Kyle Johnson was a freshman at Woodbridge ( N.J.) High when his mother, Phyllis, a 12th-grade history teacher, presented him with a book that has become a road map for his life. "Take a look at this," said Phyllis, handing her son a biography of Paul Robeson, another New Jersey native who became one of America's most renowned athletes, political mavericks and performing artists of the first half of the 20th century. "You'll learn a lot from this man."
Now, Johnson's bio in the Syracuse football media guide should be required reading for any athlete whose idea of diversification is switching between Sega and SportsCenter. The Orangemen's captain and starting fullback, Johnson has acted in four school plays, coordinated two charity basketball games and made the athletic director's honor roll (GPA of 3-0 or higher) all but one undergraduate semester at Syracuse.
"I love football, but I never wanted it to define me," says Johnson, who was a second-team all-state running back his senior year at Woodbridge High as well as a moving speaker in several interscholastic oratory competitions, including one in which he recited Robeson's 1919 Rutgers valedictory address. "I once thought that I'd have to choose between my interests, but I figured if Robeson could do it all, why couldn't I?"
Last September a vicious tackle almost narrowed Johnson's focus. As he plunged into the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter of the season opener against Buffalo, a defensive player fell hard onto Johnson's left leg, dislocating his ankle and fracturing his fibula. Johnson, whom The Sporting News rated as the nation's 10th-best fullback after a junior year during which he earned a reputation as an astute blocker and scored three rushing touchdowns, was sidelined for the season. Refusing to let the injury decide his fate, he was jogging by January, when the NCAA granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility. (He was redshirted as a freshman.) This season the 6'1", 238-pound Johnson is back to full strength for the 3-2 Orangemen.
"Kyle has good skills, but he's more of a self-made man, the first in line for every drill, the one asking all the right questions in meetings," says Syracuse running backs coach David Walker.
Bill Rowland, director of the campus theater company that Johnson joined during his sophomore year, sees a similar quality in the oversized actor who often runs to play rehearsal straight from practice or a workout, a plate of dinner in one hand and a script in the other. "He's extremely aware of the subtleties of characters," says Rowland, who has cast Johnson as a villain, as a comic and as a Southern farmer in Samm-Art Williams's three-person drama Home in April 2000. "He's a phenomenal talent who has a future in acting."
For now, at least, Johnson's dream role is that of an NFL fullback. In the unlikely event that neither a playing nor playacting career comes about, Johnson, who is working toward an M.B.A. to go with the B.S. in producing for electronic media he received last December, would like to spend some time abroad. Wherever Johnson's talents take him, says Walker, "I hope my two little boys grow up to be just like him."