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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Bees manager, Keith Johnson and his stepson, Korey Rush Thursday, May 23, 2013.
Bees manager, East High football star connected by more than sports

Bees manager Johnson and East High football star Rush united by more than sports.

First Published May 27 2013 04:45 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:32 pm

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?"

At a glance

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

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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."

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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.

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