There is nothing quite like family pride to drive an athlete.
Taron Johnson has been inspired for as long as he can remember.
His sister, Treana, three years older, used to be a half-step faster and a great deal more accomplished. She was a sprint star at Sheldon High School who earned All-America honors at BYU.
Johnson made a name for himself, too. He played big as a safety at Sheldon despite his slender frame, crashing into opponents with such ferocity it would make even his own coaches wince.
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Johnson became a cover specialist at Weber State, where he was a four-year starter and earned multiple Football Championship Subdivision All-America honors as the 2017 Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year. That momentum has carried him into this week’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., as the first Weber State invitee in 18 years. The game kicks off Saturday at 11:30 a.m.
Next month, Johnson will be in the NFL combine, another who’s who collection of draft prospects.
Johnson competes with a singular focus of reaching the NFL, of becoming Sheldon’s first draftee, of doing his name proud. He mentions his father, Baron Johnson, as “a major part of everything,” and his sister, as “one of my very best friends,” and a mother he still holds dear.
Trina Johnson died of breast cancer in 2005. She was 38.
“Lost her when I was 9 years old,” Johnson said this week by phone after Senior Bowl meetings. “I really didn’t understand what happened at that time. I remember there was a time she was fine, then she went to the hospital, and I thought I’d see her, but I didn’t know she was that sick, didn’t understand.
“I was really shocked. I definitely miss her a lot. It was a long time ago. I try to remember her. I ask my dad and my sister about her to get a better memory. I can feel her, though.”
If there is one common family athletic trait, it’s speed. Trina had it as half of the Broadway Twins who ran track at Burbank in the early 1980s. Trina and twin Tina were state-meet qualifiers. Their brother, Brian Broadway, was a basketball star at Kennedy. Baron Johnson, Taron’s father, was a three-sport competitor in the 1980s at Encina High after moving from New Orleans.
Johnson reached the CIF State meet in four events at Sheldon, but his heart was in football, even if it wasn’t always mutual. For all of his athletic gifts, Johnson was not high on the recruiting radar.
Sacramento State offered a scholarship, then pulled it after a spell without a commitment.
Weber State was the only other program to offer Johnson, and he jumped at it.
“Taron has a chip on his shoulder, and always had one,” said Josh Crabtree, Johnson’s varsity coach at Sheldon when he pulled him up to varsity as a sophomore in 2011.
Herb Berry was Johnson’s coach at Sheldon his final two varsity seasons. The one-time Stanford player knew he had a prospect.
“I knew Taron Johnson was destined for greatness,” Berry said. “He could do anything, any position. As a junior, we had him as the X safety, and he led us in tackles. He was small but very physical. He’d bruise himself up when he hit guys. We could never tell him to slow down because he didn’t know what that meant.
“He always went full speed and brought everything he had.”
In an effort to keep his best player less bruised, Berry moved Johnson to cornerback for his senior season. With Nolan Merker setting school passing marks, Johnson caught 52 passes for 1,148 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013.
“A special, special athlete; he just needed one college to give him a chance,” Berry said.
Weber State brought Johnson in as a receiver then switched him to cornerback – it was a mutual desire – and he emerged as a four-year starter.
At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Johnson set Weber State program records in pass breakups with 42, and he had 172 career tackles. As a senior team captain, Johnson was paramount in the Wildcats winning a school-record 11 games in 2017 and two FCS playoff games.
Said Weber State coach Jay Hill after Johnson earned Big Sky postseason honors, “He’s meant so much to this program, not only as a player but as a person. He’s a great leader. He comes to practice every day ready to practice great. I couldn’t be more proud of Taron.”
Johnson said the Senior Bowl experience has not awed him. He has made plays with his coverage skills and closing-speed ability to make tackles.
“I’d better blend in,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been fun. A lot of practice and film work. Going to Weber State, it all worked out perfectly. If I were to do it all over again, I’d do it this way. My dream was to play in college and to play beyond college, and I have that chance.”