Johnson's 'punishment' benefits Stamps

MURRAY GREIG, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

In the next few years, a kid currently honing his skills in Shanghai, Beijing or Inner Mongolia is going to become the first Chinese-born player in North American pro football.

When that happens -- and it's as inevitable as a Yao Ming slam dunk -- Calgary Stampeders receiver Teyo Johnson can take a well-deserved bow.

Five years ago, Johnson, who was born in White Rock, B.C., became the face of the game the Chinese call "olive ball" when he led an NFL International goodwill tour that sponsored youth clinics and familiarized hundreds of teenagers with the nuances of a sport that has since taken the People's Republic by storm.

"I looked at it as a small way of giving something back to the game that has given me so much," said Johnson, who started playing football at age 10.

CULTURAL EXPERIENCE

"Travelling to China was an opportunity to experience another culture, another way of life. I know what it means for kids to have a goal, something to shoot for. By the time we were done, I was convinced that you could take some of China's fastest soccer players and turn 'em into terrific defensive backs. The raw ability is there; the skill level just has to be elevated a couple of notches."

A highly touted two-sport athlete, Johnson represented Canada at the 2000 Junior Olympic basketball world championships in Brazil. Following a sensational college career at Stanford, where he earned his degree in sociology, he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the second round (63rd overall) of the 2003 NFL draft.

Over the next four seasons Johnson had 26 receptions and three touchdowns in 30 games with the Raiders and the Arizona Cardinals. After being released by the Buffalo Bills last January, he signed a free-agent contract with the Stampeders.

"I was excited to get the opportunity to come back to Canada. I love this country, and coming to the CFL brings me back to my roots," said the personable 27-year-old, who started 13 games for the Grey Cup champions last season. "I've had some highs and lows since leaving Oakland, but I'm truly thankful for every day."

After getting 16 starts in his rookie year with the Raiders, Johnson saw action in just eight games in his second season.

"It was punishment for me going to China; (coach Norv) Turner lined up some off-season workouts and I missed them because of the trip -- which was sponsored by the NFL.

IRONIC TWIST

"Looking back, I find it funny that the Raiders sent their entire media department to China the next year to cash in on what I helped get started ... but I got suspended for it."

Still, Johnson wouldn't trade his China experience for anything.

"I really enjoyed working with those kids," he said. "My parents taught me the value of hard work, of sticking to something until it's finished. My brothers, Ahmani and Riall, really opened my eyes to football and had the patience and guidance when I was young. I wouldn't have made it to the pros without such strong support from my family, so any time I can give something back, I'm happy to do it."

Ahmani played for B.C. and Hamilton in the CFL and for the Chicago Bears in the NFL. Riall, a sixth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2001, is currently with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

MURRAY.GREIG@SUNMEDIA.CA


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