of one simple point. Just because you don't make it in pro football — or don't even try to make it even when you can— doesn't mean that you've failed.
His next challenge may be to get his retirement by his grandmother, who must be proud, but may have had other ideas.
"My grandmother, that might be a different story," Johnson said. "She had such high hopes for the Cowboys."
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