Latecomer LB Gary Johnson Jr. drawing motivation from family for his shot at Riders roster

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

With less than 24 hours to go until the Green and White game, you could run several small nations off the energy bubbling up from Regina.

Jobs will be won and lost on Saturday as camp battles come to a head, there is no doubt. Head coach Craig Dickenson is looking for separation between those players on the fringes and in no competition is that more important than linebacker.

With the departures of Cameron Judge and Solomon Elimimian in the off-season, followed by the devastating Achilles tear suffered by Larry Dean in the lead up to training camp, every position in that group is wide open — the scrimmage is a chance for the contenders to make a big impact. Each will find motivation in their own way and Gary Johnson Jr.’s are stitched on fabric.

You might call it the anti-terrible towel, a piece of cloth put together by his girlfriend ahead of his University of Texas pro day in 2019. A hand towel reading simply “Who I Do It For” accompanied by four pictures.

“Every time you’re out there, you can just look down at that towel,” Johnson said of his girlfriend’s motivation for the creation. “If you’re tired, if you feel like you’re discouraged, just look down at the towel and remember who you really do it for.”

There is a picture of his eight younger siblings and one of his aunt, who helped raise him and passed suddenly after his Senior Day game in Austin, TX. Then there is one each for his twin babies born soon after her death, son G’amir and daughter Milani. Another picture is now needed.

The second-year Rider was a late arrival at training camp, choosing to be present for the birth of his third child, a daughter named G’nyah. It was yet another life-changing moment to provide him perspective on why he’s in Regina still chasing a football dream — more motivation soon followed.

“My son, he’s the one that really knows what dad does. My helmet from UT that I have at home, he loves to run around with it on and he’ll get the football and throw it back and forth. This year was different for me coming down because he obviously knew that I was going somewhere and once I got here, first thing I did was grabbed the helmet and showed it to him,” Johnson recalled.

“He just pointed and I was like: ‘Do you want the helmet?’ He nodded. I was like, ‘That’s crazy.’ It brought tears to my eyes to know that the first time I came out here, he didn’t even know I left and then now he’s like ‘Dad’s going to play ball. Dad has another helmet.’ It’s pretty awesome to see the changes in him.”

Born to a mother struggling with addiction at age 14, and in and out of the foster care system his whole childhood, Johnson battled his way through junior college and a rocky start with the Longhorns to get to a place where he can try to provide stability and inspiration for his young family. For the Riders, he’s one of a long list of candidates who could provide exactly that in the linebacking corps.

“He’s a guy that we think has got a chance to play, but he’s got to win the job just like anybody else,” Dickenson said ahead of Saturday’s scrimmage. “There’s a good group of linebackers in that room. He’ll have his work cut out for him, but we feel like he’s got a chance.”

Working against Johnson is the fact he hasn’t been in camp long, but he impressed his head coach with his work on special teams and on defence during a six-game stretch on the practice squad at the end of 2019. That time with the team has made a major difference for Johnson as well.

“It helped tremendously,” he acknowledged. “It was a lot for me to try to learn within those five or six games, but I tried to help as much as I could, whether it was special teams or whatever coach needed me to do.”

“This time, you have the time to sit, learn the plays, learn what to do, learn multiple positions and have a jumpstart on it. There’s no excuses, I got here late, but I feel more comfortable.”

With 4.43 speed, Johnson will get a chance to show off his improved comfort at all three linebacker spots when the action kicks off at Mosaic Stadium this weekend. For him, it doesn’t matter which one he ends up sticking at, whatever gets him on the football team.

“I’m one of those guys that loves to run around and get to where the ball is,” Johnson said. “For me to be in the middle would be awesome, but for me to be outside would be even better. Wherever he wants me to play is where I feel comfortable playing.”

Should he be one of the lucky ones who impresses enough to stick around, Johnson hopes he’ll have a little more in person familial motivation coming soon. He’s trying to persuade his mother, who he calls “his rock” to make a trip up to see him play, something she is hesitant to do after his tales of Regina winters.

“I said: ‘It’s snow everywhere, it’s pretty high and it’s super cold.’ She was like ‘Oh no, I’m never coming to Canada,'” Johnson laughed.

Nevertheless, Johnson will draw on her for more reasons to keep working. They’ll be no place to convince her to visit if he doesn’t do enough to to make the roster.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.