Sam Hutchens: Last season, Leon Johnson III was playing at George Fox University. Now, Oklahoma State’s senior wide receiver will be a key player in the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas.
An interaction at a Guitar Center in Oklahoma City last week helped Leon Johnson III realize just how much his life has changed this year.
The senior Oklahoma State receiver was with teammate Hudson Kaak, who was buying an electric drum set. As they were shopping, a kid approached them and asked Johnson III if he was, well, Leon Johnson III from OSU.
As he posed with the child for a picture, Johnson III realized just how many people watch him play. It wasn’t like this in Division III at his previous school: George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.
“I haven’t really been recognized before,” Johnson III said. “It’s kind of weird, honestly. I’m not sure if I like it or not. Of course I’ll take the picture, but it’s just a weird experience.”
Johnson III didn’t ask for fame this season. He planned to ride the bench, adjust to Power Five football and come back stronger after taking a redshirt year. That all changed when injuries battered OSU’s receiving corps. Halfway through the year, coaches asked Johnson III to burn his redshirt.
Pending the off-chance of getting a waiver, Johnson’s college career will be over after this season.
He’s made the most of what scant time he has left. Since he started his first game against Cincinnati in week nine, Johnson III has averaged 89 yards per game. His nine-catch, 132-yard performance against BYU helped OSU clinch a berth in the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas.
Has it been worth it?
“While it does suck I’m not here for another year with all my friends, coaches and other teammates and stuff, I think what we did was worth it,” Johnson III said.
Offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn jokes with Johnson III about playing in AT&T Stadium. The palatial setting for the Big 12 Championship Game is a stark reminder of his journey. At George Fox, games were televised on local cable. About 2,500 fans showed up at games in Stoffer Family Stadium and they all sat on one sideline.
Saturday’s game will be broadcast on ABC. Almost 70,000 fans attended last year’s game. The 60-yard videoboard hanging above AT&T Stadium makes George Fox’s video screen look like an iPhone.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Johnson said. “I’m from Seattle so I’ve been to a couple Seahawks games. But Dunn keeps telling me that this stadium is the best football stadium to ever play in.”
Coach Mike Gundy said it was tough on Johnson III to burn his redshirt. He sacrificed another year in OSU strength coach Rob Glass’ program. It would have allowed Johnson III to develop his body, get more experience and increase his chances of impressing NFL scouts.
“The OSU people need to be thankful for guys like him, for what he did,” Gundy said. “Because he could have said he wants to redshirt. And if he says he wants to redshirt, we really can’t tell him no. College football is not that way right now. And I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Now, it’s much easier for Johnson III’s back-home friends to follow his career. One friend said he was the most famous person in her phone. After OSU games, Johnson III gets texts from awed buddies who watched him at George Fox.
“(Johnson III) is doing everything,” receiver Rashod Owens said. “He’s given his all to us. We really appreciate him for doing that. You know, I know it sucks for him to burn his redshirt.”
Johnson III said he still remembers the night before his first game at OSU. The Cowboys were set to play in front of 55,000 fans and he was freaking out a little bit. Saturday’s game dwarfs playing against Central Arkansas on ESPN+.
“He’s embraced this moment as much as anybody else, and I’m just happy for him that he gets to put his talents on a stage like he can Saturday,” receiver Brennan Presley said.