Shaq Johnson had it circled on the calendar from the moment the 2018 schedule was released. For Johnson and many other players across the CFL, a trip to Toronto means the chance to play in front of friends and loved ones. And with that comes the ultimate responsibility of scrounging up as many tickets as possible. The speedy receiver has had to work a little magic to acquire his desired quota for Saturday’s clash against the defending Grey Cup champion Argonauts.
“Damn, I wanna say 35-40 so far,” replied Johnson about his updated ticket total.
“There is going to be a little crowd of us up there supporting the BC Lions and me. I already bribed a few teammates. The rest I have to buy. Other people have family and friends coming. So I hope everybody that comes to the game is happy.”
Perhaps the responsibility serves as a nice reminder of his upbringing. While many view Canada’s largest city as all glitz and glamour, Johnson had more of a blue-collar upbringing in nearby Brampton.
“We called it the screwface capital. You just get a little grit from it,” explained Johnson of the Greater Toronto Area.
“That’s what motivates you, coming back to where it all started. I’m going to put it on for my people that supported me.”
It was in Brampton at Notre Dame Catholic High School where he first learned his football craft.
“The Notre Dame Army was known as the Dungeon over there,” recalled Johnson.
“We had guys like (former Lions defensive lineman) Jabar Westerman and (Eskimos defensive lineman) Kalonji Kasama. It was fun. A lot of great memories.
The events of his senior season made him realize he might have just had a long-term future in the game.
“Definitely the game that sticks out was my last year when we won the regional championship: the program had been in a re-building stage and hadn’t won it in a couple of years,” recalled the Lions’ fourth-round draft pick from 2016.
“Our quarterback got injured in the Semi-Final game so I had to come in and play some Wildcat formation. I scored four touchdowns in that game. It was a great feeling and a great way for our team to get that win against (St.) Joan of Arc.”
Johnson’s went from Notre Dame to McGill University where he would break the CIS rookie record for receptions with 61. However, trouble in the classroom would prevent him from ultimately staying at the Montreal campus and after a one-year stint at Western, family issues forced him to move back home and continue his career in Junior football with the London Beefeaters. Johnson’s mother Karen was raising his three siblings on her own. He would eventually overcome those obstacles and draw the attention of the Lions in that 2016 draft. Johnson credits overcoming those obstacles for where he is today.
“Going through that journey I went through, being in and out of school, you just have to make certain decisions and you never know where you’re going to end up because you can’t predict the future,” said Johnson.
“You have to go with the punches and I wouldn’t change any of that for the world. It’s what made me who I am and gave me that fire and grit. I enjoyed all of the ups and downs of that journey because it moulded me into the man I am today.”
He scored his first CFL touchdown in front of Karen and other family members in a victory at Hamilton last season. He still keeps that game ball in a glass case. How much would finding the end zone mean in Toronto? Getting the victory is his top priority.
“I won’t say it (scoring) would mean the craziest amount, I would be lying if I did,” said number 88.
“We’re focused on getting that win. If I do score that means would help us get that W. So it would be big in that regard.”
As good as the offence has looked the last couple of weeks, Johnson and his teammates will remind everyone that their best is yet to come.
“We haven’t hit our peak yet. That’s the scary thing. We’re looking to build on what we did against Edmonton.”
Let’s hope the Shaq cheering section has plenty to get excited about.