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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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‘Diamonds in the rough’

Left+to+right%3A+A+young+Antonio+Johnson+poses+for+a+youth+football+portrait%3B+Antonio+Johnson+and+his+younger+brother%2C+Sael+Reyes%3B+Antonio+Johnson+and+his+family+take+a+photo+after+a+Texas+A%26amp%3BM+Football+game.%26%23160%3B
Courtesy of Johnson Family

Left to right: A young Antonio Johnson poses for a youth football portrait; Antonio Johnson and his younger brother, Sael Reyes; Antonio Johnson and his family take a photo after a Texas A&M Football game. 

In a city just east of the Mississippi River and across from downtown St. Louis, Mo., sits the home and birthplace of junior Texas A&M defensive back Antonio Johnson. A town built by capitalists and businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan, East St. Louis, Ill., used to be a thriving industrial town that reached a peak population of over 82,000 in 1950.

Now, the city that shares half of the Gateway Arch with St. Louis, has just below 17,000 residents and a poverty rate of 30%.

“It’s a rough city,” Johnson said. “You see a lot at a young age, and you understand life a little differently, from a different point of view.”

When looking at East St. Louis from Johnson’s perspective, you see valuable life lessons, a supportive community and a place to call home. 

“I like to say, you find a lot of diamonds in the rough in a city like that,” Johnson said. “It helped build character, and that’s why I stand by my city.”

His childhood

Born and raised by his mother Damika Rogers, Johnson was the oldest of four children in a family that loves sports, his second-oldest brother Sael Reyes said. 

“We played baseball, basketball and even volleyball,” Reyes said. “We just played everything to keep us in shape for football season.”

As for Johnson, sports was an escape from hardship and into something bigger than himself. 

“I played a lot of sports to help me stay out of trouble,” Johnson said. “I just played any sport so I didn’t have to go home after school.”

Any gym or stadium he stepped foot into, he was likely to steal the show, Johnson’s stepfather Kewan Rogers said.

“He always was a good kid, always delightful to party with and had a good personality,” Kewan said. “When he was younger, he used to be the little kid dancing at halftime at every high school football game.”

Early career

After spending most of his childhood playing multiple sports year-round, Johnson stepped foot on his high school campus and switched his focus to football. Johnson was a three-year varsity football player for the East St. Louis Flyers and, ironically, flew around on both sides of the ball. 

During his high school career, Johnson amassed 234 total tackles, 161 solo tackles and nine interceptions as a defensive back. On the offensive end, he accumulated a total of 1,531 receiving yards on 73 receptions with 16 touchdowns.

During his last season at East St. Louis High, Johnson helped his team finish the season with a perfect 14-0 record and a 43-21 victory in the 2019 Illinois High School Association Class 6A state championship game. 

This moment secured a trophy that will stand in the halls of East St. Louis High for years, but more importantly displays a memory that will be shared among the teammates for a lifetime. 

“Family,” Johnson said. “That’s the best way to put it.”

Johnson still keeps up with his old teammates, no matter the situation.

“To this day, I call any of my teammates, and they call me,” Johnson said. “We just check up on each other when we’re at school or whatever we’re doing. It’s a brotherhood for sure.”

An athlete with over 20 Division I offers at the time, including defensive powerhouses like Alabama, Michigan and Georgia, the No. 1 ranked player in Illinois had finally received a one-way ticket to a successful future.

“I have to give a lot of respect just for the sacrifice my whole family took for me,” Johnson said. “Whether it was to take me to practice or pick me up when needed or when I asked them to. They never hesitated to help. They did whatever they could to help me.”

Behind the scenes

On May 6, 2019, tragedy struck in Johnson’s community after the death of a young boy — a friend who the athlete took under his wing, Kewan said.

His name was Jaylon McKenzie. McKenzie was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Future Issue as one of six teenagers who will “rule the future” of sports.

“At the time, he was the top eighth grader in the country,” Johnson said. “It was very sad what happened.”

McKenzie had been at a party when a fight broke out, McKenzie’s mother Sukeena Gunner said to CNN. When fleeing the scene, a stray bullet struck him and he was immediately taken to the hospital. McKenzie passed away just a short time after, at the age of 14. 

Johnson said the loss of his friend made a huge impact on him and brought a different perspective to his life.

“That hit me hard because I was with him that night,” Johnson said. “That just helped me open my eyes to the world and move a little differently now.”

