TCU had just won the 2011 Rose Bowl and Tejay Johnson, the Horned Frogs’ star safety, couldn’t make up his mind.
His options: stay in school and finish his degree or try for the NFL, which would likely force him to postpone graduation while preparing for that April’s draft.
“I knew coming out of the Rose Bowl, coming out of my final season, I didn’t have enough credit hours so it would take me another full year to graduate,” Johnson said. “And one of the biggest things I came into college with was I didn’t want to leave until I had my degree.”
So Johnson gave up the game, graduated the next year and joined the Teach For America (TFA) program, which sends recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities for two years.
TFA kept Johnson in Fort Worth, assigning him to Dunbar Middle School on the city’s east side.
It didn’t take Johnson long to find his way back to football.
Dunbar High School coach Todd Lawson approached Johnson last summer about helping out with the varsity’s defensive backs. Johnson accepted the offer and has since increased his role on the coaching staff for Dunbar’s varsity team, which entered Thursday’s game 7-0 atop District 6-4A.
“He kind of just fit right in,” Lawson said. “He’s a very intelligent football player. He’s an intelligent young man, a good upstanding man and that’s a good role model for these kids to look at.”
To outsiders, Johnson’s career path might seem odd for a Football Bowl Championship athlete who was a Jim Thorpe finalist, All-American and the captain of a Rose Bowl-winning defense his senior year.
Johnson admitted his coaching gig isn’t what he expected when he graduated in May of 2012.
But that’s not because he saw himself in the NFL.
“It wasn’t something I thought was going to be in my future coming out of college,” Johnson said. “I was going to come out of college and specialize and work with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”
His decision to move on from playing football was self-redeeming.
“I loved football while I was at TCU, but just making that step after college and post-TCU football, it was a weighing decision,” he said. “It was such a burden, but once I finally made my decision, I felt so relieved to once follow a decision I made just for me and not made for anybody else.”
Dunbar’s players said they have enjoyed having Johnson on staff.
“We came a long way,” senior defensive back Stepfawn Hughes said. “Our defense used to not be that good until Coach Tejay came to help us with the [defensive back] stuff, so he’s really been a lot of help to us.”
Johnson’s youth coupled with his experience at the collegiate level has been a resource for Dunbar’s players, senior Nicholas Johnson said.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” he said. “He’s done a lot of things for me. He’s put me in positions to where I can have more colleges looking at me and receiving letters to go to college.”
Tejay Johnson said he doesn’t know if he wants to make a career out of coaching. He’s willing to be patient and let things play out. After all, his trajectory has been tough to predict.
Three years ago, he was preparing for a home game against BYU. This past week, he helped Dunbar get ready for Fort Worth’s North Side High School.
“This path has taken me down a whole new road that I really enjoy,” he said. “So we’re going to work on it and see what the future holds for me.”