By Joe Scalzo
Tim Johnson may have left Youngstown State in 2001 to pursue his NFL career, but over the next decade, Youngstown State never left him.
“After I retired and got totally out of football, something was missing,” said Johnson, who played linebacker for the Ravens, Bears and Raiders from 2001-06. “Coach [Jim] Tressel and Coach [Ken] Conatser — their voices were ringing in my head, telling me, ‘You’ve got to finish your degree.’
“For me, it was a no-brainer to finish. I just hadn’t really set a timetable to finish.”
In 2012, he set one. Johnson and his family were living in Baltimore at the time and he could have finished up the 18 credit hours he needed for his degree online.
He also could have moved back to his home state of Alabama and worked as a student-assistant with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
“Everyone had their own idea of how or what I should be doing,” said Johnson, who is majoring in general studies with a communications emphasis. “But I had to follow my mind and trust my gut instinct.
“I wanted to be on campus in Youngstown because I’ve always been a representative of Youngstown State. This university allowed me to go places I had never been before. I know the values that the university carries out into the world.
“I wanted to get the finishing touches on the whole relationship. I was kind of trying to bridge 1999 and 2000 to 2014.”
Johnson enrolled in January 2013 as a full-time student, then went part-time the last two semesters. He struggled with one class — “I had a non-profit leadership class with Laura McCaskey Dewberry and it was pretty tough coming in, so I had to step my game up” — but has called the experience “beautiful.”
“Having been in the business world and being older made my experience at school a lot easier,” he said. “It wasn’t so much about studying as it was about enriching myself and learning more.”
Johnson attended East Mississippi Junior College for two years before arriving at YSU in 1999. He played in 27 games over the next two seasons, making 401 tackles and earning consensus first team All-America honors and helping the Penguins reach the I-AA title game in 1999.
After going undrafted in 2001, he played on the Baltimore Ravens’ and Chicago Bears’ practice squads in 2001 before making the Oakland Raiders’ active roster in 2002, helping the team advance to Super Bowl XXXVII.
He played the next two seasons for the Raiders, then split the 2005 season between the Raiders and Ravens. His NFL career ended after the 2006 season and he played one season with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in 2009, helping them reach the Grey Cup semifinals.
“In the NFL, I felt like you really have to focus on that,” he said, when asked why he didn’t try to finish his degree sooner. “But I always knew I had to finish my degree. Coach Tressel was probably graduating over 80 percent of his players [at YSU] and he and Coach Konatser were always encouraging us to get that degree.”
Johnson has a job opportunity in Baltimore to work as a manager at Frito-Lay, so he may soon move his family back east. (He and his wife, Schirin, have three daughters: Sorayah, 10; Talahni, 5; and Sophie, 10 months.)
He’s hoping Tressel — YSU’s new president — will attend today’s ceremony, but said it’ll be a great day no matter what.
“It would be a dream to have him there and if it works out that way, it’d be great,” he said. “But I’m just looking forward to walking and getting my degree.
“I’m looking forward to completing and closing out properly what I started here on campus, in this city and in this community.”