Looking back on where he came from is helping Shaq Johnson make plans for when he moves on.
The wide receiver, who recently signed a contract extension with the BC Lions, is already thinking about life beyond football. He has aspirations of being a general manager in the CFL, but also wants to set up programs to help young people develop their football skills.
Growing up in Brampton, Ont., Johnson attended minor football camps. Knowing coaches and teammates were depending on him to attend practice and games gave him “a sense of direction and purpose.”
The 27-year-old also believes his involvement in sports kept his life from taking a wrong turn.
“I think things would have definitely been on the bad side of things, if I’m being totally honest,” said Johnson. “Just because of where I was born and where I grew up, and the friends that kept around when I was at a young age. I’m thankful.
“I’m one of the ones that realized how much football really changed my mindset, my purpose or values in life.”
With the CFL hoping for a 2021 season, Johnson hopes to operate some camps this summer in British Columbia. Besides teaching the game’s basics, Johnson also wants to emphasize the importance of school to the young players.
Johnson said poor grades cost him a chance of a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I really want to be able to coach them and let them know that the training side is one thing, but the school side is another,” he said. “The school side is what cost me an opportunity of playing NCAA ball. I would like to let them understand there’s more (to it) than athleticism.”
Hakeem Johnson, Shaq’s younger brother who was a rookie defensive back with the Lions in 2019, said it’s important for young people to have mentors.
“People that they can look up to and follow and be good role models,” said Hakeem. “Let them know that it’s not easy but it all pays off.
“When I was younger, I got discouraged when the work was too hard, or things weren’t going my way. Have somebody that’s been through it telling them it’s going to be okay.”
The brothers followed different routes to playing with the Lions.
Shaq played Canadian college football at McGill where he was named the CIS rookie of the year in 2012 with 61 catches for 792 yards and five touchdowns.
Financial difficulties forced him to drop out of university for a year to help his mother raise his three other siblings. He would eventually play college football with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs and the London Beefeaters of the Canadian Junior Football League.
Shaq was eventually selected 32nd overall in the 2016 CFL Draft out of the Beefeaters program.
Hakeem was more interested in basketball growing up and didn’t play football until his final year of high school. He attended Western where he helped the school win a national championship in 2017. A knee injury sidelined him for the 2018 season, but he was taken 33rd overall by the Lions in the 2019 draft.
Shaq spent most of his rookie season on the practice roster and played just two games.
“It was difficult,” he said. “It was a learning point, understanding how to deal with those emotions and understanding what you have to do to get better each day.”
In 2017, Shaq dressed for 18 games and had 30 catches for 521 yards and two touchdowns. He was the Lions’ nominee for CFL Most Outstanding Canadian.
“When I started playing it just kind of flowed together because I knew I was putting in the preparation out there,” he said. “When you get your chance . . . you got to do the most with it. I felt like I did that with the chance I got and that’s what kept me around.”
In 2019, Shaq had career highs of 39 receptions and 597 yards and added two touchdowns. In 54 games, the six-foot, 185-pound receiver has 97 catches for 1,454 yards and touchdowns.
Hakeem also went through an adjustment period. The six-foot-one, 190-pound 26-year-old played in the final eight games of 2019, registering three tackles.
His high hopes for 2020 were dashed when the season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“It was all just like a shock,” said Hakeem. “Just getting my feet wet for one year and trying to come back and build on that. Having that taken away, it was kind of hard.”
Having his older brother around helped Hakeem make the transition to the CFL.
“He could tell me how everything’s going to be,” he said. “It was an adjustment from playing CIS. Going to the CFL, the competition was a lot better.
“In terms of a new city, going across the country, I had a brother with me. It was comforting.”
Shaq gave his brother some advice but “for the most part, I let him fend for himself.”
Besides helping young players, Shaq believes he has the tools to be a good GM in the league.
“That side of football really excites me,” he said.
One of the biggest lessons he’s learned early in his career is to not take decisions personally.
“As a young player, you let the football side of things be personal,” he said. “As you grow, you start to understand that, at the end of the day, it’s a business.
“I don’t really take things personal, at least anymore, because I understand more about the business side of it goes. I would love to get into it one day.”