Whether on the field or back at home, not a day goes by that Johnson doesn’t think of McKenzie. 

“I play through him because he is no longer here with us, but he is always here with us,” Johnson said. “Everything I do, I play through him.”

In the same year, another disaster struck in Johnson’s life, however, this time on his front porch.

“We were at the state basketball game that year and we got a call that our house was on fire,” Kewan said. “Our neighbor was burning leaves, and he went into his house and fell asleep.”

Nothing was left of Johnson’s house but ashes and smoke, Kewan said. 

“The fire had got under our patio and it burned the house down from there,” Kewan said. “We ended up losing everything … and I mean everything.”

Despite losing all their possessions, Johnson’s family was able to receive a helping hand from their community to help rebuild what was lost. 

“His classmates put together a car wash fundraiser for the weekend and donated all the proceeds to us,” Kewan said. “The whole city came together to try and do what they can to help us out.”

As life seemed to be heading in a downward spiral, Johnson and his family made sure to keep their heads high and their arms wrapped around each other.

“That was a rough time for my family and I,” Johnson said. “We hit rock bottom, but we stayed together.”

Decision time

On July 26, 2019, Johnson took an unofficial visit to College Station a month after committing to Tennessee. He decommitted from Tennessee two days later and committed to the maroon and white. His reason? Kyle Field. 

“When I first came here, the first thing I saw turning into campus was Kyle Field,” Johnson said. “When I first saw Kyle, I just felt low. You could see Kyle from anywhere in College Station. I knew it was going to be a different environment just based on that.”

From the coaching staff down to the students, everyone played a big part in his commitment to the school.

“People don’t understand that looking from the outside in,” Johnson said. “Once you’re on the inside, you understand the whole culture.”

One year in

After playing in four games his freshman year, Johnson ended the season with 14 total tackles, eight solo tackles and only one pass deflection. 

Despite hardly seeing the field, he kept his head high and did what he could to help his team out.

“There is nothing wrong with being a role player,” Johnson said. “Your role players are just as important as your stars.”

After the 2020-21 season, Johnson made sure to stay prepared and took advantage of every opportunity that came his way during the offseason.

“I’m a firm believer that your time is your time, you can’t rush it and you got to stay with the code, and that’s what I did,” Johnson said. “Learning the playbook and understanding the ‘why’ instead of just doing it, I feel like that helped me a lot in my play because I was able to break down certain things before the play even happened.”

He wasn’t alone during this time either. Johnson had the support from his family back home and his teammates in the locker room. 

“My mom kept me humbled and grinded throughout the whole offseason,” Johnson said. “My teammates stayed confident with me and wanted me out there just as bad as I did. When I finally got on the field, they were there for me, confident in me to make plays, they expected me to make plays and that helped a lot.”

Even during this time of training and preparation, Johnson made sure to keep in contact with the family he grew up with in East St. Louis, Reyes said. 

“We play the same position, so he sends me his workouts so I can do them here so I can be the best I can be,” Reyes said, who plays football in high school. “He tells me things that coach Durkin tells him. The little details and everything that I can use for my football season this fall.”

Reyes is following in his brother’s footsteps as he begins his sophomore season at East St. Louis High, playing defensive back just like his brother before him. 

Present day

After a remarkable sophomore season, the name Antonio Johnson is being discussed throughout college football as a preseason nominee for the Bednarik Award, Jim Thorpe Award and the Nagurski Trophy watch list.

Although he is grateful for the recognition, he believes he still has a lot of work to do, Johnson said.

“Personally, I see it, I acknowledge it, but to me, it’s just half of it,” Johnson said. “I tell people all the time, ‘I still have to go out there and produce.’ However, I am grateful to be recognized for the hard work I put in.”

There is still one more accomplishment Johnson has on his mind that he has a chance to achieve at the end of the year. 

“Overall, we’re trying to win a national championship,” Johnson said. “I feel like where my team goes, my individual self goes aligns with them as long as we meet the mark.”

Throughout Johnson’s journey, he reminds himself constantly of the words his mother tells him that gives him the necessary confidence and motivation to push through the next play.

“She has always told me to be myself and show the world who you really are,” Johnson said. “Everyone puts on their pants one leg at a time, and I feel like that just helped me with my confidence as a young man. Just looking at the world differently helped me understand every opportunity you get. Everybody gets 24 hours in a day, it’s just what you do with it. She helped me understand that my days are what I put into it.”

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