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Monson: Utes' Robert Johnson has reason to be happy

Published August 20, 2009 11:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Standing on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium after practice, Robert Johnson remembers the vision he had two seasons back, as though it were being beamed onto the big screen in his brain right now. In the dream, he's gloriously picking off a pass on the same field, he's helping Utah beat UCLA, he's celebrating a victory that nobody else saw coming.

"It was so clear to me," he said, grinning, immediately after the game. "I never had a dream like that before. I knew we were going to win."

Johnson grins about it still, shaking his head in amazement.

He had the prophetic illumination two nights before the Utes' 44-6 win over the 11th-ranked Bruins in 2007, and the reality was even better than the dream: He grabbed two interceptions and caused a game-changing fumble, hacking down on the arm of a UCLA receiver as the Bruin stretched out for the end zone. A bonus Johnson did not envision: He was named the national defensive player of the week -- in the JC transfer's first major college start.

"Yeah," he says. "I guess I didn't see everything."

But he has seen more than most.

From a vantage point that has shaped his whole being, far beyond football, Johnson has the perspective of a true visionary. And the past is as big a part of that perspective as whatever wonders he sees in his future.

More than anything, he has survived. And he's now a happy man who has forged a happy life out of unhappy circumstances.

"He's one of the most positive guys I've ever been around," defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake says. "Everybody's favorite teammate."

Says Johnson, "I don't have anything not to be happy about."

Here's some evidence: Johnson often turns down rides across campus because he's happy to be able to walk in the relative calm of a safe environment. It's an environment he never knew until he took his first plane ride -- to Salt Lake City -- during a recruiting trip before that 2007 season.

Johnson grew up lost, somewhere between desperation and despair, in the South-Central section of Los Angeles. His father, Wayne, was murdered, shot six times, by a gang of robbers on his way home from work, back when Johnson was 5 years old.

In subsequent years, Johnson absorbed the ravages of violence, living in a bad time and bad place where, as he says it, "Kids don't expect to make it to 18." He saw young people shot and shot at, himself included. It was a sad fact of a sad life.

"Growing up in Watts, that's how it is," he says. "People get shot, people get hurt, people die."

Mentored by his mother and older brothers, Johnson moved six times during his teen years, from spot to harrowing spot. He got into basketball and football because his mom remembered that Wayne had always believed sports could help keep his sons a little farther out of harm's way.

Trouble found Johnson, but it never trapped him. He got serious about football at John C. Fremont High School, playing receiver and safety well enough to garner the attention of recruiters from Washington and San Jose State. But he ended up at L.A. Southwest College, where he later caught the eye of Sitake.

Next thing, despite questions -- such as, "Utah? What's in Utah?" -- from a lot of his friends, he was on that first plane ride to Salt Lake.

"For me, it was an instant attraction," Johnson says of his visit here. "Coach Sitake was a big influence. He helped me through a lot of situations."

And Johnson helped the Utes back, taking over as a starter in the aforementioned third game of '07 against the Bruins. Since then, he has matured as a player and as a man, entering his senior season as one of the defense's centerpieces and one of his team's most affable and popular players.

"He's unselfish, but he's a differencemaker," Sitake says. "He's a student of the game and physically intimidating. Quarterbacks are afraid to test him. He fits perfectly in our defense. He's a leader."

A survivor.

"When I first got here, it was hard for me to learn to trust people," he says. "But I've grown up. Now I feel great. I've learned if you get a chance to do something good with your life, you take it. I'm happy just to be a part of all this. I'm happy to be playing ... happy to be a free safety on a great defense ... happy to be living my life."

Some of his friends back home still ask him, "Utah? What's in Utah?" Laughing, he says he answers proudly with one word.

"Me."

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Monson and Graham Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">gmonson@sltrib.com.