After one carry, the father knew.
His kid had star potential. His kid
was going places.
But how could he possibly know that? How could Ken Johnson watch his son Kyle take one snap and pronounce him NFL material?
After all, Kyle was only 8 years old, playing on a New Jersey Pop Warner team called the Woodbridge Bearcats.
“You could just see his natural ability,” Ken said.
On his first carry, Kyle took a handoff, juked fellow 8-year-olds out of their tube socks and scored an 80-yard touchdown.
Watching from the sideline, Ken was astonished. He thought he was seeing the next Jim Brown right before his eyes.
He even shared that feeling with his wife, Michelle, who just rolled her eyes.
“We all thought he was a proud father bragging on his son,” Michelle said.
The proud father turned out to be right. Kyle Johnson, the starting fullback for the Denver Broncos, was indeed NFL material.
“You give that kid an opportunity, and he’ll run with it,” Ken said. “He’s the hardest-working kid you’ve ever seen.”
That’s true enough. Watch Johnson on the practice field, and you’d think his job was on the line. He plays and practices like his position could be stripped away at any second.
That’s what happens when nothing is ever handed to you on a silver platter. Football has never been easy for Kyle Johnson. He was never the golden boy, the can’t-miss prospect or the wunderkind.
At Woodbridge High School, he didn’t start until his senior year. While at Syracuse University, he spent plenty of time backing up stud fullback Rob Konrad. In the NFL, he bounced around with Carolina, Detroit, and the New York Giants before finding a home in Denver.
“Some guys have been starting all their lives,” Johnson said. “Their transitions have been smooth from one level to the next. My life hasn’t been so smooth.”
That’s why you need a dad like Ken. The more adversity life dealt his son, the more supportive he became.
“I always told him he could do it,” Ken said.
No wonder they’re so close. No wonder that after every touchdown Johnson scores, he calls his father to discuss the play in detail.
“Football is a bonding force between us,” said Johnson, who leads Denver in touchdowns this season with two. “That’s why I always think of him when I’m playing. I get a kick out of how much he gets a kick out of me playing football.”
Ken loves telling football stories about his son. One of his favorites to rehash was Kyle’s performance against Piscataway Township (N.J.) High School his senior year. Kyle had two 100-yard kickoffs for scores and a 165-yard performance on the ground.
“He was absolutely amazing,” Ken said. “That was a great game.”
Since Johnson didn’t start until his senior year, colleges didn’t come at him in droves. He had nibbles from Ivy League schools and places like Rutgers and Temple.
Once Syracuse arrived on the scene, though, it was all over. When Orangemen coach Paul Pasqualoni came by the house, he talked about how Syracuse would be a good fit for Johnson, who replied, “If this is a marriage, I do.”
But life at Syracuse was difficult, mainly because he kept getting hurt. He spent three years backing up Konrad and then missed another season due to an ankle injury. He petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility, and it was granted. He made the most of that extra season, gaining 223 yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Going to school for six years does have its advantages. Johnson is one of the few who can boast being a six-time Big East All-Academic member. Johnson, who was a two-year captain for Syracuse, graduated with a degree in television, radio and film.
He also got a chance to pursue other endeavors. For as much as Johnson loved football, he had a passion for acting. So, at the insistence of professor William H. Rowland, Johnson tried out for school plays. He was so impressive he earned the lead in three plays: “Home,” “A Soldier’s Story” and “Roads to the Mountain Top.” Johnson was also picked to star in a public service commercial on the importance of sportsmanship on behalf of the Big East Conference.
“He’s such a gifted actor,” Michelle said. “He could be in Hollywood if he wanted.”
Told of that, Johnson blushed.
“I don’t know about that,” said Johnson, who also had his own radio show called “Sunday Night Love Flight” on Syracuse’s WJPZ radio station. “My mom believes I can do anything.”
He believed it, too. When you have nurturing parents, your confidence soars.
And so when Johnson was drafted in the fifth round by Carolina in 2002, he was on cloud nine.
But it was short lived. He was cut after training camp. The cuts continued, each slashing deeper into his pride. Giants, cut. Lions, cut. Broncos, cut, brought back, cut, re-signed and cut again. Johnson felt like a human pinball.
Hanging up the cleats crossed his mind. He was feeling as low as a salamander’s belly. Maybe it was time to try acting or broadcasting.
Ken was at his best during this time. He listened to Kyle, consoled him, encouraged him and built him back up.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about anything. It’s going to work out,’” Ken said. “It was his first failure, and he was down on himself. We’re a family, and we help each other. We just constantly encouraged him.”
The Broncos called back. They wanted to give him another try. Johnson took the opportunity and ran with it. He made the team last season, scoring a pair of receiving touchdowns, and this year he’s moved into the starting role. The coaches are high on him, and his teammates love him. He’s found a home in Denver.
“He just needed a chance,” Ken said. “Give him an opportunity, and he’ll make the most of it. He’s got this natural ability.”
Fathers love nothing more than bragging on their sons. Gloating is part of a dad’s job description.
Ken knew his son was destined for greatness. Even when Kyle was 8, the proud father knew his son was going places.