Sept. 24, 2016

By: Allegra Zamore

If Virginia wide receiver Keeon Johnson opens his own business one day, it would likely be called “10 Toes Down” in tribute to the motto he strives to live by everyday.

The fourth-year from Kannapolis, N.C., places an overwhelming emphasis on optimism and gratitude to keep him grounded during times of success, change and when looking to the future.

The ups and downs Johnson has experienced during his career fuel his determination to motivate people to be the best that they can be. His passion to be someone whom younger athletes can come to for advice shows his dedicated character and determination to help others as his role models have helped him.

For example, his time spent off the field with his teammates at the Boys and Girls Club feeds this passion.

“Anytime we are around and we see kids out doing stuff, we always enjoy having fun with them,” Johnson said. “They look up to us, so it’s fun to relive those days.”

The desire to inspire youth has him thinking about his own future. Johnson says he can see himself as a trainer with a focus on helping others achieve their goals and reach their dreams.

“When I’m home, I’m usually around younger guys that play football, so I always want to be that guy: a leader,” said Johnson, which is part of why he elected to attend UVA.

“The atmosphere felt like home,” Johnson said. “Family and faith play a huge role in who I am. I am really family oriented. My family is a huge support system and my brother and mom always motivate me. You would think they played football themselves.”

Johnson emphasized how grateful he is for the time his family members take out of their lives to make sure he’s stable and doing the best that he can. Their support and faith keep him grounded, which is part of the reason he was eager to change his jersey number for his last season as a Cavalier.

“This is the first time I have ever chosen a number that I wanted, even in high school,” he said. “I have had the number 85 for the last three years.”

First-year coach Bronco Mendenhall placed a large emphasis on letting team members earn the right to choose their numbers at the end of fall camp.

“This whole transition with new coaches and staff and my last year, I wanted to be a different person than I was for the last three years,” Johnson said. “We are big on religion and are a Christian family, so 8 was the number for new beginnings.”

With a new start, Johnson made a point to recognize key people who remain constants in his life, including UVA wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, the only assistant retained from the previous coaching staff. Another was offensive tackle and fellow fourth-year Eric Smith.

“[Hagans] has always pushed me, even when I did not really see it, and now I see how important that was,” Johnson said. “When other coaches doubted me in the past, he always told me he believed in myself no matter what, and I am thankful to have a coach like him.

“There was a point where I was at my absolute lowest. I am always an optimistic guy, but I kind of felt lonely, and it was my family and coach Hagans who kept my energy up and eyes on the future.”

As for Smith, Johnson dubbed him, along with wide receiver Doni Dowling, the team comedians.

“You can be mad or sad and you come into the locker room and they will be dancing to old school music,” Johnson said. “For [Smith] to be so big, 305 pounds and moving, every time I am with them, my spirits are high.”

Smith and Johnson share a special relationship in serious times as well. Johnson reflected on their first game as freshmen where the two became emotional because of their passion and excitement for the game.

“He started tearing up and then I started tearing up,” Johnson said, “He’s like my brother and it’s so emotional and hype; that makes you want to play more not only for yourself but for him and your teammates.

“This was our last camp, our last summer workout, we’re trying to block all of that out and pretend like it’s not happening. But the more the season goes on it will probably hit us. We’ve played all four years together, which is a special feeling.”

Johnson looks back with pride on how he has worked on his attitude and work ethic.

After starting his first year, but getting less playing time the following year, he is reminded of some challenging times. With the help of his family and teammates, Johnson reminds himself constantly that, at the end of the day, he needs to continue to work and have fun doing it.

“I had to push through it and stay 10 toes down to be positive about the situation,” he said.

That mindset has gotten Johnson to where he is today, will continue to elevate him towards greatness in his future endeavors and provide him with a motto to approach his life.