RCW: A Setback Is a Setup for a Comeback
Watch Tyler play this season!
On October 29, 2017, redshirt sophomore Tyler Johnson stepped back onto the court for the first time in Allen Fieldhouse since the 2015-16 season. In her head, this is exactly the moment Johnson had been looking forward to since the last time suiting up for the Jayhawks as a freshman.
All it took was a split second for Johnson’s sophomore season to come to a grinding halt. Before the season began, Johnson would soon find that the condition of her knee would require surgery and a recovery process that would force her to sit out for the 2016-17 season.
Despite the circumstances in front of her, she immediately took advantage of stepping into the role of becoming a better person and basketball player. Injuries can bring opportunity for an athlete’s true heart and dedication for the sport to show. Johnson would soon grasp the immensity of the trials in front of her, and prove herself each step of the way, accentuating her passion for the game and determined heart.
After finding out she would not be able to play at all for her sophomore season, Johnson was brought to what seemed like a roadblock in her years of playing basketball.
“It was the first time in maybe 15 years that I’d have to go a year without playing,” Johnson said of learning she would miss the entire 2016-17 season because of the severity of her injury. “That was very traumatic for me. I kept thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to have to come back stronger.’ It wasn’t something I was going to let stop my basketball career.”
While determined to return to the game, it was still hard for the injury to not affect Johnson’s outlook on what could unfold for her future on the court. As the season proceeded without her on the court for the Jayhawks, Johnson focused in and set goals for herself, along with seeking out others for the strength that she would need in order to tackle the rehabilitation time ahead.
“Some goals I had were not to get down and take it one day at a time, and do everything I could to get back (to playing),” Johnson said. “The people around me really helped; my team, my coaches, my family. They really motivated me to keep moving forward and to keep going.”
One of the most supportive people was Kansas women’s basketball head coach Brandon Schneider, who has always been confident in Johnson’s abilities both on and off the court. Meanwhile, Johnson continuously showed her commitment to bettering herself as a basketball player and teammate.
“She’s very intelligent,” Schneider stated in 2015 of Johnson prior to her freshman year. “She’s a player who wants to get better and is really, of our front line players, the most aggressive to come in and get extra work with coaches.”
Johnson centered in on how she would get through the long months ahead of rehabilitating her knee, and her teammates and coaches became a backbone for her. Junior Kylee Kopatich has seen the versatility of Johnson, including her strengths as well as the trials that she faced in the past year. Once competing against one another in the same league in high school, Johnson and Kopatich now share a friendship that shows how basketball is not just about the sport.
“I think one of the biggest challenges was that she couldn’t play with us,” Kopatich said. “She took that kind of hard. (She) Wanted to be there for her team and wanted to help us win. I think she did that on the bench, cheering us on and always being supportive. Even when she couldn’t run with us or work out with us, she was always our best cheerleader and I think that really helped us out.”
With her Jayhawk family constantly making sure she would not let the injury get the best of her, Johnson was pushed to stay an important part of the team and the 2016-17 season.
“I hated sitting out, I just wanted to play,” Johnson said. “My teammates and my coaches were there for me a lot. My teammates always, especially right after my surgery, came and checked on me and would always call me. I still attended every team event – dinners, meetings, and all that. What they did for me, both them and the coaches, was really just make me feel like I was still involved with the team as much as I could be. They helped me not get lost in my injury and reminded me, ‘You’re still here’ and, ‘You’re still going to play.'”
While her teammates and coaches helped to keep a mindset of fortitude, Johnson maintained a selfless aspect attitude, always thinking of how she could benefit her team in the present as well as the future of her basketball career at Kansas. Johnson stayed persistent in remembering what was important to her, focusing on what pushed her forward every day. As the months got nearer to her returning to the court, what she strived to do became clear?
“All I want to do is be able to help my team,” Johnson proclaimed. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m not just talk, I’m going to do what I said I would.'”
While her teammates and coaches played an integral role throughout her season off the court, Johnson knew exactly the person who would continue to get her through her injury, each and every day moving forward. As someone who had gone through the exact same thing, her father, David Johnson, proved to be an irreplaceable role model.
“He was the first person I turned to when it happened,” Johnson explained. “As soon as I realized I was hurt, before I even knew what my injury was — I knew something was wrong obviously — I turned to him immediately.”
Being a standout basketball player for the University of Oklahoma in the years of 1983-87, and following through to play professionally for the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson’s father also suffered a knee injury in his years playing basketball. Knowing the mentality of an athlete and the physical constraints from the injury made her father an invaluable mentor, always keeping her accountable with how she handled the injury, her rehabilitation and reminding her how she could, and would, move forward.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know what this is,” Johnson recalled saying to her father after the injury occurred. “The first thing he told me was to stay calm and that he’s been through it and that he’ll help me through anything. That was really big for me, to know someone was there who has been through the same thing, who you can rely on.”
