Tired from a long day of school and practice, PJ Johnson was pulled over for swerving on his way home on Monday night. Instead of citing him for erratic driving, though, the police officer took pity on a 335-pound defensive tackle driving a 1997 Toyota Camry with one mirror.
“He was like, ‘I was only going to give you a warning, and my printer isn’t working anyway, but I’ve seen your car and you can’t afford a ticket anyway,’” Johnson said Tuesday.
Had Johnson been cited it would have only been the 243rd-worst thing to happen to him the last few years, approximately. When your college football career has included losing a grandmother to lung cancer, needing an emergency appendectomy and discovering a massive tumor in your leg, you learn not to sweat the small stuff.
You also learn to appreciate the good times, like on Saturday when Johnson recorded his first tackle, tackle for loss and sack for the Arizona Wildcats in their 35-14 win at Oregon State. The redshirt junior had missed the previous two games with a foot injury, which was because he “didn’t break my cleats in good enough” prior to the season opener against BYU.
The OSU game was the first chance for Arizona fans to see the passion and flair that Johnson plays with, something that extends to a removable gold grille he wears (under a mouth guard) in games.
Johnson’s teammates have known since he showed up in the spring he was a fiery one.
“A big grizzly bear,” sophomore linebacker Tony Fields II said when asked to describe Johnson. “He’s angry on the field, but off the field he’s the softest bear ever.”
Johnson was one of the more-hyped members of Arizona’s 2018 recruiting class, a junior college transfer from City College of San Francisco who picked the Wildcats over UNLV in December. He began his career at Sacramento State, during which many life-altering events occurred.
In early 2015 his appendix burst overnight, causing him to spend six weeks in the hospital and lose 60 pounds. It was during this time that Johnson learned he was going to be a father, with son Tolu turning three next week (he also has a daughter, Kiara, who is six months old).
Johnson rebounded from that to play in 11 games as a redshirt freshman for the Hornets.
Big things were in line for him in 2016 before he felt like his leg “snapped” during a September practice. An X-ray revealed a large tumor in his right femur, leading to surgery and a missed season.
During that ordeal, one of Johnson’s grandmothers passed away from lung cancer.
He transferred to CCSF for the 2017 season where his play earned him offers from mostly mid-major and FCS schools. UNLV looked to be where he was headed, since it would allow him to remain close to his children, before then-Arizona defensive line coach Vince Amey reached out just before the December signing period.
“I was juiced because I wanted to play Power 5,” he said.
But less than a month after signing with Arizona came the sudden firing of Rich Rodriguez, followed by Kevin Sumlin’s arrival and an overhaul of the coaching staff that included Amey’s departure. Not ideal, Johnson said, but at this point in his life he’d learned to take such things in stride.
“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, so I just took it as another thing I had to get through,” he said.