Theo Johnson

Story by Matthew St. Amand 
Photography courtesy Penn State University

It’s almost impossible to believe that the nimble figure, number 84, in the college football highlight reel is six-foot-six, two hundred sixty pounds—leaps above opposing players covering him, mid-field, and snatching a pass out of the air as though the ball was drawn to his hands by magnetism. He is Windsor native, Theo Johnson, playing for the venerable Penn State Nittany Lions. It is good that he has heft because two opposing players instantly slam into him with atom-smashing force, bringing Theo to the ground—hard. A third opposing player adds to the pile to ensure Theo’s forward motion is stopped. When the pile disentangles, Theo springs to his feet as though he’s just come from an invigorating session with the team trainer. 

Theo with his mother, Amy, at parent weekend, August 2023.

Asked how he endures the bone-crushing hits, Theo says: “It is a violent game, but a switch goes off in your head and it makes everything feel a bit less than what it should be.” He adds with a laugh: “You feel it when you cool down, though.”

Theo Johnson is one tough guy who has a huge heart. One could debate which coach, or on-field experience, forged this in him, but there really is only one answer: it comes from his mother, Amy Johnson. 

As a single mother of six boys, Amy Johnson raised her sons—Dominic, Nathan, Theo, Levi, Michael, and Keon—while working toward (and earning) her law degree at the University of Windsor. Busy as she was, she kept her focus on her sons. Theo remembers Amy bringing him and his brothers to their sports practices and games and “sitting in the van at practice with her big fat lawyer books, with a bunch of highlighters, reading all of the time.”

Born in Manitoba, Theo moved with his family when he was very young to Brampton for a time, and then to Cambridge. With five brothers, he was never short on playmates, always striving to keep up with his two older siblings, Dominic and Nathan. Dominic went on to attend the University of Buffalo where he played football and basketball. 

Theo started playing football when he was in second grade. 

“Football was one of those things, it felt like something I was supposed to do,” Theo recalls. “It came naturally to me. It was fun and I was really good at it.”

When Theo was in grade six, he moved to Windsor with his mother and his brothers. There, he attended Queen Victoria Public School and spent his high school years at Holy Names where he excelled on the football team.

Theo was always one of the biggest guys on his teams and experienced a growth spurt the summer between grade ten and eleven.

“After that, I got more coordinated,” he says. “Everything on the field clicked.” 

Following his time playing for the Holy Names Knights Theo made a crucial decision—changing positions.

“On my high school football team, I was a wide receiver,” he says. “I was the only pass-catcher. Going into college, I realized I could either be an average receiver or an elite tight end and learn how to block. It was a transition, but switching to tight end was the best thing for my career. It put me in the spot of having to block very good defensive linemen and I worked on that a lot.”

Theo’s move to tight end was the right choice and, in that position, he played an integral role in the Holy Names Knights winning the OFSAA Western Football Bowl 21-17 over the London South Lions in 2017 and 24-12 over the Newmarket Huron Heights Warriors in 2018. Although Windsor has not, traditionally, been a stop for American college coaches looking to recruit for their programs, Theo caused several of them to add Windsor to their itinerary.

By the end of his high school career, Theo was invited to play in the Under Armor All-American game, which is an all-star high school football game where top seniors are selected from across the United States. Very few Canadians are all-Americans. An unfortunate injury kept Theo from playing in the game.

Training for the Combine in Laguna Hills, California.

As early as 2018, American colleges came calling with offers of scholarships for Theo. The first among them was Bowling Green. When the dust settled and Theo weighed his options, he chose to go with Penn State.  His toughness and work ethic served him well with the Nittany Lions, making the transition from Canadian rules football to playing American football. During his college career, Theo played in fifty-three games, had seventy-three receptions, and twelve touchdowns. 

Once more, Theo’s talent received next-level attention. In February, he was invited to the NFL Combine: a week-long showcase where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of NFL coaches, general managers and scouts. It’s a weekend that can make or break a pro football career. It’s the reason people play football. How did Theo perform in the combine? reported:“Windsor’s Theo Johnson delivered a performance for the ages…”

NFL star and LaSalle native, Luke Willson was quoted as saying: “I thought [Theo] dominated the combine. To be his size and be able to move like that is truly special. And it wasn’t just one good event. Everything went super well. I hope Seattle picks him.”

Although expectations were running high regarding how Theo would do in this year’s NFL Draft (which was held in Detroit April 25–27) he kept things in perspective: “It’s a special moment. I’m really looking forward to it. Right now, it’s just the waiting. I’m staying in shape, staying ready, working out, not driving myself crazy with the anticipation.”

He continues: “The hope and the dream is to go quickly. It’s one of the most unpredictable things ever. I’m just trying to manage my expectations, have my own worth in mind, balancing my personal expectations with humility.”

He is quick to credit mentors who helped him along the way, among them, Holy Names Knights football coach Rob McIntyre.

“Rob really guided me,” Theo says. “He was always there, and trainer Jake Francis who owns King’s Performance Systems. I have worked out there since seventh grade and all through high school. They’ve been a big part of my development as an athlete.”

And, of course, Theo credits is mom, Amy, for being with him every step of the way. 

“I’m so proud of who she is,” he says. “Just seeing her face when I walk into the stadium and giving her a hug. That’s what I do this for.” 

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