From Hell to God’s Hands

by Kaitlin Long

Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Toby Johnson came straight out of College Park, Ga. and right into God’s hands to achieve his dream of playing in the National Football League.

Johnson grew up in one of the most dangerous cities in the state of Georgia. At 14 years old, he moved from the small town of Moorhead, Miss. to live with his uncle in College Park.

This move was a shot for Johnson to have more opportunity. However, Banneker High School’s reputation was more than just a competitive school by the time he got there.

“I graduated with – walked across the stage with a couple of guys that killed a girl the night of graduation,” said Johnson. “It was a lot of crazy stuff that went on. More than half of my homeboys have done time in federal prison.”

The violence in College Park escalated to the point where the rival high schools in the city had to play day games on Saturdays to prevent crime from occurring afterwards. While his environment was rough, sports kept Johnson out of trouble.

“I had a lot of respect for football,” said Johnson. “They didn’t want me to do stuff like that because they always knew – they said I had a chance.”

toby johnson hcc

Johnson played football for the first time his junior year of high school. He had always been an aggressive basketball player, so his high school athletic director encouraged Johnson to take a leap of faith in this unfamiliar sport. Before football, Johnson denied having a shot at attending college.

“I never thought I’d go to junior college,” said Johnson. “I never thought I’d go to Georgia; I never thought I’d get to this point. I’m just enjoying the ride.”

Football was his avenue out. Upon graduation from Banneker, he played football at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas for two years. His play there landed him at the University of Georgia. He knew he would have an opportunity to play college ball, but Georgia was the icing on the cake.

“I felt like I needed to get back home,” said Johnson. “I felt like that was the best place for me.”

When Johnson arrived at UGA, he immediately clicked with his entire row in the Georgia locker room – Jordan Davis, John Atkins, and Chris Mayes.

“He always brought positive energy to the locker room, rubbing it off on those who didn’t have any,” said Davis.

Atkins, a UGA defensive lineman, remembered that it only took one ride to the practice facility for the two to become best friends.

“He’s got great character,” said Atkins. “Coming from where he came from – you would never know that he came from that [violence] because he would never tell it.”

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Johnson’s friends admired him because of his hard work and his background reflected the amount of strength he held within his character. Because of the fight Johnson endured throughout his journey to become a Bulldog, rewarding was an understatement for the first time he stepped foot between the hedges.

“I couldn’t believe I had did it,” said Johnson. “The sounds were crazy – you know, you hear all the barking sounds and stuff – like that brought chills through my body. I ended up crying my first game. It was so real. It was a crazy moment.”

After bouncing around a few teams during his rookie season in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings signed him in January of this year. Although the business was “super cutthroat,” Johnson said he was determined to continue to live out his dream, and his best friend Atkins also wanted to see his hard work pay off.

“I really want him to make the 53-man roster, and I believe he will because I never doubted him,” said Atkins. “I just really want him to be the best he can be.”

Former UGA defensive lineman Chris Mayes is set to enter the draft this year, so Johnson was an extremely reliable resource and friend. He had a message for the 24-year-old when they see each other on the field next year.

“Have a good game? That’s the best I can come up with,” said Mayes. “No – I’ll probably cuss him out; that’s just the nature of the game (laughs).”

Johnson will continue his tenure in the league as a statement to the people back home.

“Your dreams can come true if you work hard,” said Johnson.

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