It all started with one email.
Junior linebacker Gary Johnson hasn’t always worn a burnt orange jersey with ‘Texas’ embroidered across his chest. He hasn’t even always been a part of Division I football, either.
Johnson’s college career started when his high school coach in Alabama sent a mass email to several junior college head coaches across the country back in 2015.
The email left Douglas High School and traveled 965 miles straight to Dodge City Community College. It didn’t take long — in fact, all it took was a mere glimpse — for head coach Gary Thomas to know Johnson had something.
“Obviously you could watch about the first five plays of the film and figure out he was a little different,” Thomas said. “We called him. I think he had a few people in the mix that day, but we ended up signing him.”
Dodge City, Kansas
And just like that, Johnson’s career began –– in Dodge City, Kansas, population of 27,453. The transition from high school to community college isn’t always easy, but Johnson said he knew what he had to do.
“It was a pretty hard step coming from high school to junior college,” Johnson said. “But it made me mature fast enough to know that I had to do what I had to do and get to the next level and that’s what I did.”
Johnson spent the next two years trying to get to the next level as he started at linebacker for the Dodge City Conquistadors. Thomas said both his linebacker and team saw success.
In Johnson’s two seasons in Kansas, Dodge City Community College finished 9–3 and 7–4, respectively. And in addition to the record-breaking seasons, Johnson was named No. 1 Junior College linebacker.
“He’s a tremendous athlete –– an athlete that doesn’t come around all that often,” Thomas said. “He’s an incredibly gifted individual from an athletic standpoint and a super charismatic and likable person on and off the field. We had a good experience with him.”
Division I programs across the country took notice and all of a sudden, Johnson no longer needed coaches to email video clips of his performances. It even caught the attention of one program in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
From crimson to burnt orange
Johnson’s success eventually caught the attention of Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Johnson committed with plans on returning to play football in the south. Thomas said Saban would call and FaceTime Johnson to check up on Alabama’s commit’s status to make sure there were no bumps along the way.
“He was committed to Alabama for probably six months, if not more than that,” Thomas said. “There was a lot of schools that stayed in pursuit of him in case he didn’t make it there or something happened.”
And something did happen. Johnson was forced to reopen recruitment after decommitting from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide due to academic requirements which prevented the linebacker from playing for any team in the SEC.
“When it got down to crunch time after he decommitted from Alabama, him and me had a pretty long conversation one night,” Thomas said. “He called me, it might have been the night before signing day. He was on the fence about what he wanted to do so we talked down a list of the pros and cons of all the situations.”
Johnson wasn’t a heavily recruited player out of high school, so the recruiting process was a new one. But Johnson wasn’t just deciding on what school to commit to. He was also ultimately deciding, where he wanted his last shot at Division I football to be. USC and Ohio State were on the table, but Thomas said it really came down to two schools: Arizona State and Texas.
“Basically, after what happened when I was at Dodge City as far as me having to decommit from Alabama, I had to find a new home,” Johnson said. “It was pretty difficult. Once I set aside the schools I was interested in and took my visits, it was pretty much obvious that Texas was the place for me.”
After two seasons at Dodge City Community College, Johnson finally arrived at Texas to play Division I football for the Longhorns. Senior linebacker and team captain Naashon Hughes briefly talked about Johnson’s contributions to the Longhorn defense, but he spent more time telling the story of the first time they met.
Hughes said Johnson walked into one of his classes and quickly brought up his track days at Douglas High School. Hughes tried telling Johnson he had some speed too, but little did Hughes know, Johnson won the Alabama state title in the 100 meter dash with a time of 10.59 seconds –– with no blocks.
“I was telling him I can run a little bit. He was like, ‘I run a 10.5 no blocks,’” Hughes said. “I was like, ‘Alright, you’ve probably got me beat by a little bit’ ... I knew he wasn’t lying because then the coaches told me, ‘Yeah, he ran a 10.5 no blocks.’ ... I’m from a track city, I’m a track guy. I was like OK, he’s for real about his speed.”
Johnson’s speed has impressed his teammates at every level, whether in Dodge City or inside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Now, the junior college transfer has another chance to showcase his speed. This time, it’s against Kansas.
Although Johnson doesn’t have the same taste in his mouth as his teammates after Texas’ heart-wrenching loss to the Jayhawks last year, he still knows what that loss meant as he watched the game unfold in Lawrence, Kansas.
“I pretty much didn’t know what to think,” Johnson said. “Things happen. I just couldn’t wait to get there and help win next year.”
The junior will put on a burnt orange uniform for just the tenth time as Texas prepares to take on Kansas at 5 p.m. on Saturday in an attempt to not only avenge last year’s loss but also bring Texas one game closer to bowl eligibility.
As for Dodge City Community College, the 4–6 Conquistadors are set to host Hutchinson Community College at 1 p.m. Head coach Gary Thomas and his squad won’t finish with a 9–3 or 7–4 record like they did while Johnson was there, but Thomas still recognizes that those two years in Dodge City, Kansas were good for the both of them.
“We won a lot of football games while he was here,” Thomas said. “We won 16 games in the two years he was here. That was the most out of anybody in the conference at the time and the most wins this school has ever had in a two-year span. It definitely worked out well for us and it worked out for him as well.”