Shaq Johnson is looking forward to joining his new football family.
Family, after all, is a big part of what drew the new REDBLACKS receiver to football in the first place. A welcoming refuge that brought with it a sense of belonging and purpose.
Born in Toronto before moving to Brampton for high school, the 28-year-old Johnson spent a good chunk of his childhood feeling like he didn’t have that one place where he truly belonged.
“It was kind of tough, moving from place to place in Toronto; I remember we moved a lot, living with grandma, living with my aunties, my mom always working,” Johnson said.
He dabbled in football as a pre-teen – mostly playing touch football at summer camp – before making the move to Brampton and starting high school.
“A buddy of mine who I went to middle school with, he was like, let’s try something different,” said Johnson.
His school – Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School — didn’t have a junior team and Johnson’s buddy was talking about trying out for the senior squad. He wasn’t so sure, at first.
“I gave him an absurd look, like, ‘I do not play tackle football’”.
But try out he did and cliché as it is, the rest, said Johnson, is history.
“I went out there and loved every minute of it. Being able to show your athleticism, work as a team, as a family. I loved it.”
It was that feeling, that sense of stability and belonging, that quickly captured the young Shaq Johnson.
“I was really drawn to it, because I wouldn’t say I was very close to my family when I was younger, we were always trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” he said. “Coming up through football was an eye-opener. It felt like family. Guys just take care of you and look out for you. Your teammates help you out not only as a player, but as a man as well. They show you the ropes.”
Though born in Toronto, in the football world Johnson is from Brampton.
“That’s where everything kind of began,” he explained.
From that beginning, Johnson began to see a future for himself in football. Between Grade 11 and 12, he was invited to camp with the University of Pittsburgh. Stints at McGill and Western Universities would ultimately lead him to the Canadian Junior Football League. Though less common than the university route – “it’s not for everybody,” said Johnson — the CJFL was a good fit for the young player, who at one point was playing both quarterback and defensive back.
“I loved the league to be honest, it doesn’t get enough credit. It got me here,” he said. “You have to go and really kill it but it’s definitely possible. I just had to go out there and do what I could do and control what I could control.”
What Johnson could control was his performance at the combine prior to the 2016 CFL Draft. He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash and the BC Lions drafted him in the fourth round. Six years, 127 catches, 1,749 yards and seven touchdowns later, Johnson is now preparing to make the move to Ottawa. While acknowledging it was a “big change” to move from the only CFL home he’s ever known, Johnson can’t wait to get started with the REDBLACKS.
“I’m so excited, I feel like a little kid,” he said. “I love Ottawa, loved coming to play there, the city, the vibe, being able to play in front of the family more, I can’t wait.
“I loved my time with the Lions, I’m grateful for it, but I feel like there is a lot of unfinished business in my career, because I know I can do more.”
One of several new receivers joining the REDBLACKS this year, Johnson is looking forward to showing what he can bring on the field and to the RNation community.
“I’m going to bring explosive plays and enthusiasm; I’m genuine, authentic, bring a lot of energy. RNation is going to get the total package, they’re going to see the whole thing. I’m going to be 29 when the season starts so I feel like the fans are going to see the more mature Shaq Johnson.”