Following in her father’s footsteps in taking to the hardwood, finding a love for the game and even both being Division I student-athletes, Johnson and her father have always held a strong connection through the sport, but her knee injury was another moment that bonded them, making the father-daughter duo even closer. As she knew the season ahead would be challenging, Johnson found an instilled hope within herself, knowing her father had gone through the same thing and had succeeded.
“There was extreme comfort,” Johnson said of having her father to confide in. “I don’t even know how to explain that feeling I had when I realized I was hurt. I was devastated, but just knowing that I could go to him and him reassuring me that this happens to a lot of people, you get through it, and him giving me that constant reminder that I will get through it is what pushed me forward.”
Throughout her medical redshirt season, Johnson held a strong mentality. Her maturity and strength showed through the way she saw the duration of her time off the court. Not letting the time go wasted, she sought out each day to learn something new.
“I learned a lot, mostly patience,” Johnson said. “It was really hard for me to take it one day at a time. I just wanted to be to be better and I wanted to be able to play. The injury taught me how to go one day at a time. I might be better some days at this than I am other days. Some days it’s going to hurt worse than other days. I just have to take it for what it is and keep moving forward.”
The passion she had for basketball remained, having a steadfast desire to be on the court and waiting for the day she would return, never veering from a relentless attitude. While her strong mentality preserved, challenges still existed.
“Every game it hurt to sit out, seeing my team go out there and fight and I couldn’t do anything,” Johnson said. “I kind of felt helpless. That was all really hard, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking, ‘I’m going to come back.’ Another motivator for me, was, ‘I’m not done yet, I’m coming back.'”
As the moment she had focused on and worked so hard preparing for over a year drew nearer, the 2017-18 season came along with high emotions and determination. Not straying from her constant drive, Johnson now plays with a goal to be a winning factor for the Jayhawks over the next three years.
“Being able to contribute and no longer feeling helpless, it was a great feeling,” Johnson said. “I want to continue to feel that way throughout the rest of the season. I will do anything else to help my team. I’m going to do everything I can to push my team forward and push the organization forward. (I will) Do whatever I can for the remainder of my time here.”
Johnson has been quick to make an impact for the Jayhawks already this season. The Jayhawks are off to one of its best starts they have seen in a while, having eight wins and only one loss on their record thus far. On December 10th, Johnson had a career high night, leading the Jayhawks to a come-back victory over Southeast Missouri State. Posting 14 points and five rebounds against the Redhawks, Johnson is contributing to her team in every way she had hoped to.
Johnson’s impact on the Jayhawks’ winning ways already this season is not a surprise to her teammate and friend, Kopatich. Having watched the adversities Johnson faced throughout last season, Kopatich saw the time of recovery transform into Johnson’s actions on the court. Through the significant progress and dedication that Johnson has put in, Kopatich’s expectations for Johnson’s return this season are coming alive more and more each game.
“Being able to come back from an injury like that, come out strong, just how she ended off her freshman (season has been great to watch),” Kopatich stated. “We rely on her a lot for her outside- jumper game. I think she worked a lot on her outside shot, she worked a lot on her handles, and I think it’s showing in these first couple of games. She’s really kept going with that and ended where she did her freshman year, it doesn’t even look like she took a gap year. She’s going to have lot of big minutes for us. She’s one of our most experienced bigs, along with playing time. I think she just knows how the Big 12 (Conference) works. She’s going to play a lot of big minutes for us, get a lot of good rebounds and good points for us. She’s doing great.”
The head coach certainly agrees with his junior leader on the court, Kopatich, when it comes to Johnson and her role on the team. Now in his third season with the Jayhawks, Schneider’s faithfulness in Johnson’s ability as a basketball player remained throughout her medical redshirt season. As the 2017-18 season began, Schneider looked forward to Johnson’s return to the court donning the Crimson and Blue.
“Tyler is our most skilled post player, there’s no question about it,” said Schneider. “She’s an excellent passer, she does a great job finishing around the rim with both hands and (her) range extends to about 17 feet. When we need offense, Tyler is our best bet there.”
With the extended amount of time she had to take away from the court, Johnson has a new outlook on the game that has been a part of who she is her entire life. A passion for how she sees each second on the court. A fixed appreciation that may have never existed without an injury that has now shaped her into the basketball player she is today. A new awareness to never take a moment for granted.
“I’m going to play every game like it’s my last,” Johnson declared. “You only have so much time, especially in college. You only have so much time to make your mark or do something to help your team, and that injury showed me that my time could have been over.”