Former KU linebacker Steven Johnson's journey from walk-on to the Super Bowl


Steven Johnson's player page heading from the Denver Broncos' web site.

Steven Johnson's player page heading from the Denver Broncos' web site. by Matt Tait

It's Media Day at Super Bowl XLVIII, so let's join the fun with a quick look at one of the two former Kansas University players representing the Jayhawks at this year's big game.

There are a million reasons to feel good about former Kansas University football standout Steven Johnson preparing to play in the Super Bowl in six days.

From all of the fight and resolve he showed just to be able to play college ball to the injuries he overcame, the couches he slept on before earning a scholarship and the losses that piled up faster than he could blink, even with Johnson giving everything he had to the program, each week, each game, each play.

"From everything I have been through from high school to prep school to Kansas and now with the Broncos, I have been truly blessed," Johnson said after Denver knocked off New England in the AFC championship game on Jan. 19. "I have so much more to accomplish and hopefully this is just the beginning of a great career in the NFL. I am so thankful to be a part of an amazing organization with the Broncos and I am proud to represent Kansas in the Super Bowl."

Despite a deck stacked against him most of his life, Johnson persevered. He made it into the NFL as an undrafted free agent after fighting his way through multiple cuts and dozens of nay-sayers to land on the Broncos' 53-man roster before the 2012 season. And during his first two seasons in the NFL, he has proven that he is not merely content to wear a uniform.

All of that and more provides plenty of reason to be pumped for Johnson and his chance to play in the Super Bowl in just his second season as a pro. From an 0-for-4 run at bowl games at Kansas to an appearance in the Super Bowl in two years. Not bad.

During his final two seasons at KU, Johnson became a sort of go-to guy for interviews, which was both a testament to his ability to offer insightful and entertaining answers to our questions and his self-confidence. Even when the Jayhawks were reeling, Johnson always pointed to what they still could accomplish, not what they missed out on. It's probably that mindset — and all of the practice he got — that provided him with the kind of toughness needed to make it at the highest level.

But we're not just talking about a guy who is on the sideline here and will piggy-back his way to a ring if his teammates perform well. Johnson plays. Although he's listed as a reserve linebacker on the roster, he's a starter on all of Denver's special teams units and has made a very noticeable impact on the punt return and kickoff units.

While that's where he hangs his hat for the moment, Johnson has filled in on defense during a couple of critical moments this season, most notably on a goal-line stand situation against Kansas City in Denver, where, on third-and-goal from the 1, Johnson filled the gap, blasted Jamaal Charles and forced the Chiefs to settle for a field goal. It was by far his biggest defensive play of his young career.

For all of his on-the-field accomplishments and those of his team, which enters Super Bowl XLVIII as the favorite, Johnson remains the same down-to-earth guy he was at Kansas.

Last spring, when Johnson was back in town to support his former KU teammates at their pro day, I caught up with him and we talked about his rookie season with the Broncos. He told me stories about notable teammates, meeting one of his idols, San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, and all of the nerves that went into every cut-down day.

But the best story I remember had to do with a night out to dinner with his teammates.

One night, Johnson and a few Broncos went to eat at a Denver steakhouse where Broncos legend and current executive vice president of football operations John Elway happened to be eating with friends. Elway recognized his players, invited the crew to join his party and offered to pick up the tab.

By that point, Johnson had met Elway a couple of times and knew his spot on the squad was secure. But not wanting to rock the boat or take for granted his good fortune, Johnson ordered a salad. The gesture had no bearing on his spot on the team nor did it play a role in him getting to where he got. Except, of course, for the fact that operating that way his entire life — with humility, decency, class and appreciation — helped define who Steven Johnson was, which paved the way for him to achieve all of his dreams.

Even with a little fame, a nice chunk of money, a golden opportunity and a spot in the Super Bowl that others would kill for, Johnson has not changed.

That, above all the other worthy reasons, is the one that makes it so easy to feel so good for Steven Johnson.

