Alexander Johnson isn’t going to need to look hard to see a big group of his biggest supporters from Gainesville, likely all wearing No. 45 jerseys, on Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos, who graduated from Gainesville High in 2011, said he’ll have about 15, maybe more, of his closest family and friends on hand for the game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Most of Johnson’s family have gotten to see him play in person.
However, this is a special treat for his football-loving, 6-year-old nephew, Jacob, who is already playing recreation-league football in Gainesville, and niece Evvie.
“This is going to be like a home game for me,” Johnson said. “I’m 1-1 playing in Atlanta, so I’m trying to make it 2-1.”
In high school, Johnson was a junior when Gainesville played in the 2009 Class 3A state championship at the Georgia Dome. Then a couple years later, as a sophomore linebacker for the University of Tennessee, Johnson played on the same field in the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game, a 35-21 win against North Carolina State.
A lot of time has passed since Johnson last played in Atlanta and his life has certainly flourished.
People recognize his accomplishments on the football field, where he’s elevated to the position as top tackler for the Broncos with 55 stops, one sack and a deflected pass. However his greatest joy in 2020 was welcoming a daughter, Ada Carpi Johnson, into the world with his fiancee, Alyce.
Every day, the hard-hitting linebacker who has his eyes locked on wrecking havoc on the field, can’t wait to get home to see Alyce and their five-month-old daughter.
He said having that inspiration and support from his loved ones at home makes all the long practices and brutally physical games more than worth it.
“It doesn’t matter what goes on during the day, I get home and see my girl, and it warms my heart,” Johnson said.
Even though Johnson’s daughter is too young to take in a road trip to see the Broncos play, this weekend is still going to be quite special for one of the all-time great Red Elephants.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this trip home will not permit for Johnson to mingle with his friends and family the night before the game. However, knowing his family is in the stadium still gets his blood pumping.
The game was originally scheduled to be played in London.
However, coronavirus concerns made it prudent for the league to keep the game in the United States.
Once it was announced that Atlanta would host the game, Johnson couldn’t wait to face his hometown team. Prior to his senior year at Gainesville High, Johnson worked with the Atlanta Falcons during summer practice, handling equipment with other players as part of a summer job.
That year, Johnson said that quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones, arguably the best passing tandem in the league, are the only players remaining from 10 years ago, when he got to help during the summer in Flowery Branch.
“I grew up watching the Falcons, and I’m a Dirty Birds fan at heart,” said Johnson, who said his goal this weekend is to make it into the end zone on a defensive score.
Back in the summer of 2010, Johnson was already committed to play for Tennessee and said he made small talk with Ryan and Jones between drills.
Now that he’s an NFL star, Johnson said nothing would be sweeter than to have a robust performance against the team he cheered for while growing up in Hall County.
“This is going to definitely be an exciting experience,” Johnson said.
Right now, Denver (3-4) is in a similar position with Atlanta (2-6) — both have bad some struggles but still looking to climb back into wild-card contention in their respective conferences.
“We’re trying to stack up these wins right now,” said Johnson, who recorded 90 stops in his first year starting for the Broncos in 2019.