Lonnie Johnson Jr. believes he’s been overlooked for most of his football career.
But after a breakout senior season at Kentucky — in which he recorded 23 tackles, four pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble — Johnson isn’t shocked that NFL teams are starting to take notice.
The Gary native and West Side graduate helped the Wildcats win their first bowl game since 2009 and is projected as a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
James Boyd, sports reporter for The Times, had the chance to speak with Johnson about his unconventional path to the NFL’s doorstep and what he has learned along the way.
Q: Do you think you’ve been a little slept on because of everything you’ve had to go through to get to this point?
A: I most definitely think I’ve been slept on, but some people are starting to wake up at the right time. So as long as they wake up on the right day, that’s all that matters to me.
Q: You went to Kentucky, which many people consider to be a basketball school. How proud are you to have helped the football program reestablish itself?
A: I just wanted to give people something else to talk about other than basketball at Kentucky. A lot of people are looking forward to this draft because they know we have a lot of picks this year. Kentucky hasn’t even had one in a lot of years, and now we have potentially eight to 10 people getting drafted. I’m glad I was a part of that team.
Q: What is your relationship like with your cousin, Jon’Vea Johnson, who played at Toledo and will most likely be drafted as well?
A: We were raised like brothers, and that’s how we treat each other to this day. The last name definitely helped because people really don’t know that’s my cousin. They think he’s my brother, but we’re just best friends.
Q: Jason Johnson, your uncle and Jon’Vea’s father, played in the NFL and was also your coach at West Side. Has he given you any specific advice to prepare for the next level?
A: Moneywise for sure because I know he spent a lot of his money. The era he played in and the era I’m going to play in are very different now, so it’s nothing else he could have schooled (me and Jon’Vea Johnson) on besides spending money. But as far as teaching us the game growing up, he did that for sure.
Q: After high school, you could’ve gone to Ohio State on a scholarship but weren’t able to because of your grades. Do you think missing out on that opportunity made you appreciate the game more?
A: It definitely humbled me and made me appreciate everything more and just focus on the bigger things in life.
Q: You eventually went the JUCO route at San Bernardino Valley and Garden City, but you sat out the 2016 season to focus on your academics. How hard was that and why do you think it was so important?
A: That was the only thing holding me back. Academics were holding me back my whole life, so I had to make sure I finished that first before I worried about something I was always good at. It was probably one of the hardest things I ever had to go through. Witnessing other people I knew I was better than, and not being able to help the team win, it was just hard watching them while I focused on school.
Q: Who is helping you stay calm and grounded throughout this whole pre-draft process?
A: My fiancé keeps me grounded for sure. She makes sure that I’m on the same level I need to be on. But other than that, I’m pretty much keeping myself grounded and just staying humble.
Q: How do you think growing up in Gary shaped who you are now?
A: It was tough, and I make sure to use that toughness on the field. That aggression and everything I’ve been through — the heartaches, the people I lost, all the pain — it just comes out on the field.
Q: What keeps you motivated?
A: My daughter and everything I’ve been through. I have a daughter on the way and just knowing that I have someone else that’s depending on me, I gotta make sure I do everything right. And then just everything I’ve been through as far as junior college, sitting out a year, playing two years at Kentucky, everything to get to this point — that’s what drives me.
Q: Now that it’s finally here, what’s your mindset going into the draft?
A: I just want to be one of the greatest, man. I want to figure out where I’m going first and foremost. It’s been hard not knowing where I’m going to end up because I don’t have any control over it. But I just gotta sit down and wait for the phone to ring. And when it does, I’m going to answer and watch my dreams really come true.