"Winning this game and being able to go to the Super Bowl is a dream come true," Johnson said. "I have been playing this game since I was five years old and it has always been my dream."

Johnson and former Jayhawk Chris Harris, arguably Denver's most important defensive player this season who tore his ACL during the playoffs and will miss the big game, are the first Jayhawks to advance to the Super Bowl since Justin Hartwig picked up a Super Bowl ring in 2009 as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Johnson and Harris become the 26th and 27th Jayhawks all-time to reach the Super Bowl, with 20 KU players having won Super Bowl rings in the past.

Here are a couple of Johnson's signature moments from the 2013 season:




Phil Leister 5 years, 8 months ago

So the story about ordering a salad... Is that to illustrate that he's wise with his money? I don't really see how him ordering a steak would "rock the boat" or have any effect on Elway.

That aside, it's cool to see Jayhawks in the Super Bowl. Here's hoping Johnson has another goal line stop with the game on the line.

Matt Tait 5 years, 8 months ago

That's the point. It would have had zero affect on Elway or his bank account but Johnson did not take advantage of the situation. Elway, a multi-millionaire, was willing to treat a few of his guys to dinner, whatever they wanted, but Johnson was so thankful for just being in that position that he didn't want to push it so he ordered a salad.

The story has no impact on Johnson as a player and it didn't really play any role in him getting to where he is, but I thought it showed that the fame, the money, the NFL haven't changed him at all. Still humble. Still good to the core.

Michael Maris 5 years, 8 months ago

I could see Johnson being the type of individual who would wind up becoming a football coach (once his NFL Playing days are over). From all of your articles about S. Johnson (since his playing days with Jayhawk Football team), he seems to have the right demeanor to become a mentor / coach. Matt, what do you think? Thanks for the stories you post on here. I always look forward to your work on this site (as well as the others).

Matt Tait 5 years, 8 months ago

Michael -

I definitely think coaching is in Steven's future. He knows the game, loves the game and loves being a positive role model in people's lives.

If that's the route he goes, I think he'll make a great coach. Hopefully he's got a nice, long playing career ahead of him before that comes.

Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoy what we do!

All the best.

kellerman411 5 years, 8 months ago

Matt, I actually took it as he didn't want to look like he was eating poorly in front of the team's VP of operations by ordering a 32 ounce steak with fried macaroni and cheese.. most pro athletes get their protein from much more efficient sources than red meat. Either way, it speaks volumes about the kid's humility and work ethic.
I took an Economics course with Steven over the summer of 2010. All I knew about him was that he played football but there were only 10 of us in the class and I remember specifically him being very quiet. He just seemed kind of different from the rest of the athletes on campus.

David A. Smith 5 years, 8 months ago

What a great story about a humble, hard working guy that is finally seeing pay dirt. Thanks, Matt. And thanks for representing Kansas with such class, Stephen. Lay the wood, wave the wheat, and have a great game!

Chris Bailey 5 years, 8 months ago

Wow. What a great story Matt. Wish Harris was gonna play but really neat to know Johnson is representing our fine University. Pretty humbling to know that he ordered a salad given the opportunity to order whatever he wanted. I'm betting that Elway will make good on that dinner if the Broncos win the Super Bowl. If I were in that situation I usually feel out what everyone else is ordering. If I'm paying I order what I want but if someone else picks up the tab then I usually order something less expensive. Even when dining with my parents. It's a good quality to have. Someone who sees and knows a good thing. Nothing but love for Johnson. Hope he has a wonderful game and career! GO BRONCOS!!!

Titus Canby 5 years, 8 months ago

Johnson was one of KU's representatives at Big 12 media day his senior year. It's one of the most impressive interviews I've ever seen of a college football player. Especially when he started by thanking the media members for wanting to talk to him. Just came across as a nice, humble, intelligent guy. What a great ambassador for KU. Then I watched him play. Just as impressive.

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