Pro football has always been a dream for this Windsorite. Now, he’s in the NFL draft

Playing in the NFL has been a dream for Theo Johnson, and this week, the Windsorite will participate in the NFL Draft just a stone’s throw from home.

“I feel an overwhelming sense of presence and love from the community and from the city,” Johnson told CBC News ahead of the draft, which begins Thursday in Detroit.

“I’m just glad to be able to represent Windsor this year at the draft.”

Johnson says he got his start in football at the age of seven, playing for the Cambridge Wolverines. He went on to play for the Essex Ravens and the team at Holy Names Catholic High School, before playing at the college level at the Pennsylvania State University for the Penn State Nittany Lions. (Submitted by Theo Johnson)

Johnson, 23, was born in Winnipeg, but from about the time he was 10 lived in Windsor with his mom and five brothers. He played for the Essex Ravens and went to local training camps, like Windsor’s Finest Football Academy — run by two home town football names, Tyrone Crawford of the Dallas Cowboys and Daryl Townsend of the Montreal Allouettes. 

Initially, Johnson says his mom, Amy Johnson, was reluctant to let him play football — but around age seven wore her down after getting a flyer about a local team at school.

The NFL, he says, has been “a dream ever since.”

He spent his high school years playing football for Holy Names Catholic High School before going on to play for Penn State. He plays tight-end. 

He says he contended with stigma against Canadian football players, “just trying to be noticed” by American coaches. 

“Coming from Canada… it’s not easy to get over there,” he said. “My mom and I drove all over the place in the states going to different university camps … and then the offers started to roll in — big guy that runs fast got some people’s attention.

“I remember ….  being a little unsure of myself and doing really, really well and excelling. And I think after that, I got a totally different confidence.”

Growing up, Johnson said being one of six kids, all boys, brought a “crazy” dynamic to the home. But today, it’s made him a stronger player.

A team of football players in white jerseys
Theo Johnson will be one of the prospects in this week’s NFL Draft in Detroit. Johnson spent his high school years playing at Holy Names Catholic High School in Windsor, where he’s lived since he was 10. (Submitted by Theo Johnson)

“When you have your older brother kind of pushing you, someone to chase after being a younger kid, it forces you to work harder,” he explained. “Fighting with bigger, stronger, older brothers kind of makes it tough.”

Asked if he can take his brothers now, Johnson chuckles: “Oh yeah.”

‘Couldn’t write it better for a kid like me’

Detroit will host the NFL draft beginning on Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of people and fans expected downtown for the three-day sports spectacle. Round one of the draft, reserved for the top 32 picks, will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, while rounds two and three — where the NFL estimates Johnson will be drafted — begin at 7 p.m. Friday. 

Windsor will also be hosting an NFL draft party Saturday, welcoming football players with southwestern Ontario connections: Superbowl champion Luke Willson who played for the Seattle Seahawks as well as Brett Romberg, Dakoda Shepley, O.J. Atogwe and Ed Phillion. 

Throughout the afternoon the lawn of City Hall will have fan competitions, a free skills and coaching clinic and a draft viewing area. Saturday night on Ouellette Avenue, a block party will take over the street. 

Marking his draft year in Detroit is a moment of hometown pride for Johnson, who has a tattoo of the Detroit skyline along his bicep. 

“I don’t know if you could write it up any better for a kid like me,” he said. “I take a lot of pride from being where I am.”

Johnson says he’ll be watching the draft from his home in Windsor — and he’s keeping his hopes modest. 

“I think the best-case scenario for me is not going as high as possible,” he said. “What I’m looking for is a team that really loves me, really values me and is going to utilize me the right way.”

Six boys sit with a woman, their mom, on the stairs with Christmas lights
Theo Johnson says his large family, with five brothers, is part of what made him tough enough for a pro football career — but these days, Johnson jokes that he could definitely best his older brothers in a fight. He also credits his mom, pictured, with his success today. (Submitted by Theo Johnson)

When Johnson thinks of the people that got him to where he is today, he says one person comes to mind. 

“I think my mom,” he said. “She’s a special, special woman. She’s fought, scratched and clawed for the life that me and my brothers now have. Being a single mom with six kids is not easy, so when I think about why I’m here, I think about my mom.

“The most fulfilling thing for me is like, walking into the stadium and seeing my mom and see a little tear in her eye and knowing that, I gave her a little bit of joy … knowing that like I make her proud … is the best feeling in the world to me.”

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