STILLWATER — Glenn Spencer looked the baseball player up and down, intrigued by what he saw and heard.
“He walked into my office a couple years ago,” Spencer said, “gave me that big old smile and said, ‘I'm Tyler Johnson, I'm having trouble hitting the curveball. And I was a pretty good high school football player…'
“He sure looked the part. I would have been an idiot to turn him away.”
Rather than risk such regret, Spencer — with Mike Gundy's blessing — agreed the former Haskell star and professional baseball bailout warranted a closer look.
“He's been a pleasant surprise,” Spencer said. “His attitude has been unbelievable. Great story.”
And the story continues, with Johnson, now a senior, projected for a starting role for the first time, plugging one of OSU's two vacancies at defensive end.
“All along, ever since I've been here,” Johnson said, “I've always felt like that big, thick pit bulldog who's bit on that chain for years. I've finally frayed them, broken that chain, and I'm excited. I'm pumped up.”
For Johnson, it's been nothing short of an extended journey.
As a multisport standout at tiny Haskell, Johnson signed to play football with Tulsa in 2004. He started four years at linebacker and three at running back in high school, ranked as the state's No. 11 recruit by Rivals, yet he was good enough on the diamond to be drafted in the 12th round by the Angels.
Johnson went with the money, signing with the Angels that summer then spending six years mostly scuffling to rise through the ranks. He batted .244 for his career as a first baseman and outfielder, never climbing above Class A.
Through the struggles and the long bus rides and hot summer nights, Johnson still pushed to give baseball his best shot.
“A lot of the guys while I was there playing baseball were like, ‘Man, you should be playing football,'” Johnson said. “Of course, when those guys brought it up, it crossed my mind. But at that time, I was really focused on baseball.”
As he got older and progress and promotions failed to materialize, Johnson only then allowed himself to wonder.
“My fifth year as a professional, I started having these thoughts, ‘Am I really supposed to be playing baseball?'” Johnson said. “I thought about it and it was time for a change.
“And here I am now.”
And here in the nick of time.
With no returning regulars at defensive end and mostly young players competing for spots in the rotation, Johnson's role expands beyond his own opportunity to shepherding the others at the position.
“I think most of it is mental,” said Johnson, who will turn 28 in November. “You're constantly thinking about it. You're constantly preparing mentally, as you are physically. You are really emphasizing plays in your head.
“And also, ‘This is what I've got to do this year. There's a lot of people counting on me.' You've got to be that leader and say, ‘Hey, guys, let's go.'”
And those next in line seem eager to listen.
“A lot of younger guys don't know how to stay in there and study film,” said sophomore end Jimmy Bean. “He's had to tell us to stay a little extra long and get it done.”
And Johnson, the heir apparent to Brandon Weeden's old-man jokes, commands a level of respect, partly earned through his dogged determination to stick it out and arrive at this moment.
Back in Haskell, he's the hometown hero who made it big. Actually, he and his cousin LeShon Johnson, who finished sixth in the 1993 Heisman race and played for the Packers, Giants and Cardinals in the NFL.
“I guess if you mention Johnson, a lot of people will know that name,” Johnson said with that big old smile Spencer mentioned.
But at OSU, he's had to earn every game rep and minute on the field, shuffling from linebacker to end, where he's finally found a home. Johnson has played in 31 games, yet made no starts.
“It was really slow at first,” he said. “It took time. It was one of those things that didn't happen right away. But it was on my heart, on my mind. I knew I had to do something. I finally just made it happen, with prayer and help with friends and family. A lot of support.
“From then on, it's just been gravy.”
Johnson ended last season with a surge, highlighted by a six-tackle, two-sack performance in the Cowboys' win over Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
And the journey continues.
“I've got a lot more to go,” Johnson said, his voice rising. “This is something I really love and enjoy doing. Any time I touch any field, whether it's the baseball field, football field, basketball court, soccer field, I'm going to give my all. I just love to compete.”