Kyle Johnson was a freshman at Woodbridge (N.J.) High when his
mother, Phyllis, a 12th-grade history teacher, presented him
with a book that has become a road map for his life. "Take a
look at this," said Phyllis, handing her son a biography of Paul
Robeson, another New Jersey native who became one of America's
most renowned athletes, political mavericks and performing
artists of the first half of the 20th century. "You'll learn a
lot from this man."
Now, Johnson's bio in the Syracuse football media guide should be
required reading for any athlete whose idea of diversification is
switching between Sega and SportsCenter. The Orangemen's captain
and starting fullback, Johnson has acted in four school plays,
coordinated two charity basketball games and made the athletic
director's honor roll (GPA of 3.0 or higher) all but one
undergraduate semester at Syracuse.
"I love football, but I never wanted it to define me," says
Johnson, who was a second-team all-state running back his senior
year at Woodbridge High as well as a moving speaker in several
interscholastic oratory competitions, including one in which he
recited Robeson's 1919 Rutgers valedictory address. "I once
thought that I'd have to choose between my interests, but I
figured if Robeson could do it all, why couldn't I?"
Last September a vicious tackle almost narrowed Johnson's focus.
As he plunged into the end zone for a touchdown in the second
quarter of the season opener against Buffalo, a defensive player
fell hard onto Johnson's left leg, dislocating his ankle and
fracturing his fibula. Johnson, whom The Sporting News rated as
the nation's 10th-best fullback after a junior year during which
he earned a reputation as an astute blocker and scored three
rushing touchdowns, was sidelined for the season. Refusing to let
the injury decide his fate, he was jogging by January, when the
NCAA granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility. (He was
redshirted as a freshman.) This season the 6'1", 238-pound
Johnson is back to full strength for the 3-2 Orangemen.
"Kyle has good skills, but he's more of a self-made man, the
first in line for every drill, the one asking all the right
questions in meetings," says Syracuse running backs coach David
Bill Rowland, director of the campus theater company that Johnson
joined during his sophomore year, sees a similar quality in the
oversized actor who often runs to play rehearsal straight from
practice or a workout, a plate of dinner in one hand and a script
in the other. "He's extremely aware of the subtleties of
characters," says Rowland, who has cast Johnson as a villain, as
a comic and as a Southern farmer in Samm-Art Williams's
three-person drama Home in April 2000. "He's a phenomenal talent
who has a future in acting."
For now, at least, Johnson's dream role is that of an NFL
fullback. In the unlikely event that neither a playing nor
playacting career comes about, Johnson, who is working toward an
M.B.A. to go with the B.S. in producing for electronic media he
received last December, would like to spend some time abroad.
Wherever Johnson's talents take him, says Walker, "I hope my two
little boys grow up to be just like him."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE