UK QB's Triumph over Tourette's May Be Hard to Believe, but It's Inspiring Many

Michael WeinrebFeatured ContributorNovember 17, 2017

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 04:  Stephen Johnson #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats throws a pass against the Mississippi Rebels  at Commonwealth Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The night before his tics disappeared, Stephen Johnson sat in his living room and wept in his mother's arms. Then he went to his room, kneeled at the foot of his bed and stayed up half the night praying until he collapsed from exhaustion.

Johnson was on the verge of his teenage years, a natural athlete but a born introvert who had retreated so far into himself that he felt as if he might never make friends again. When he was eight, a special education teacher, who was also Johnson's Little League coach, noticed Stephen twitching his mouth and eyes, and suggested he get tested. So his parents, who lived in the Southern California desert town of Rancho Cucamonga, took him to a doctor and then to a neurologist, who told them Stephen had Tourette's Syndrome.

Like most parents, they knew of Tourette's through the cliches of uncontrollable shouting and movements; and like most parents, they were stricken with fear and confusion.

In the nearly five years that followed, both Stephen and his parents felt his life spiraled out of his control, all because he couldn't regulate the impulses that had made him feel like an outcast in the first place. He would fidget, he would stutter, and he would blink uncontrollably. Sometimes he would breathe so hard and so rapidly that he exhaled in what sounded like a wave of hiccups. He couldn't function properly in school. It was as if the tics had taken over his life. He would fight to resist them for short periods, crossing one arm over the other as if he were holding himself in, or coughing on purpose to mask the noises he'd make.

More than a decade later, Johnson sits quietly in a conference room at the University of Kentucky's football building, a bowl of apple cobbler and ice cream slowly melting on the table in front of him. He's on a 5,000-calorie diet, which means he's eating constantly, with four-egg omelettes and protein shakes and waffles and Chipotle burritos and more protein shakes between his two dinners. He's gained more than 20 pounds since arriving here last season, adding to his 6'2" frame in order to survive the rigors of Southeastern Conference play.

Stephen Johnson has thrown for 10 touchdowns and run for another three in leading Kentucky to a 7-3 record heading into their showdown with Georgia.
Stephen Johnson has thrown for 10 touchdowns and run for another three in leading Kentucky to a 7-3 record heading into their showdown with Georgia.David Stephenson/Associated Press

Johnson is the starting quarterback for a Wildcats football team that is 7-3 heading into this weekend's game against No. 2 Georgia, which is a miracle in itself, given Johnson's winding road to Kentucky—not to mention the often-ignominious history of football in Lexington, a place where fall has long been viewed as nothing more than a prelude to basketball season. Now the Wildcats have an opportunity, with a victory in one of their final two regular-season games and in a bowl game, to record their first nine-win season since 1984. A win at Georgia on Saturday would knock the Bulldogs out of College Football Playoff contention and serve notice that Kentucky plans to be a steady contender in the SEC East under coach Mark Stoops. And it would be the on-field highlight of Johnson's two-year career at Kentucky, a program he'll depart after this season as one of the winningest quarterbacks in school history.

"It's just divine," Johnson says, and yet the most improbable element of his story dates back to that childhood disorder, to a moment when Stephen Johnson was at his lowest—to a moment when he thought the tics might come to define him.

He played every sport he could in middle and high school, from baseball to football to basketball to soccer to hockey, because those were the moments when his tics seemed to subside, but none of it prevented the torrent of cruelty from his classmates. Afterward, he would come home and release his tics in a burst of movement and noise, so much so that his mother thought his condition was actually getting worse.

His parents had little faith in Western medicine to cure their son. They believed, particularly with a complex diagnosis like Tourette's, that the doctors treated the symptoms and not the underlying condition. What they heard from the neurologist and what they read online was vague and unsettling, and what they heard about medication for Tourette's was that it often altered a child's personality. So they turned away from the doctors and toward homeopathic remedies. They found one, drops that Stephen would put under his tongue that seemed to help at least a little. And as devout Christians, they also turned to the church.

With his son on the verge of adolescence, Stephen's father, Stephen Sr., attended a church class on healing. Later that same night, after crying and hiccuping and letting it all out, Stephen Johnson Jr. prayed. He prayed for friendship, prayed for his tics to go away, prayed for school to get better, prayed for kids to be less mean to him.

And when he woke up the next morning, he knew immediately that he was cured.


It's not like Stephen Johnson and his parents don't know how this story is going to sound and how it might go over with certain people who don't either share or comprehend his and his family's faith. For a long time after it happened, Stephen turned over the sudden change in his head. He wondered if it could have been the homeopathic medicine or some other alteration in his lifestyle that he hadn't even noticed; his father, when Stephen refused his homeopathic drops the next day and the day after, kept thinking, It just doesn't work this way.

And that's at least partially true, according to Zain Guduru, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky who specializes in movement disorders. While 50 percent of children diagnosed with Tourette's see complete resolution before the age of 18, according to Guduru, he says he's "never heard of any case of Tourette's which resolved suddenly." (Guduru was not familiar with Johnson's specific story before Bleacher Report spoke to him.)

But for Stephen, the tics didn't come back. For a long time in his teenage years, as Stephen focused on his football career, as he attended one college and then another and then landed at Kentucky—and as both his father and his mother and Stephen himself began to believe that the only plausible explanation lay in their faith—he stopped talking about it altogether.

"It's something that gets stuck in the back of your mind," Johnson says. "Like, 'Oh, this used to happen to me.' It was a pretty shameful time, even though I guess there was nothing I should have been ashamed about."

