Note: The following appears in the Wake Forest gameday football program.
In two weeks, senior Denzel Johnson returns to his hometown of Columbia, S.C. with his sights set on a big performance against the Gamecocks. And like every game, his family will be in orange supporting him from the stands.
“I can’t wait for that game in Columbia. I have my whole family down there, so I had to get a lot of tickets. It’s going to be special.”
When Johnson chose to play football at Clemson, it was the family culture that ultimately led him to his decision. Four-and-a-half years later, the defensive back keeps finding himself reminiscing about everything that has made his experience in Tigertown so special.
Even though he waited until eighth grade to start playing organized football, Johnson had dreams of playing the sport on a national stage at an early age.
“One of my life goals was always to play NCAA football.”
The thrill of competing at the college level continues to drive Johnson. He described the most significant moment of his college career during last season’s game at Texas A&M. A tight end ran a corner route, and after working on covering the corner route all week in practice, Johnson broke up the pass in one of his first chances to earn the trust of the coaches in a key scenario.
“In that moment, I was ready, and I was so confident.”
The self-assuredness has followed him into his senior year. After being a part of two national championship teams and nearing the end of his final year, he had the chance to reflect on how he has grown as both a player and person.
“My experience here has been great. It has taught me a lot. I came in blind, but now I know so much more about the important things, like building character, leadership and accountability. Time management is another big one.”
Johnson has also been shaped by the attitude of humility present throughout the football program.
“Coming here and seeing how humble everything is has been something that has stuck with me. If there’s a fan waiting outside the building who wants an autograph, I sign that instead of saying ‘Oh no, I’m good.’ That could change someone’s day. Seeing that other perspective has been big for me. Here, that attitude is the standard.”
With plans to train for the NFL following his graduation in December, Johnson values the support and resources available to him through Clemson football and the lessons he has taken away from his years within the program.
“Time is flying by. I can go back to when I was a redshirt freshman playing cornerback going against Mike Williams, and now I’m teaching these young guys what to do.”
As a veteran member of the defense, Johnson is enjoying the opportunity to lead the younger Tigers who have come into the program ready to learn from experienced players like Johnson.
“It’s been fun stepping into that leadership role. The type of team we have…they listen. They’re not hard-headed.”
For Johnson, being able to continually learn from and guide others and to push and be pushed by those around him is essential. He spoke specifically of his teammates, defensive end Regan Upshaw and wide receiver Josh Jackson, and how their work ethic and understanding of each other has allowed them to consistently motivate one another.
In fact, the synergy of that trio, Johnson, Upshaw and Jackson, has transcended the gridiron and has been put to artistic use, as the three perform together as a heavy metal band.
During a drive from Columbia to Clemson, Upshaw turned on the song “When You Were Young” by The Killers. Johnson remembered playing the song on Guitar Hero during his childhood years, and he agreed immediately when Upshaw suggested that they perform karaoke, even though Johnson had never done it.
Johnson does not shy away from much, and they performed the song in Clemson the next day.
“Everyone had us on Snapchat and Instagram. I was like ‘Oh, wow!’ And that was the start.”
In true rockstar fashion, the trio of Johnson, Upshaw and Jackson came up with the stage names Axl StaxxX, Rickyy Diamond and Beatle Johnson, respectively, and they dress the part for each show.
Last month, the group performed at Tigerama, Clemson’s Homecoming pep rally, and Johnson donned a purple velvet shirt, black skinny jeans, sunglasses, his silver chains and black gloves with skulls.
“I was going to wear a velvet choker, but my neck was too big.”
Johnson has been able to translate his comfort of playing football on a national stage to playing music on a local stage, saying that the crowd’s excitement energizes him.
But when he’s not on the football field or on stage, Johnson enjoys spending time fishing on Lake Hartwell or Lake Keowee.
“It helps me relax. It helps my mind focus on all the little things in life.”
Johnson is engaged to Clemson rower Aliute Udoka, and he also takes care of his four pet turtles, named Ace, Stone, Torch and Chopper.
With only one month and the completion of his sports communication internship standing between him and his degree, Johnson is making sure to appreciate every moment at Clemson as he looks forward to his next chapter.