For a Mimico kid who didn’t even touch a football until he was a senior in high school, Jeff Johnson’s appearance in this weekend’s centennial Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders in front of a hometown crowd is a “dream come true.”
“If I could name the perfect scenario, it would be to play in the 100th Grey Cup in front of my family and friends here in Toronto,” the 35-year-old veteran Toronto Argonaut running back told The Guardian this week. “It’s an absolute dream come true. Could I have scripted it better? No, absolutely not.”
A late blooming high school football star, Johnson was more into hockey, soccer and volleyball during his elementary school days at John English Junior Middle School and in his first few years of high school at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute. It wasn’t until Grade 12, in fact, that the 5’10” Etobicoke native was convinced to try out for the Rams football team.
But after scoring five touchdowns in his very first game as an Etobicoke Ram, Johnson’s talent was made abundantly clear.
“He was every coach’s dream,” said the Rams’ then-head coach Hank Spencer. “He worked extremely hard, he was extremely talented, and he and another guy on the team spent a lot of time in the weight room. He could bench press 300 pounds by the time he left high school...he was just an outstanding young man.”
It came as no surprise to Spencer, then, that after Johnson helped the Rams “smash” longtime rivals the Richview Saints for the Etobicoke championship in 1995, he was heavily recruited by colleges and universities.
The newfound celebrity status came as a shock to Johnson, though: “All of a sudden my name was on every university scout’s list and I had all this attention around me.”
After considering his options, York University emerged as Johnson’s school of choice – one, because it allowed him to stay here in Toronto, and two because he was offered the chance to start as a Yeoman in his rookie year.
Despite devoting much of his time to studying hard as a kinesiology student, Johnson also excelled on the field and was named Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s outstanding rookie of the year in 1996. He was also named an Ontario University Athletics First-Team All-Star in three of his four years playing for York.
Although he finished his fourth year at York undrafted, Johnson ultimately got called up to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL) by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he played for two years before signing with the Argos in 2002.
Now in his 11th season with the Argos, Johnson has proved ageless.
Although limited in the ground attack to just three rushes for 10 yards this season, his receiving totals – 10 catches for 154 yards – mark the third best of his 13-year career. A workhorse, he also recorded nine special teams tackles, tied for third best on the team.
A career highlight – one Johnson hopes to repeat this Sunday – was winning the Grey Cup with the Argos back in 2004 at Frank Clair Stadium in Ottawa.
“It was incredible. It’s the Grey Cup – it’s the biggest event in Canada every year and I was this little kid from Etobicoke who never thought in a million years that he’d be playing professional football,” Johnson said. “I was representing Toronto running down the field on the opening kickoff and trying to make a play. I can’t even describe the feeling, but I’m sure it’ll come rushing back this Sunday.”
This week’s 100th Grey Cup Festival in Toronto – including a raucous pep rally at Dundas Square Tuesday night – has allowed Johnson and his teammates to be boosted by a hometown crowd hungry for its first home championship since 1952. And Johnson is eager to deliver just that.
“What am I most looking forward to Sunday? Hoisting the Grey Cup at the end of the game,” he said.
– With files from Norm Nelson