Since arriving in Lexington, Johnson has transformed himself into one of the faces of the Wildcats program, an unflappable presence in the huddle who is beloved by his teammates and who won a game against Tennessee with a last-minute dive into the end zone despite being briefly forced out of that game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. A couple of months after he got to Kentucky, in the midst of an otherwise innocuous conversation with a local reporter, Johnson told the reporter about his Tourette's, about how it came and how it went. He still doesn't know why he said it, or what made him do it. He called his parents soon after, worried what they might think about his confession, worried whether he'd opened himself up to something new he wouldn't be able to control.

But Paula Johnson, Stephen's mother, was not upset at all. In fact, she was thrilled.

"I just remember always wanting Stephen to share his testimony," she says. "For the most part, we're very private people. But we understood that this is bigger than us. And we were going to go with it."


Johnson committed to Grambling State out of high school, but after he lost his starting job due to injury, he transferred to College of the Desert, a community college not far from Rancho Cucamonga. After a year there, he was prepared to sign a letter of intent to play at Hawaii, but the paperwork got delayed, and in the midst of that delay, he got a call from Kentucky, which was seeking a backup for former 4-star recruit Drew Barker.

Johnson signed, not knowing if or when he'd get a chance to play. The following summer he went with his family on a mission to Belize, and in the midst of an "evangelism day," Paula signed up Stephen to speak about his Tourette's. She didn't tell him she'd done it until a few minutes before. Stephen was furious at his mother, but he spoke. And after that, Paula presumed, he'd never speak about it again.

A couple of games into the 2016 season, Barker suffered a season-ending back injury. Johnson became the starter, led the Wildcats to wins in seven of their final 10 regular-season games, and along the way began sharing the tale of his Tourette's. In December, the UK athletic department received an email from the father of a 10-year-old boy named Samuel Doster, who wanted nothing more than to meet someone who had the same condition he does.

It wasn't easy to find a prominent person with Tourette's who was relevant to Samuel. But then Travis Doster, Samuel's father, happened upon Stephen's story and realized he was within driving distance. The Dosters live in Louisville, and on a December day in 2016, six days before Christmas, Travis drove his son to meet Stephen after a practice for the upcoming TaxSlayer Bowl. He tried to set expectations for Sam, told him Stephen was a busy man, told him they might only have a few minutes to talk. When practice ended, they took a walk around the track that surrounds Kentucky's indoor practice field.

"I want to answer every question you have," Stephen told him, and what struck him was that every question Sam asked matched the questions Stephen would have had at the same age. Their experiences, as they are for many children with Tourette's, were nearly identical, so much so that Stephen later told his mother that it "hurt his heart" to hear it. What were your tics? Samuel asked. How do you deal with it at school?

Stephen listened, and he told Samuel that kids are going to be mean, but that those kids didn't really know what they were doing. He was reluctant to tell Sam about the way his Tourette's had suddenly disappeared, for fear of getting his hopes up, so he told him that someday he'd have his own story. At one point, someone tossed Sam a football, and Stephen signed it.

"Stay strong," he wrote.

On the drive home, Sam opened up to his father in ways he never had before, expressing an astounding amount of cognizance about his tics—the way, for instance, he would cover his mouth with his hand when he met new people. Samuel texts regularly with Stephen now—"He'd text every day if we let him," Travis says—and he comes to Kentucky home games, and he's even begun to talk to younger children who are newly diagnosed with Tourette's, in the way Stephen has mentored him. Samuel's mother, who knows next to nothing about football, has begun reading the sports page on a regular basis.

"Stephen could relate to Samuel like nobody else could," Travis Doster says. "I mean, for Samuel, it was just freeing. We never knew how self-aware he was until after that meeting. And I think it's because he could talk to somebody and hear their stories."

There have been others, too, as Johnson has become an in-demand public speaker, one who's addressed more than two dozen local church and youth groups in Lexington this fall. It still doesn't come naturally to him, speaking in public like this, but after meeting Samuel he's begun to understand the impact it has and the difference it can make, especially given how mysterious a condition Tourette's continues to be.

"I just tell them my truth," Johnson says. "I'm always going to tell it the way it happened."

It's difficult to know, even now, if there may be a more earthly explanation for Stephen's story. The Johnson family never took their son back to a doctor after his tics went away, as they figured there was no reason to. And even if they had, the doctors might not have been able to explain it: Tourette's itself is a sort of umbrella diagnosis about which much is still unknown. Sometimes tics come and go based on a child's stress level.

There is no standard treatment procedure because all cases are different, but often, says Guduru, cognitive behavioral therapy can have an effect. And so, too, can anxiety management techniques: While not familiar with Johnson's specific case, Guduru says "praying to God might have helped him indirectly."

The Johnsons, of course, believe that the effect was far more direct. But they are wary of overpromising, of making out Stephen's story to be something more than it is. For years, they've asked themselves: Why did this happen to them? Is there something they might be missing?

"We don't know why," Paula says. "We don't consider ourselves to be special people. We're not going to prove anything. If someone doesn't believe our story, it's OK."

"It boils down to people's faith," Stephen Sr. says. "If I hit the lottery, does that mean you're going to hit the lottery if you go buy a ticket at the same store?"

All Stephen Jr. knows is what happened to him, and all he knows is that his life has changed since—that when he steps on a football field now in a key moment, there is a sense of calm, if only because he understands that football is just the vehicle through which to share his testimony. And you may believe Stephen Johnson's testimony, or you may not believe it. But all he can tell you is what he believes.

"There's no other way that I can explain what happened," he says. "Trust me, I've thought about it a thousand times. And more."

      

Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author, most recently, of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.