LAWRENCE — Four autumns ago, with the Kansas Jayhawks on their way to the Orange Bowl, freshman football players A.J. Steward and Richard Johnson Jr. were approached by a kid on campus who told them he would be joining them on the field soon. They were dubious.
"We have a lot of guys that come up to us," Steward said, "who are just like, 'Yeah man, I want to try out for the team.' "
Steward saw that this one might be different. Steven Johnson was built like an athlete and seemed driven to succeed. What Steward didn't know was that KU coach Mark Mangino had already guaranteed Johnson a walk-on spot beginning with the 2008 spring semester.
That fall was a memorable one for Johnson. He moved into Oliver Hall, a dorm packed with normal students, which made sense because that's what Johnson was, too. His only responsibility was going to class, so he tried to enjoy himself like any other freshman would. Still, he'd let his friends know about his bigger goals.
"I used to tell people I was going to play football, and people used to laugh at me like, 'Yeah, right,' " Johnson said. "Nobody really knew."
How could anybody have known what Johnson would become? A native of Media, Pa., he spent a year at a prep school in his home state before coming to KU — the only big program that offered him a shot, and even then, he had to walk on. Johnson hardly played his freshman year. He earned a scholarship entering his sophomore season but still didn't play much. Finally, Johnson got his chance to start last season at linebacker and registered 95 tackles, and the picture of what kind of player he was started to become clearer.
Now, as Johnson prepares to play his final game at Memorial Stadium, he is one of the top linebackers in the Big 12 and leads the league in tackles with 99. In a season devoid of bright spots, Johnson is by far the brightest. He'll get to show 16 friends and family members who are coming to the game just how far he's come in the last four-plus years.
"It will be really emotional," Johnson said. "People who have never seen me play before are coming."
Johnson acknowledged this week that there are questions about how good he actually is. He knows people assume that he has the most tackles because the Kansas defense spends so much time on the field. But, as he says, somebody's still got to make the tackle.
According to his coaches, there is little doubt about Johnson's skills. KU defensive coordinator Vic Shealy said that NFL scouts who have visited practices are intrigued by the 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker.
"The respect and admiration he's getting with a lot of the scouts coming through is pretty amazing," Shealy said. "They'll say things about Steve that you can tell there's a little bit of a wow factor."
Johnson's rise from living in Oliver Hall to a potential NFL player didn't happen quickly or easily. And that's what will make Saturday so special.
"I will never forget KU," Johnson said. "If I'm on Monday Night Football one night, and I'm introduced, I'll say, 'University of Kansas, Rock Chalk Jayhawk.' I don't want the analysts to get mixed up and say Kansas State University. I'm proud of where I'm from and how I got here."