When former Bulldog Everett Johnson had the opportunity to graduate early from Turlock High School in December 2019, he was faced with a dilemma: head to Cal Berkeley for the spring semester and get a jumpstart on his collegiate football career, or finish the year out with the Class of 2020 and experience special senior moments which many consider to be once in a lifetime.
Fast forward to March 2021, and Johnson is living life with no regrets. He did graduate early after extensive talks with his family and coaches, and just started his second season of spring ball for Cal last Wednesday. At 6-foot-7 and over 300 pounds, Johnson was a highly-coveted offensive lineman during his time at THS. He was pursued by schools like Arizona State University and the University of Oklahoma, but he ultimately committed to Cal in February 2018 after his first season of varsity play.
Johnson’s worries about missing out on those senior events by graduating early became irrelevant shortly after he reported to Cal in January 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the U.S. and destroyed high school memories yet to be made, like prom and the class trip to Disneyland, with a statewide shutdown.
“I was just extra grateful I had made the decision I did, because I would have missed all of the stuff I wanted to stay for in the first place and it would have been the biggest regret of my life at the time,” Johnson said. “It was really crazy to me and I’m still so glad that I was able to get through that and not have to live with any regrets.”
Johnson was able to experience a couple months’ worth of “normal” college before COVID took hold of the country, calling it the “greatest two months of his life.” Transitioning from a typical college freshman social life into the isolation most now consider the new normal was difficult, he said, but made easier through being able to spend time with his teammates.
Like other college students Johnson now partakes in classes via Zoom, but he’s able to see his fellow Bears on the gridiron. The 2020 season saw Cal able to participate in just four games after two were cancelled due to COVID outbreaks. The team went 1-3 and Johnson was on the roster as a true freshman, dressing out for games and taking in the action from the sideline.
Though he has yet to experience the excitement of a Pac-12 game in a stadium packed full of fans as a player, it was still surreal for Johnson to don the helmet and pads of a team he’s watched from the stands countless times. All NCAA players received an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, so Johnson is headed into his second season with four years of playing time still ahead of him.
There are still countless COVID protocols in place, Johnson said; he takes a rapid COVID test before every practice, and two or three PCR COVID tests per week. Johnson and his teammates hold each other accountable when it comes to following guidelines, like social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, because at the end of the day, playing football is at the top of their priority list.
“It was really cool to see how the guys banded together, telling each other that if we’re going to hang out, hang out with someone on the team,” Johnson said. “We had dudes trying to get into the NFL trying to get as many games in as they could so they could send out some more extra film to the NFL coaches.”
Johnson is taking reps at right guard in spring ball, moving over from right tackle where he practiced last fall. The biggest adjustment from high school football to the Pac-12 has been learning the game at a whole new speed, he said — both on and off the field.
“In high school, you always learned everything in practice and they didn’t give you a whole lot to think twice about,” Johnson said. “Now, I’m spending at least an hour or two a day watching film, learning the playbook and trying to study it.”
After an eventful first season which ended with back-to-back cancellations due to COVID, Johnson is ready to put his head down and work hard because nothing is a given — especially in the midst of a pandemic. Though his freshman year was unpredictable, he foresees the 2021 Cal Bears competing for, and winning, a Pac-12 championship title this season.
Looking even further into the future, Johnson has NFL hopes and was encouraged by his fellow Bulldog alum and University of Colorado standout Mustafa Johnson’s recent decision to declare for the draft.
“It’s really inspiring. It makes you think, ‘Wow, someone from Turlock can do something big,’” Johnson said. “There was Kaepernick like 10 years ago, but other than that you don’t hear about a lot of athletes from Turlock being able to make it. It gives me that fire to work harder. If he can do it, I can do it as well.”