The music came first.
Before he was The Freak, long before he was the next Chosen One in the long procession of great LSU defensive linemen, he was a latter-day little Anthony.
Little Anthony Johnson, age 4, summoning up the courage to stand before a packed congregation at Beautiful Zion Baptist Church and let loose that voice that was tiny but brimming with potential on the lines of R. Kelly’s anthem-like “I Believe I Can Fly.”
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
“Music is influential in my life,” said Johnson, a frequent soloist in his high school choir at O. Perry Walker. “It calms me down. It soothes me.”
There are, it seems, two sides at odds within Anthony Johnson.
There is the soulful expressive side, the part of him that writes his own music, that loves to cook (Waldorf salad is his favorite dish), that before he goes to bed each night pens thoughts in a notebook and shares some of the more inspirational messages on his Twitter account.
Then there is the combative aspect, the side of raw power and rage that he unleashes on the football field each Saturday. The side encased in a 6-foot-3, 294-pound body so talented, so quick and agile, it prompted former Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to label him “The Freak” during a recruiting visit there.
Johnson doesn’t shy away from labels. He embraces them. They help explain the side of him that can only find its true expression between the sidelines.
“I change into a whole other man” when on the field, Johnson said. “I consider myself a silverback gorilla. A silverback will hardly attack anyone unless they’re messed with.
“I tell people there are two silverback gorillas in the world — one in Uganda and one in Baton Rouge.”
To watch Johnson work on the field is to watch an artist paint on his canvas.
A video from a recent LSU practice showed him easilydeflecting a medicine ball tossed at his legs like a would-be blocker, chop his steps through three blocking pads laid on the ground like big blue speed bumps and finally slam his hurtling mass into a tackling dummy that has the unfortunate chore of substituting for an opposing ball carrier.
Freakishly gifted. Even his beard could be the stuff of a Dos Equis “Most interesting man in the world” commercial.
Johnson boasts he’s had facial hair since he was 12. His former coach says that’s no joke. In his eyes, Johnson has no equal.
“I don’t have any Anthonys,” said Emanuel Powell, Johnson’s coach at O. Perry Walker, in describing his team this fall at the newly consolidated Landry-Walker High School in the Algiers section of New Orleans. “I don’t know if I will ever have a kid with that personality and athleticism. I literally watched him beat up a whole offensive line at practice once. It’s just unbelievable.
“Those kinds of kids only come along once every 10, 15 years — or in a lifetime.”
There was a time when there was a chance Johnson wouldn’t come back to New Orleans at all. Like so many others from the city, Johnson’s family was forced to flee by Hurricane Katrina eight years ago, moving briefly to Atlanta, then to Mobile, Ala.
While the family was there, Johnson found resistance as he tried to walk on to the middle school football team.
“He went to talk to the coaches, and they thought he was a grown man,” said Nakisha Johnson, Anthony’s mother. “He said, ‘No, I’m only 12. I would like to come play.’
“They gave him the nickname ‘Big 12.’ He played two games and led (Mobile) county in tackles. He didn’t want to leave because they were doing so well.”
The family stayed in Mobile about six months before returning in 2006, when Johnson switched from St. Augustine — where he played middle school quarterback — to O. Perry Walker in the fall of 2007.
That ninth-grade year was his introduction to defense. It was like coming home a second time.
“In ninth grade, I gained about 30 or 40 pounds and got to about 260,” Johnson said. “My coach told me my quarterback days were over.
“I started on the outside (at defensive end) then moved to the inside. Ever since then, I’ve been playing defensive tackle and I love it.”
Johnson’s growth as a football player was stunningly swift. He set the state high school career sack record with 67.5 and, by his senior year in 2010, he was the nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle prospect, a Parade All-American and the first defensive lineman ever to win the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year Award.
Johnson and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney were clearly the top two defensive line prospects nationally for the Class of 2010 — Johnson Mr. Inside and Clowney Mr. Outside. But while Clowney’s college career was a meteoric rise — NFL analysts said he would have been the No. 1 selection if he came out for the April draft — Johnson was doing a slow burn at LSU.
He has played in all 27 of LSU’s games his first two seasons but has made just three starts. He had 30 tackles in 2012 (10 for loss), only fourth-best among Tigers defensive linemen.
Though his light, upbeat tone rarely changes when he describes his first two college seasons, Johnson is candid in saying they could have been better.
“I feel like I have something to prove,” said Johnson, who is cousins with former Alabama and Dutchtown High running back Eddie Lacy. “Coming out of high school, I was highly touted, along with Jadeveon Clowney. He got a lot of playing time early and felt the praise. I kind of felt belittled because I wasn’t able to play, but my time was coming.
“This year I’m ready to show the world what they’ve been waiting for — not only that I can play football, but great football. I feel like I have been given an opportunity. That’s why I take every rep and do it with a vengeance.”
Johnson will be expected not just to play but to lead. To add his name to the list of dominant defensive linemen LSU has churned out over its remarkable past dozen seasons.
“(Reporters) called him ‘Freak’ the first day he walked in here, but I still call him Anthony because that’s who he is,” LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley said. “Until he proves he is one of those guys — a (Michael) Brockers or a (Glenn) Dorsey or Tyson Jackson, Marcus Spears — those are things that will have to come with time. But I think he’s in a good place with his work ethic, and his overall attitude is unbelievable.”
Work that includes being the best of both parts of himself.
“On the field, I want to be ‘The Freak’ — the guy everyone is intimidated by. Someone teammates rally around,” he said. “Off the field, I just want to be laidback, a low-key guy who likes to have fun.”
He believes he can do it all.
He believes he can fly.
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