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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


PJ Johnson: solid gold

Madeleine Viceconte
PJ Johnson (52) stands near the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped during the Arizona vs BYU game on Sept. 1, 2018 at Arizona Stadium.

“A big grizzly bear” are the words Arizona sophomore linebacker Tony Fields II used when asked to describe redshirt junior defensive tackle PJ Johnson. While Johnson might be straight out of the movie “The Revenant” on the field, off of it he is more Berenstain Bears.

The Northern California native can be easily pointed out, not because of his 6-foot-4, 335-pound frame, but by his gold grill, which he wears on his top and bottom teeth. 

“When I was young, we had the hyphy movement,” Johnson said. “Everybody had dreads and gold teeth, so I became influenced.” 

The defensive tackle even wears them in games, with a mouth piece to protect them.

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Johnson came to Tucson by way of City College of San Francisco. He started his career at Sacramento State before leaving due to a tumor in his leg. 

“They didn’t really handle it properly,” Johnson said. “Everyone decided it would be best to leave after having those discussions.”

During his freshman season of college, Johnson’s appendix also burst during a routine night at home. 

“My stomach had hurt during the day, and then that night I was throwing up for hours,” said Johnson. “My mom thought I was just being dramatic, but finally I told her I felt like I was going to die.” 

PJ Johnson (52) rushes the quarterback during the Arizona vs BYU game on Sept. 1, 2018 at Arizona Stadium. 
PJ Johnson (52) rushes the quarterback during the Arizona vs BYU game on Sept. 1, 2018 at Arizona Stadium. 

Johnson describes this point in his life as the toughest part, due to his grandfather also passing away.

“I was in the hospital for six weeks and lost 60 pounds,” Johnson said. “I was in and out of the hospital for six weeks with intestine problems. I always think, ‘If I quit, then what?’ You might as well keep pushing or else you’ll be in a bad place.”

Johnson has two kids, Tolu and Kiara, who live back in Sacramento. He credits Tolu for helping him out of that dark place he was in while in the hospital.

“Having a baby helped me fight through everything,” the transfer said. “I strive to never fail so I can give my kids a better life.”

Johnson sees them regularly, as they attend every home game to watch him play.

After having his tumor removed in January 2017, Johnson decided on City College to get back into football. He made 4.5 sacks and 17 tackles in 10 games to get back onto the national radar, but was not receiving much attention from the Power-5 schools.

A week before signing day, Arizona was not even on his radar. During a recruiting visit to UNLV that all changed with an early morning call from former defensive line coach Vince Amey. 

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“He called at like six in the morning and said he loved me,” said Johnson. “He was going to talk to [former head coach] Rich Rodriguez and see if there was a scholarship for me. After explaining the scheme and the playing time I could get, I decided to come here.”  

Not new to adversity in the slightest, Johnson arrived on campus only to experience a coaching change.

“I was kind of upset,” Johnson said. “I had to think about, like, another type of adversity I needed to attack, and attacked it.”

For Johnson, the bond he has with where he grew up goes beyond the cultural influences. He regularly refers to the 916 Sacramento area code on social media and takes great pride in being from there. 

“That’s what made me who I am,” Johnson said. “I feel like if you represent where you came from, the city will take care of you.”

After missing the previous two games due to injury, Johnson represented his new city last Saturday against Oregon State University. He was second on the team with two tackles for loss and he also added a sack. 

“BYU, I didn’t really a good statistical game, so it felt good to actually get out and get production,” Johnson said.

Johnson will continue to be a key piece for an Arizona defense that only has five sacks so far, starting this week against a USC opponent they haven’t beaten since 2009. 

“We just have to attack it like we would any other game,” Johnson said. “If you take it as more than just another game, things get over your head.” 

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