To appreciate it.
Coming out of Summit Country Day – a small Catholic school in Cincinnati – he had been a big star on a small stage. His senior season he scored 24 touchdowns as a receiver, ball carrier, punt and kick returner and a defensive back who had a 99-yard pick six.
That led to Division I offers from Cincinnati, Iowa State, Western Kentucky, the Miami RedHawks and six other Mid-American Conference schools.
Had he committed to one of them, Summit Country – mostly a Division VI school – would have had a big signing-day celebration.
“At some of those schools I was one of their main guys, even their top recruit, but I just wanted something where I was really going to have to work for it and that’s kind of what l did here,” Johnson said as he stood off by himself in an ante room outside the Buckeyes locker room late Saturday night and talked quietly about his path to OSU.
To be a Buckeye meant he’d forego a scholarship and be a walk-on who paid his own way.
He said the decision hadn’t come easily:
“There were a lot of hard nights, a lot of tears. I was talking to my parents, asking them exactly what they wanted for me. I tried to seek their counsel, but at the end of the day my dad told me, ‘You’re a grown man. We’ll support you either way, but you need to make the decision that’s best for you.’”
So he joined Ohio State with no fanfare.
He was rated the 1,138th best recruit in the Class of 2018 and was joining a team loaded with scholarship players, many of whom had been some of the nation’s top four- and five-star recruits.
He was moved from position to positon to position. As a freshman, he was made a cornerback. The next two years he bounced back and forth between running back and receiver. He returned kicks and punts and mostly played on special teams.
Although he said he relies heavily on the pillars of his family and faith, he admitted he struggled mightily at times, especially freshman year:
“There we countless nights when I was thinking about throwing in the towel. There were nights when I felt I had I had a foot out the door.
“I remember thinking, ‘Lord, I don’t know why you led me here. I don’t understand.’”
But he stayed the course and last year made strides in the preseason as a wide receiver. In early September, just before the second game against Oregon, head coach Ryan Day rewarded him with a scholarship.
For close to a year, Johnson told almost no one about his good fortune. He especially stayed mum about it before OSU played the Ducks. He said he didn’t want to take the focus away from the team:
“I love these guys. I love the program. I love the school.”
Last month he touched on more on that mum approach: “(There) wasn’t a parade. It wasn’t one of those things where the team huddles up and there’s a celebration.”
But then came Saturday night’s game against the No. 5 Irish and there was an overflow crowd of 106,594 in the Horseshoe and a national TV audience.
The team was already minus two veteran receivers – Kamryn Babb and Julian Fleming were injured. Then in the first quarter OSU star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Rose Bowl MVP, suffered a hamstring strain and was lost for the game.
With a minute left in the third quarter, the Buckeyes were trailing 10-7 and the crowd was moribund.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud was facing a second-and-21 situation from the Notre Dame 34. He needed someone to step up and that’s when he spotted Johnson, who had been inserted into the lineup, but had never caught a college pass.
The 6-foot-2 receiver gathered in Stroud’s 10-yard throw to set up a third-and-11 situation.
This time Stroud found himself under pressure and once again Johnson gave him an outlet as he broke down the middle of the field, gained a step on Notre Dame cornerback Jaden Mickey and snagged the pass just as he crossed the goal line.
“It definitely happened quick,” he said. “The ball was in the air and it was kind of a surreal moment. But I’ve been playing football since I was five, so it was literally: ‘See ball and catch it!’ I know my job description.
“And when I caught it, I was overcome with joy. There was a lot of emotion. Right then I felt the Lord had brought me full circle.”
And then he got one more heavenly nudge.
On the Buckeyes ensuing kickoff, he was back playing special teams and he roared down the field to tackle the Irish return man – running back Chris Tyree – on Notre Dame’s 13-yard line.
Those three consecutive plays by Johnson turned the game around and ignited the crowd.
Notre Dame fizzled out after that and Ohio State went on to win its 23rd straight season opener, which is the longest active streak in the FBS.
‘I love that kid’
Johnson admitted he had a rude awakening when he got to OSU:
“I came in and I was confident in myself. I was expecting to shock the world as a freshman. Everybody does. They come in and they’ve got all these high hopes and expectations.”
When reality hit – when he found himself buried on the depth chart and little more than practice field fodder – he rolled up his sleeves.
“I’m a dude who wants to work,” he said. “I come from a stock that’s hard working. One that never says die and never quits.”
He took the same approach with his classes and twice was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team. He graduated last December with a degree in consumer and family financial services. He’s now in grad school.
That first year at OSU, he finally got a surprise assessment of his worth on the football field.
“When I was really down, something crazy happened,” he said. “Coach Meyer (then head coach Urban Meyer) came up and talked to me for the first time. He told me I was a good player and was going to play here. He really lifted me.”
A couple of weeks ago, Buckeyes running backs coach Tony Alford spoke about Johnson:
“All Xavier has done, in my eyes, is continue to persevere and find ways to overcome what was happening. He didn’t point fingers, but kind of pointed them at himself and said: ‘Where can I get better?’ He didn’t find excuses. That’s a microcosm of how he lives life.
“I love that kid.”
After the game, many of the Buckeyes praised Johnson and none more so than Day.
“How about Xavier Johnson showing up in a big way and making that catch and then coming back on the next play and running down on the kickoff and making a tackle inside the 20-yard line?
“He’s kind of a throwback player. He’s a walk-on who earned a scholarship and he’s grown into really good football player. We trusted putting him into the game and look what happened.
“I couldn’t be happier for him because it goes to show you that good things happen to good people who work hard.”
Stroud who said he’s bonded with Johnson through their faith, called him “a hell of a player,” one who is a hard worker who’s “kind of crazy in the weight room.”
Receiver Emeka Egbuka, who led the Bucks with nine catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, is Johnson’s roommate.
“I love X Man,” he said. “That’s my guy. We’ve been seeing it all fall camp. X has really turned another gear. He had a great game.”
Afterward Johnson was asked if he’d saved the football he’d caught for his first-ever touchdown.
“I didn’t,” he said quietly. “I guess I should ask for it.”
But he admitted he did have an even better remembrance from the game:
“In the middle of the fourth quarter – after the energy from those two plays had died down – I was on the sideline and looked into the crowd.
“I always look for my family. My mom and dad are at every game. Thy drove to Nebraska last year. They went to the Rose Bowl freshman year. They’re my biggest supporters. They’re my ‘Why? The reason I play.”
He said his parents were at the game. So was his girlfriend and his younger brother.
“I finally saw them and I made eye contact,” he said. “My mom was up and jumping for joy and I could tell my dad was proud.
“And that’s all I needed to see.”
The fruits of anticipation were even better than he imagined.