Florida's Keyontae Johnson, who collapsed during game, is more than a basketball star

Josh Peter
USA TODAY

Decked out in their black Jordan Brand sweatsuits with the powder blue trim, the Florida Gators boarded their charter bus before 11 a.m. Friday and headed for enemy turf.

It’s a 150-mile trip from Florida’s campus in Gainesville, Fla. to Tallahassee, home of the Gators’ archrival and recent bully, the Florida State Seminoles.

The Florida men's basketball team had lost six games in a row to Florida State, but there was reason for the Gators to be hopeful as the team bus motored down the highway.

The Gators had momentum after a 3-0 start and something even more important — Keyontae Johnson, the SEC Preseason Player of the Year

Chiseled at 6-5 and 229 pounds, Johnson was averaging 19.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals after victories over Army, Boston College and Stetson. He was shooting 63.9% from the field, including 50% from 3-point range, and 76.9% of his free throws.

Florida's Keyontae Johnson entered this season as one of the top players in the country, being named the SEC Preseason Player of the Year.

But much about Johnson, a 21-year-old junior, transcends statistics.

“God-fearing, smart, funny, goofy, full of energy,’’ said Jalen Hudson, who played with Johnson at Florida during the 2018-19 season. “Someone you would love to call your friend.’’

In the locker room, practice facility or training room, Johnson is known for his penchant of breaking out into a dance.

“It could be anywhere,’’ Hudson said. “We could be in the middle of a lift session and one of his songs comes on, he’s going to really break it down and dance. He’s not shy about it at all. It’s fun to see, especially a muscular guy like that, it’s funny.''

Amusing examples can be found on Johnson's TikTok account, where his user name is keydababy11.

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“He’s very funny, very lovable and he loves to make people laugh,'' Hudson said. "That’s why I think this thing is hurting so many people.’’

About 24 hours after the team bus pulled into Tallahassee on Friday, and less than four minutes into their game against Florida State on Saturday, a terrifying scene unfolded at the Tucker Civic Center.

Coming out of a timeout, Johnson collapsed on the court face first.  Panicked teammates waved for medical personnel. Other players watched stunned and in tears.

Minutes earlier, during the timeout, Johnson had been celebrating an alley-oop dunk that put the Gators ahead 11-3. Watching the TV broadcast at home in Virginia, Johnson’s mother, Sharnika, was confused, according to Vanessa Locke, the mother of Florida player Noah Locke.

In what has become a tradition, Vanessa Locke said, she and Sharnika Johnson were texting during the game — and, on Saturday, trying to figure out the strange turn of events.

“When they came back after the timeout, all I saw was my son crying and I text (Sharnika Johnson) immediately like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Locke said. “Once we found out it was Keyontae, we weren’t communicating anymore because I knew she was trying to get to Tallahassee.’’

Keyontae Johnson grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, in a family that instilled discipline. His father, Marrecus, is retired chief petty officer of the United States Navy. His mother works for the City of Portsmouth (Va.) Sheriff's Office.

After his sophomore season at Norview High School, Johnson enrolled at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. A year later, in 2015, he returned to Virginia because his mother had been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and his father had been deployed, according to floridagators.com.

He enrolled at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, about a six-hour drive from his family's home and mother.

"I'd see her crying sometimes," Johnson told floridagators.com. "But it really hit me was when I'd go see her when she had to be in the hospital.”

Now Sharnika Johnson is in remission and has been at her son's bedside.

After Johnson collapsed, he was wheeled off the court on a stretcher and taken to Tallahassee Memorial hospital, where he was listed in critical but stable condition.

Without their star player, the Gators lost for the seventh consecutive time to Florida State, 83-71. After the game, the players filed onto the team bus, but Florida head coach Mike White stayed behind.

He spent Saturday night with Johnson at Tallahassee Memorial, the university announced.

White was joined in Tallahassee that evening by Sharnika and other family members. Vanessa Locke said she reached out Saturday night for the first time since their texting ended abruptly during the game.

“They have a really big family, so she’s surrounded by her family,’’ Locke said.

On Monday, Johnson’s grandfather, Larry DeJarnett, told USA TODAY that Keyontae was in a medically induced coma and had been transported to Gainesville from Tallahassee.

"He may have had activity in the brain, so they induced the coma," DeJarnett told USA TODAY Sports. "They put him on medication to keep him sedated."

Later in the day, the school said Johnson was "following simple commands and undergoing further tests."

On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson's parents said through the school that their son was breathing on his own and speaking, including having a FaceTime call with teammates. "We feel so much love and support from everyone," Marrecus and Sharnika Johnson said.

It's unclear if Johnson's condition is connected to COVID-19, or if he had previously tested positive. Florida had to pause team activities last month because of positive COVID-19 tests, and White said the team also had previous issues, but details were not released because of privacy laws.

Noah Locke, Johnson’s roommate, had COVID-19, according to his mother. But she said she doesn’t know if Johnson had it.

“We’re not talking about that right now,’’ Vanessa Locke said. “We’re just we’re praying for Key. There are so many unknowns with COVID, that’s really not even the topic of conversation at this point.’’

Three days after Johnson’s collapse, his teammates are still hurting, according to parents.

Esther Obioha, mother of Gators forward Anthony Duruji, said, “He is doing well but traumatized by what happened to Keyontae.’’

On Monday, Florida canceled its game against North Florida scheduled for Wednesday.

Hudson, the former Gators player who finished at Florida in 2019, said he reached out to Johnson in November when Johnson was named SEC Preseason Player of the Year.

“I texted him to congratulate him and just to say lock in on the end goal, to win and get to the next level,’’ he said.

Johnson was projected as a first-round draft pick for the 2021 NBA draft, according to several mock drafts. But now the focus is on Johnson’s health.

“Hopefully, he can make a full recovery,’’ Hudson said. “He will make a full recovery.

“When he makes a full return, things will be back to normal. He’ll be back dancing and laughing and being the goofy person that he is.’’

Contributing: Scott Gleeson