Bisi Johnson. Image: NFL
Bisi Johnson’s great uncle once convinced Hakeem Olajuwon he should play basketball. That was very good advice. Johnson’s father once tried to dissuade his son from playing football. That was bad advice.
Johnson, a rookie from Colorado State, has become the Vikings’ No. 3 wide receiver and has eight catches in the past two games. His father is a native of Nigeria, and his great uncle is Ganiyu Otenigbagbe, a longtime basketball coach in Lagos, the country’s biggest city.
“My uncle was instrumental in Hakeem coming to the United States because when he was a basketball coach, he recruited Hakeem to play basketball from soccer when he was about 16 years old,’’ said Johnson’s father, Bode Johnson. “He was a goalie, and he told him, ‘Come play basketball based on your build.’ ’’
Olajuwon excelled quickly, starring at the University of Houston and led the NBA’s Houston Rockets to two NBA titles in the 1990s. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
With that in mind, Bode Johnson was asked if he ever advised his son, a Wheat Ridge, Colo., native, to play football when he was growing up in suburban Denver.
“Actually, my advice was, ‘Hey, stop playing football. Let’s do other things,’ ” he said.
Johnson, 22, said his father had pushed him to play soccer. He first played football with the Bear Greek Grizzlies in Lakewood, Colo., when he was 7 and he hasn’t slowed down since.
“He’s pursuing his passion,” Bode Johnson said. “That’s good, you know.”
Bode Johnson has gotten in on the passion as well. He has attended all of the Vikings games this season as part of a group that has varied between 10 and 20 supporters. It always includes his wife, Baliyat Mallam-Johnson, and Johnson’s mother, Traci Johnson. Johnson’s parents were divorced when he was 1 but they had joint custody of their son and remained friendly.
Most in the group wear Johnson’s No. 81 jersey. Johnson said there will be 12 family members and friends on hand for Sunday’s game against Philadelphia at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I have a whole crew,” Johnson said. “They’ve been going to support me no matter what the circumstances have been — since I’ve been in pee-wee football all the way up to the NFL.”
There has been plenty to cheer lately. Johnson, who made the team as a seventh-round pick, didn’t have any catches in the first three games. But after No. 3 receiver Chad Beebe was lost for at least eight weeks with an ankle injury, Johnson caught for passes for 35 yards on Sept. 29 at Chicago and four for 43 yards last Sunday against the New York Giants.
“It’s unfortunate what happened to (Beebe), and I’m wishing him a speedy recovery,” Johnson said. “I want to see him out on the field, too, but once I got my shot, I just ran with it. I think just knowing the plays and just being prepared to be out on the field has been the biggest part. And I pride myself on my route-running.’’
Johnson has been preparing 15 years to be an NFL player. When he first joined the Bear Creek Grizzlies, he made a vow to his mother.
“He said, ‘I guarantee I’m going to play in the NFL,’’ ’ she recalled.
And her reaction?
“I said, ‘Sounds good,’ ” said Traci Johnson, a licensed professional counselor. “You always want to be supportive, and at the same time a very small percentage get to that point that he’s at, but of course I always believed in him.
“I’m just over the moon that he’s in the NFL. I still can’t believe it’s real. But he’s living his dream.’’
When Johnson was at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, he was better at track than football. He won state in the 110-meter hurdles as a junior. He didn’t move from the secondary to wide receiver until he was a senior.
“We really weren’t figuring things out very well until his senior year,” said Bear Path coach Zach Morris. “We probably should have been using him a lot more on offense, but we kind of got that rectified by his senior year. … Offensively, he was really explosive.”
Johnson did well academically but received just four scholarship offers for football. He chose Colorado State over Army, Wyoming and Northern Colorado. With the Rams, Johnson put up good but not spectacular numbers, catching 54 passes for 796 yards as a senior.
“I wish the numbers could have been better, but I did enough to get where I am now, so that’s all that matters,” Johnson said.
Johnson did well enough to earn an invitation to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds. That played a role in the Vikings selecting him with the No. 247 overall pick.
