Toronto (by David DiCenzo) - Kayden Johnson will have choices to make. The 23-year-old two-sport athlete for the York Lions has earned the privilege to forge numerous paths when his school days are done. Whether it’s making it all the way to the Canadian Football League or representing Canada on the track, the fifth-year star running back and national-champion hurdler has put in the work to make each of his passions a potential career.
But the pursuits don’t end there. Johnson can see himself barreling down a mountain as a future member of the Canadian bobsleigh team, as well as putting his York theatre education to good use in a film career.
The possibilities seem endless for one of the most diverse and talented athletes in all of U SPORTS.
"I left all my doors open and wanted to create as many opportunities as I could..."
“I left all my doors open and wanted to create as many opportunities as I could so I won’t be lost and wondering, ‘What do I do now?’” says the 6’3” 223-pound Johnson. “It’s everything that I enjoy – the three sports and acting.”
What seems like an unmanageable workload to most is just par for the course for Johnson. The Kerrobert, Saskatchewan native grew up with a love of competition that was imprinted on him early from his athletic parents Winchester and Angy. Dad was a decorated decathlete who represented Canada at the Masters level, winning the 1992 senior men’s national championship, while Mom played both varsity soccer and basketball at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as going to the 1989 Women’s National Hockey Championships as a member of Team Saskatchewan.
“I didn’t really have much of a choice but to try out for the sports teams,” Johnson says with a laugh. “And I just loved it.”
He is the oldest of three boys with younger brother Kolby alongside him at York on the Lions’ varsity hockey team and 16-year-old Carter preparing to attend a baseball academy in Alberta. Johnson set the example for his siblings by trying anything and everything, usually with great success.
“He was a busy young guy, climbing everything and jumping off things his whole life,” says Angy. “He was always acting and pretending. He tried different things – soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, hockey. They just played every sport they could.
“Kayden really came into his own at about the age of 15 or 16. It took him a while to grow into his feet. He was like 5’8” with size 14 feet for a while.”
Johnson began to run track in grade 5 before adding football to his schedule in grade 8. He spent his last two years of secondary school at Lutheran Collegiate Bible Institute, a boarding institution that had a renowned hoops program. He played basketball (winning a provincial championship in grade 12) in addition to football and track while attending LCBI.
The results were always there, like a 5th-place finish in the decathlon at the American Junior Championships in 2015, one of three occasions where Johnson represented Canada. He made the Saskatchewan high school all-star team in 2014 and went to Kuwait with Canada’s World Junior Football team.
Johnson began his collegiate career at Angy’s alma mater before transferring to York. He has blossomed as a Lion, running the football 241 times in his career for 1,182 yards to date, with six touchdowns, while also catching 34 passes for an additional 390 yards and another score. In 2018, he reached the top of the U SPORTS 60-metre hurdles podium with a scintillating run of 7.97 seconds to add ‘gold medalist’ to his already lengthy list of accomplishments.
“Winning the hurdles was an amazing experience for me and a breakthrough,” he says. “From not making the final the year before to becoming national champion was an incredible feeling.”
Johnson has an admiration for each of the sports and finds balance between them. He has always been able to manage the seasons, acknowledging that the hardest part is to take an adequate amount of rest between the two because he always wants to jump right in.
“Track is technical in terms of trying to run in a straight line to the best of your ability,” says Johnson. “You put in all that work just to take off fractions of a second and to run a personal best is a great feeling. Football season is a lot busier because of meetings and film outside of practice.
“In football, the ultimate goal is to play professionally. It’s my CFL draft year so I want to prepare as best as I can to show off my track speed. With track and field and the coaches I have here, I want to represent Canada.”
Johnson has embraced the opportunity to train at York among would-class athletes like Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse. But his sights are set beyond the track and gridiron. In the spring of 2018, Johnson won the RBC Training Ground competition and earned a week-long trip to Calgary where he trained in the bobsleigh and got on the national program’s radar.
“I went to sliding camp and learned how to properly push,” he says. “It was amazing. I had so much fun.
“I’m going to pursue my football career and whenever that’s over, hopefully after a few years of playing pro, I’ll go to Calgary and try to make the Olympic team. I love the coaching and the athletes there. It’s perfect for me to go there after football.”
Of course, that may all be contingent on how his acting career goes. Johnson started out as a Kinesiology student at York but an elective course changed his path, paving the way for him to become the lone varsity athlete in the university’s theatre program.
“I had such a blast and the prof liked me enough to recommend that I major in theatre,” says Johnson, who has performed in school productions of “Moss Park” and “Angels in America.” “I’m obsessed with movies and TV shows. Both my brothers and I would be acting out movies, like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. In high school, I was in a couple of plays and I just loved acting.”
He sees definite parallels in sport and theatre.
“It’s all entertainment,” says Johnson. “A lot of it is preparation whether it’s reading a script or watching film. There is composure required for theatre. As an actor, you have to fight the stage fright and learn the proper breathing techniques. If you do mess up, you have to improvise and not let it ruin your performance.
“In a football game, I have to know all of my assignments, I have to stay cool and collected but also be excited to play. If I do mess up in a game, I can’t dwell on that mistake. I have to play the next play to the best of my abilities.”
Through the dogged pursuit of his passions, Johnson has shown that chasing your dreams can make for an incredible journey. Others have noticed, like Kolby and Carter, as well as the kids he trains during summers in Kerrobert.
Angy saw the energy in her first child pretty early on. And years later, he is poised to make a rewarding life for himself doing what he loves most.
“We’re very proud of the way he’s worked hard on and off the field and on and off the track,” Mom says. “Switching to theatre was exciting for him and we’re happy he found another thing that he’s passionate about.
“He has opened many doors – and become a great role model.”