BRENTWOOD, Tenn. — Judith Johnson remembers feeling a tinge of disappointment when her then-kindergarten son, Ryan, informed her after performing on stage that he would prefer his first piano recital be his last.
Little could she have known just how many talents her son would discover throughout his upbringing, and the extent of success he would enjoy at each turn leading up to signing on with coach Butch Jones‘ Tennessee football program.
Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound homegrown Volunteer offensive lineman, appears to be a model student-athlete.
The Brentwood Academy product brings a 4.7 grade point average to the table, a product of several honors and AP classes. He has had just one “B” throughout his high school career, in Honors English.
“Hey,” Johnson says with a chuckle, “I’m proud of that B, I had to work my butt off for it.”
It’s Johnson’s way of saying things have not come as easily to him as it might appear, on or off the football field.
Athletics run in the Johnson family. Ryan’s father, 6-foot-4 Jerry “Tyke” Johnson, played offensive line at Austin Peay, and mother Judith was a tennis player.
As for the academics, Ryan has always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, as far back as his parents can remember.
Tyke and Judith recall Ryan building a remote control boat with copper wire and batteries when he was in grade school before things got really heavy in junior high.
Phillip Montgomery, Johnson’s track coach in middle school, recalled how Ryan was geared a little differently than other athletes.
“Most like to listen to music before the track meets,” Montgomery said. “But not Ryan. He was listening to science podcasts.”
It’s that real.
“So we’re at Barnes and Noble during this trip to Destin one time,” Tyke Johnson said, “and Ryan comes up wagging this book at me saying he wants it. (It’s) $37, it’s expensive, but he says he wants this book about physics and math, and I said ‘only if you’re sure you’re going to read it.’
“Later on he’s reading it and says he’s not sure about something he just read, so I take a closer look and it’s a quantum physics book for a master’s program in college.”
Then there’s the story of an untouched guitar sitting in the corner of Ryan’s room, a present his mother had picked out for him several years earlier for Christmas.
“I had once taken Ryan to play tennis when he was younger, and I said, ‘Honey, this isn’t your sport,’” Judith said. “So I’m thinking he’s not going to get anything from me, he couldn’t play tennis, and he wasn’t musical.”
Until one day he was.
Ryan was helping a friend in physics his junior year at Brentwood when the friend fetched the guitar from the corner of the room and starting strumming it.
“I said ‘I’ll make you a deal,’” Ryan said. “You teach me to play the guitar, and I’ll teach you physics.”
It wasn’t long before Ryan was playing the guitar, as he studied a series of instructionals on YouTube.
Upon seeing Rascal Flatts guitarist Andy Wood perform a rendition of “Rocky Top” with UT’s Pride of the Southland Band, Ryan decided he needed to learn how to play that song on his guitar, too.
“So he sent Andy Wood a direct message on Instagram, and Andy met him at a guitar store in Knoxville to teach him,” Judith said. “They talked on the phone and jammed 90 minutes before the Orange and White Game.”
As if that wasn’t enough enough proof that Ryan does indeed have a knack for the arts as well as athletics, he performed in his school’s rendition of “Footloose,” landing the part of bad-guy Chuck Cranston.
“It’s kind of a tradition for the offensive linemen their senior year to go out for the musical if they didn’t have anything else going on,” Ryan said. “I tried out, and never had any experience before, and I got a call back, and I didn’t know what that even meant.
“I got the bad guy role, which I thought was completely out of my character because I’m not a very mean guy off the field … it was a whole new experience, and it was really fun. I got to meet a lot of new people.”
The show moves to Knoxville for Johnson when he reports to the Vols after his May 29th high school graduation.