July 16, 2009

Teyo Johnson: From a different era?

Allen Cameron
Calgary Herald

CALGARY — There are days, Teyo Johnson laughingly admits, when he wishes he had been born a few decades earlier.

Look at him. Six foot five, 260 pounds. In the ’60s or ’70s, he would have been the prototypical Canadian Football League tight end. A smash-mouth receiver who would leave defensive linemen and linebackers in his wake.

That retro jersey he’ll be wearing against the Toronto Argos? It looks natural on him.

“I think 30 years ago I might have been playing (offensive) tackle,” says Johnson.

“But being a Canadian in this league 30 years ago would have been a ton of fun. I could have played with Tom Forzani and Huff (Stamps coach and GM John Hufnagel) would have been my quarterback. Me and Huff would have hit the town together.”

Imagine that for a moment –and then snap back to the modern-day reality.

Johnson, a Canadian by birth and an American by training, is a man who fits into a variety of positions with the Calgary Stampeders (fullback, tight end, slotback; heck, he even spends part of his practices with the offensive line).

Beyond that, he’s an entrepreneur who’s been part of two high-tech startup businesses, a world traveller and, oh yeah, a good buddy of NBA star Yao Ming.

And if you ask his close friend Chrissy Cummings, he’s just an all-around cool dude.

“I’ve said before that in my next life I’m coming back as Teyo Johnson because he’s just so cool, so fun, so laid-back,” says Cummings, who met Johnson while he was completing his collegiate career at Stanford; the two have been tight ever since.

“A lot of times that I’ve read articles that say he’s almost too laid-back.

“They don’t know that he’s an extremely intense person but his overall demeanour is just really laid-back. And I think that’s actually one of his better qualities because he doesn’t get riled up easily, and where some other athletes can be over the top with their aggression, you don’t really get that side of him. He goes out there and performs, but you don’t get him bashing his head against the wall.”

No, but you sure get an intriguing blend of size and skill that has added a different dimension to the Stamps’ offence since he joined the team early last season after a frustrating few years trying to find NFL employment.

A second-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2003, he was a starter at tight end in his rookie season, but after an off-season trip to China with Yao (partially to promote the NFL in that country) resulted in him missing voluntary workouts with the Raiders, he fell out favour with the Oakland coaching staff, and spent four years trying to land another job, with varying success.

Finally, after being released by Buffalo last spring, he took advantage of his CFL non-import status and headed north.

“I’ve been released five times, and for five different reasons,” says Johnson, whose brother Riall is a defensive lineman with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“To go from starting in the NFL to basically just trying to make it — when you get to the bottom of the barrel, it’s tough.

“And I was doing that for the last three years.

“When things didn’t work out in Buffalo, it was like God’s intervention, saying, ‘Go to Canada, go where you’re wanted.’ And I came here and it really restored my faith in the game of football.”

Johnson made an impact with the Stamps; not just with his ball-catching ability, but also with his willingness to do the dirty work, such as blocking downfield for receivers and running backs.

But his signature play last season occurred at McMahon Stadium when he hauled in a 53-yard Hail Mary pass from Henry Burris just before halftime against Montreal; he barely left his feet to catch the ball, while three Montreal defenders were leaping futilely around him.

“He has some skills and he has a lot of practice playing in space, which is different from a lot of guys that size,” nods Stamps offensive co-ordinator George Cortez. “He has the size of a tight end, and when he’s on the field, you don’t really know for sure what he’s going to do. We used him as a fullback, we used him as a tight end, we used him as a receiver. You can’t say Teyo is always going to be in one formation, so that gives us a lot of flexibility. It would have given us more if he had been here during training camp.”

Ah, yes . . . well, Johnson had a good reason to miss training camp. He had retired a few days before the Stamps opened camp to devote time to an Arizona-based startup business–a company that was selling cell-phones that can project images onto a wall. But a couple days before the Stamps made their final roster cuts, Johnson placed a call to Hufnagel and asked if there was still a spot for him. “An athlete dies two deaths; one as an athlete and one as a citizen,” says Johnson. “For me, being in my prime right now, it’s nearly impossible to not play any kind of football that’s available. And to have the option of coming back and playing for Calgary and being a Canadian and being a champion last year, it was just too much (to pass up). The business opportunity is once in a lifetime, but so is football.

“Winning the Grey Cup is the most fun I’ve ever had as an athlete. Football, it’s the king sport in North America. When you go out there, when you play violently and you win championships, I don’t think it’s a feeling that the business world can give you.”

Still, the business world looms large for Johnson, who’s parlayed his Stanford ties to produce a pretty high-profile list of contacts on his cellphone.

“I love the concept of bringing a new product out, having something hot and selling it,” he says. “You see these guys who make tons of money selling different things, and you ask yourself, why not me? We have something that could be huge in the cellphone world.”

Johnson’s relationship with Yao dates back to 1999 when the two were surprise roommates while playing for a Nike-sponsored international all-star basketball team (Johnson also starred on the Stanford hoops squad).

“We became the best of friends; he couldn’t speak English, and when you had to pantomime everything, you become really close,” says Johnson. “And we’re still tight to this day. Every time I go to Houston, I’ll check out a game and he leaves me floor seats. I had Thanksgiving dinner at his family’s house in Houston.

“He’s a football fan and he follows my career. And the good thing is that I knew him before all the madness. He was a skinny 200-pound, seven-foot-five kid that I used to body-slam. It was a really random relationship.”

Johnson isn’t looking at life beyond this season; he acknowledges he’d be making a lot more money in the business world than he does as a CFL player, but his experience with the Stamps has revitalized his passion for football.

“I think my only regret is that I didn’t come up here sooner, instead of hoping to get picked up in the NFL,” he says. “You can’t beat the games up here. So I should have come up here sooner.

“And,” he adds with a smile, “I should have saved more money. But I had a lot of fun.”