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VOL. 42 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 31, 2018

Brentwood Academy’s Johnson helping young fans excel in classroom

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Kids don’t usually go rushing to school on Mondays to gush about watching an offensive linemen play football on TV. That status is mainly reserved for more glorified positions like quarterback or wide receiver.

But Ryan Johnson is an exception at Lanier Elementary School, about 10 miles southwest of Maryville.

The Lanier students are in awe of the 6-foot-6, 302-pound Tennessee redshirt sophomore. They consider him their buddy and view him as a hero.

He’s the guy who visits their school to read books to them, who teaches them how to play sports and who encourages them to study.

“The kids absolutely adore Ryan,” says Kim Dooley, a teacher’s assistant at Lanier. “Seeing somebody like that playing at Tennessee makes them feel special because they know this person and he came and hung out with them. Ryan makes them feel important.”

The epitome of a true student-athlete, Johnson is the perfect role model for the Lanier kids. He’s on schedule to graduate from UT in less than three years with a degree in civil engineering and then will begin pursuing his master’s degree.

Johnson appeared in every game last season for the Vols, starting the final four and alternating between both guard spots and center.

The Brentwood native approaches football with the same analytical mindset he does engineering. He pores over game film trying to solve a defense like he would a calculus problem.

“It’s a chess game to me; it really is,” explains Johnson, who graduated from Brentwood Academy with a 4.7 GPA. “It’s a game, but I enjoy the strategy behind it because I’m a civil engineer so that’s my thing.

“I want to analyze everything, so I take my classroom skills from learning – when I’m looking at a building, analyzing a building – I take that to the football field and vice versa.”

Johnson’s intellectual curiosity was evident from a young age. His parents had to buy an Encyclopedia Britannica when Johnson was four just to be able to answer his questions.

“Why is the water blue? Why does one tree grow faster than another? Ryan’s always had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” says Johnson’s father, Jerry, a former offensive lineman at Austin Peay.

“Ryan is not playing Xbox. He is reading Tom Clancy. When he was 12 years old, he would sit on the beach reading physics books, not comic books. And I’m not talking about a physics book he got from the high school library. This was college graduate-level reading.”

Johnson’s relationship with Lanier Elementary started with a chance meeting with Dooley at a Vol Walk. Johnson had just committed to Tennessee and was attending the game with his father. They happened to be standing near Dooley and struck up a conversation.

After seeing him at a few more games, Dooley asked Johnson if he wouldn’t mind visiting the school once he enrolled at UT. Dooley knew how much Johnson could inspire the students to take academics seriously and stay active.

More than 75 percent of Lanier students receives free or reduced lunch, and everyone receives free breakfast.

Johnson eagerly accepted the invitation, and Lanier pulled out all the stops for his appearance. They created their own mini-Vol Walk in the main hallway at school while the principal played Rocky Top over the intercom.

Although Dooley thought Johnson would just speak to the fifth graders, he ended up speaking to most of the school.

“It’s something that seems so simple to us, but for those kids it was everything,” recalls Dooley, who has worked in the school district for the last 18 years. “That’s something many of them may never get to experience again. I had a teacher tell me later that night one of her students didn’t want to wash his hand because Ryan had touched it.”

Since the initial visit, Johnson and Lanier have “adopted” each other. Johnson was the special guest last January for Blount County’s One Book Blitz that supports literacy in the local schools.

“Ryan just loves it. He is a natural with the kids, and he obviously loves his books,” adds Johnson’s father. “He really wants the kids to know they can do anything they put their minds to. The good lord gave Ryan a gift, and he is trying to use it for good.”

Dooley is doing the same in her own way. She has four season tickets to UT football, and often uses three of them to take kids from her school. She knows many come from households that can’t afford to attend games, but doesn’t want the kids to miss out on the experience.

Her friends often ask why she doesn’t just sell the tickets. Her husband works two jobs, and they could use the money. But that’s not what it’s about for Dooley.

“It’s really about sitting back and watching that ‘aha’ moment in the kids’ eyes,” Dooley says. “If my son would have been in that situation, I would have hoped there would have been somebody special to maybe help him. It’s important to keep these kids on the right track and I really like to see these kids happy.”

During a game last season, Dooley and three of the Lanier students had a chance to move down and sit closer to the field near Johnson’s family.

“You would have thought you gave them a million dollars,” Dooley recalls. “At halftime, one of the little boys looked over at me and said, ‘Ms. Kim, this has been the best day ever.’ That is all I needed to hear to know it’s making a difference.”

Johnson is usually the first player to greet the students after games whenever he can, which is not surprising to any of his former coaches and teachers.

“Ryan has a huge heart and a great soul and has always kept his priorities in check,” says Jason Mathews, the admission director and offensive line coach at Brentwood Academy. “You hear so much about the bad news coming out of college football, but a player like Ryan Johnson is the good news. He is really an exceptional young man.”

Johnson arrived at Brentwood Academy as a tight end before being converted to an offensive lineman.

“He was this tall, skinny dude who was obviously very fast. He’s going to hate me saying this, but the truth of the matter, is he was good as a tight end as everything except he couldn’t catch,” Mathews adds with a laugh.

“We begged his dad to trust us to make him into an offensive lineman, and he did. From that point on, Ryan was like a sponge and got better and better every year. He wants to the be the best at anything he puts his mind to and is willing to put in the work to get there.”

Johnson also participated in track in high school, running the grueling 400 meter sprint, a rarity for a lineman.

“There were a lot of college football coaches who heard he ran track, and they would be like, ‘That can’t be right. He’s running the 400?’” Johnson’s father remembers. “Probably everything about Ryan tells you not to run the 400, but Ryan wanted to do it. He read books on it and interviewed guys who ran the 400 to figure it out.”

Johnson’s inquisitiveness extends far beyond athletics. He likes to fix cars and has built remote control boats. He gave physics lessons to a friend in high school in exchange for guitar lessons. One of the first songs he mastered was Rocky Top.

Johnson plays acoustic and electric at UT, joking that “a little AC/DC in the dorm rooms never hurt anybody.”

Johnson still savors the collaborative side of education.

“He enjoys learning, but the neat thing about Ryan is he enjoys teaching and enjoys helping his classmates,” his father says. “He has several engineering buddies at UT he studies with. He can be a football player one day and a nerd the next day. He is a jock, then a bookworm.”

Juggling football, school and community service hasn’t been easy. Johnson is sometimes the only player on the plane with his light on at 2 a.m. doing homework when the team flies home.

Somehow, he still always manages to find time for the students at Lanier Elementary, whether it’s sending them a congratulatory text message, giving them pointers on winning a tug-of-war or eating lunch with them.

Asked how he finds the energy to balance everything: “Lots of coffee,” Johnson responds with a smile.

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