Peering across the baseball diamond at Spring Mobile Ballpark, Salt Lake Bees manager Keith Johnson spotted one of his former players — someone who hadn’t heard the news yet.
“That’s my boy over there,” he said to the player while gesturing toward the dugout. “He’s grown a few inches since you last saw him, hasn’t he?”
In the dugout, a dark-skinned teenager tilted his head down with a slightly abashed smile that belied his thick, strong frame.
“He’s going to play football,” Johnson said. “He’s going to Arizona State!”
By now, Korey Rush has gotten used to his stepdad’s gushing. Although the 17-year-old East High star is taller than a number of the Bees, he’s known them since he was a junior high runt who liked to carry a football wherever he went, one who tagged along with Keith.
“Keith” is what Korey calls his stepfather. Korey’s dad lives in Missouri, and they talk often, and they’ve spent summers together over the years.
But since entering Korey’s life 10 years ago, Johnson has assumed the responsibility of helping raise a boy into a man.
Johnson develops young talent for a living as a minor league manager, getting prospects ready for the big leagues. But with Korey, one of the top football prospects in Utah, the struggles and successes are different, more personal.
That’s why he often calls Korey “son.”
“When you’re in someone’s life that much, you’re going to take on a role,” he said. “We don’t always agree, but everything that’s done or said, it comes from a place of love. That’s where we are, that’s where we’ve almost always been.”
What brought them together was Korey’s mother, Malena, the woman both men call the family’s “backbone.”
Johnson fell for her in 2003, as he was wrapping up his pro baseball career with the Salt Lake Stingers. Korey wondered why the third baseman kept tossing balls up into the stands where his mom was sitting.
It wasn’t a lingering mystery. The two started dating, and Johnson began showing up at family events. He got to know Korey, a sometimes goofy, often sweet boy who had been alone with his mom for a while.
Korey was protective of his mother, but slowly opened up to Johnson through sports. They bonded, playing baseball on a diamond in Korey’s backyard.
“I knew I could trust him early on,” Korey said. “I think that’s what made it so easy, I thought he was cool.”
But Korey’s first love was football. He played on youth teams in Park City, and he dominated with uncommon size and athleticism. It didn’t take a scout’s eye to know that he had big things in his future. If he kept growing and crashing through opponents like he did, he could be a great player.
Johnson had grown up the youngest of four brothers, and had spent his youth trying to prove he could play baseball and football just as well as they did. He didn’t see the same drive from his stepson when he took the football field.
Most of Keith and Korey’s sparring sessions revolved around Korey’s work ethic — or lack thereof.
“I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was easy,” Korey said. “I didn’t see past second grade football. I thought that was the world. I didn’t understand work ethic or why I needed to try hard.”
That changed when the family moved to Salt Lake City and Korey began his freshman year at East. There were older defensive linemen who were bigger and better than him. Coaches were pointing out his mistakes in film sessions. For the first time in football, he was getting negative feedback.
He didn’t tell his parents how he was hurting from the criticism. Johnson, unaware that Korey was losing passion for the game, kept giving Korey his own advice, adding to the pressure.
It reached a tipping point, Johnson said, when he shouted something from the stands “I probably shouldn’t have said.” Soon after, Korey revealed that he had been struggling with the game.
Keith and Malena talked to him for a long time about it. Johnson realized how overbearing he’d been.
“You look at Korey, you see a grown man, then you see him giggle with his friends, and you realize he’s just a little boy,” Johnson said. “When you’re coaching your own kid, you see everything that they do, and how much they love it, and there’s so much emotion attached.”
Keith and Malena took a gentler hand with their son. Korey started to listen to his parents and his coaches, and his career started to take off. As a 6-foot-2, 245-pound defensive end last season, he racked up 14.5 sacks for the Leopards as they went to the 4A football semifinals. His parents cheered him on from the stands.
As Korey grew, his relationship with his stepfather also matured.
Johnson supports his wife’s vision for Korey: She wants to see him work hard in all his pursuits, and get a college education. That was also what Johnson’s mother, who raised him after a divorce when he was young, wanted for her son.
Every day, Johnson sees Malena make the same sacrifices in the hopes of bettering her son’s future.
But Johnson is also an advocate for Korey’s independence. When Malena buckles down on Korey, Johnson is often the one who appeals to her to let him enjoy his social life and be more like a teenager.
“He knows I deserve some freedom at this time in my life, and he has my back a little bit,” Korey said.
Outside of sports, Johnson leaves his manager persona at the ballpark.
The men grab buffalo wings or burgers together — if it’s Johnson’s choice, they’ll go for Mexican food. They wrestle. Sometimes, the two head to Park City to hit baseballs. It’s a get-out-of-the-house activity, often peppered with Johnson’s advice about sports and life.
“He doesn’t always say much, but I know he’s listening,” Johnson said.
Korey has one more year to go in high school, and then he’s planning to leave for Tempe, Ariz., to join the Sun Devils. Keith and Malena have a daughter together, Maya, but Johnson said Korey’s mother is already worrying about her son’s departure. Korey acknowledged it will be hard on him, too.
Until then, there will be more games to watch, more dinners together, more time in the batting cages. And Johnson doesn’t plan on wasting a moment.
“One more year we’ve got with him,” he said. “But I think by the time he gets out of our house, he’ll be ready for the challenges he’s going to face.”
Losing hand in Las Vegas
The Las Vegas 51s beat Salt Lake 9-7 on Monday, handing the Bees their third loss in the four-game series. > C5
Keith Johnson file
• Salt Lake Bees manager
• Age 42
• Had a 12-year professional playing career, including six major league games with the Anaheim Angels in 2000
• Played the 2002 and 2003 seasons with the Bees, batting .283
Korey Rush file
• East High defensive end
• Age 17
• The 6-foot-2, 245-pound DE had 14.5 sacks in his junior season in helping the Leopards reach the state 4A semifinals
• Committed this month to play football at Arizona State