In training camp, he joined a wide-open field to become the No. 3 receiver behind starters Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. That field included Beebe, as well as Dillon Mitchell, a draft pick from Oregon with the No. 239 pick in the seventh round, veteran Laquon Treadwell, free agent Jordan Taylor and practice squad holdover Jeff Badet.
“I knew I definitely was going to make an impact on special teams,” Johnson said. “But then when training camp went on, I saw that maybe the No. 4 spot is open and maybe the No. 3 spot. I just hunkered down and learned the playbook.”
When the 53-man roster was set, the only receivers on it were Thielen, Diggs, Beebe and Johnson. Now, there are five including Treadwell, who re-signed after being cut, and undrafted rookie Davion Davis. Beebe is on injured reserve.
Treadwell hasn’t been targeted once in his two games back, and Davis hasn’t been active in two games since being promoted from the practice squad.
“The biggest thing he’s done is be very reliable,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Johnson. “He gets to the right places, he can play all three (receiver) positions.”
His father is quite excited. Bode Johnson, 54, came to the United States in 1988. He settled in the Denver area and began exporting cars to Nigeria. He began to learn about the NFL and became a Denver Broncos fan. He followed the Vikings in the 1990s when Dennis Green was the coach and later followed the Atlanta Falcons.
“Now, I’m the number one fan of the Minnesota Vikings,” he said.
He has made it a point to pass on many elements of his Nigerian heritage to his son. It starts with his full first name. In Nigerian culture, Bode said, the grandfather names a male grandchild. Johnson’s late father, Joseph Ulijobi Johnson, named him Olabisi, which he said means “God at your wealth” in the Yoruba language.
Bisi has been to Nigeria twice, in the summer of 2005 when he was 8 and summer of 2014 at 17.
“I grew up with two very different cultures, Iowa and Nigeria,” said Johnson, whose mother is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “But it was nice just to get to see both sides. I would go over to my dad’s house and have different types of foods and just different traditions and things like that. And my grandma was around a lot, so I would see her and she would try to teach me stuff.”
Johnson’s favorite Nigerian foods include jollof rice, a bean pudding called moin-moin and suya beef kabobs. He also likes his mother’s Iowa pea salad.
Johnson’s grandmother, Rosaline Johnson, 87, inspired Johnson to wear traditional Nigerian buba and sokoto garb underneath his high school and college graduation gowns. He has a degree in hospitality management from CSU.
“My grandmother would have (the traditional garb) made in Nigeria,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to express my culture and just having people see that part of me that they probably usually don’t see. It’s just fun.”
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins loves having another receiving threat. He had Johnson as his guest on his KFAN radio show last Tuesday and they talked about his Nigerian background and ascension to being Minnesota’s No. 3 wide receiver.
“I’m excited for what he’s going to continue to grow into, and he’s done a great job with a lot asked of him as a rookie,” Cousins said Wednesday. “I think he’s a work in progress. Time will tell. It’s still early, but he’s caught a few balls and we think he has a lot of potential.”
Johnson is getting help from Thielen and Diggs, who have become top NFL receivers despite, like Johnson, not being high draft picks. Thielen was undrafted in 2013, and Diggs was taken by Minnesota in the fifth round in 2015
“It’s very inspiring,’’ Johnson said of their success. “I watch a lot of film on them. When I make a mistake, they get on me, but it’s constructive criticism. It’s really easy to learn from them.’’
Thielen was on the practice squad in his first Minnesota season, then played sparingly for two years before becoming a starter. Diggs, like Johnson, had his first NFL catch in his fourth game and went on in 2015 to catch 52 passes.
“We spend a lot of time together, and I just respect (Johnson’s) approach to the game, and how he takes it real seriously,’’ Diggs said. “Seeing him have early success isn’t a surprise seeing the fact I was in camp with him all summer and I saw the same guy.”
Johnson is happy have his father as one of his biggest supporters, early advice notwithstanding.
“Not a lot of Nigerians, I think, look to play football or their families don’t want them to play, so I think that’s why he did that,” Johnson said. “But now that I’ve been in it so long now, he’s definitely embraced the fact that I’ve played football.”
SOURCE: TWIN CITIES PIONEER PRESS