For most people, picking a college — the place where you will likely spend the next four or more years of your life — is one of the toughest decisions of early adulthood. Zeandae Johnson is not most people. The day he got his scholarship offer from Cal was the same day that he made his commitment.
When asked about his decision to come to Cal, Johnson said it was a “simple, obvious choice,” pointing toward the education without hesitation. Since eighth grade, Johnson was a member of the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, and UC Berkeley was his target school. Growing up in Fresno, he was just a few hours southeast of the Bay Area, meaning that Johnson was a Cal fan for quite some time before there was interest from the coaching staff.
As big of an accomplishment as getting into Cal is, his family was anything but shocked.
“He’s one of those kids — if he’s determined to do something, he’ll do it,” said Carlos Johnson, Zeandae Johnson’s father. “So when a lot of other schools started coming in, I wasn’t surprised that he chose Cal.”
In fact, Carlos Johnson claimed that he always knew that his son would get an offer from his dream school, as he had been watching Zeandae Johnson dominate his opponents since the ripe age of six. To say that Zeandae Johnson comes from a football family would be an understatement; his father played in college and went on to coach, and all three of Zeandae Johnson’s brothers played.
Carlos Johnson actually coached his son when he was in middle school, although he insisted that he enjoys cheering in the stands for his son’s games more than coaching.
“I was always there for him, but I didn’t really like coaching him,” Johnson chuckled. “I was hard on him, but I wanted to let home be home and football be football.”
The two words that Carlos Johnson said embody his son are what he coined the “D and D’s”: dedication and determination. Although Zeandae Johnson has emanated them since he was a child, these ideals were especially put to the test heading into his redshirt sophomore season when the defensive end sustained a severe knee injury in the summer, forcing him to miss the entire 2017 season.
“Mentally, you’ve got to be tough. Not everybody can come back, not everybody can do these things,” Zeandae Johnson recounted. “You have to be mentally strong to will yourself through a whole season of not playing.”
Johnson’s worst injury before his knee had been a dislocated finger, so facing such a serious issue was new territory for him. The injury also served as a reminder to Johnson that nothing is guaranteed in the violent and volatile sport of football. Thus, he wants to invest in himself off the field just as much, if not more, than on the field.
He came to Cal in large part because of the academics, so he wasn’t going to let his time here go to waste. After finishing his first degree in legal studies, rather than going for a minor, Johnson wanted to aim to earn another major in American studies.
“Some people said I should shy away from it because it’s a lot of work. But I was like, ‘Hey man, if I’m going to be here, I’m going to give it my all. So I’m going to go ahead and try to double major.’ ”
Even after his time at Cal is up, Johnson doesn’t plan to stop — his first priority is to go to either business or law school to earn a graduate degree. While monetary gain would be nice, Johnson’s goal is simply to put himself in a position to live comfortably in the future.
“I’m going to take this time while I’m in my 20s to go ahead and set up for my 40s,” Johnson said.
His interests are nearly infinite, as he always wants to do more.
Johnson’s latest feat that he wishes to conquer is learning how to play the electric guitar with defensive end Lone Toailoa. The duo is taught by former teammate Semisi Uluave, and they play everything from country to jazz, constantly experimenting with different guitar pick thicknesses and chord combinations.
“We just learn the chords, run it back, look at the music, run it back, line the chords, run it back again,” Johnson explained.
While football is surely his main focus, the effort he puts into his music is right up there with the effort he puts into the weight room.
As one of the longest-tenured members of the team, Johnson has stepped into a more of a leadership role this season. This role requires strong play, and the defensive end has delivered. In just nine games, Johnson has already topped his career highs in both tackles and sacks, including a performance against Washington that saw six solo tackles.
After Cal’s loss to Oregon State earlier this season, Johnson did not deflect the blame for the defense’s poor performance, just as a true veteran would.
“It’s disappointing, but we’re going to stomach it, eat it, sign our name to it. This was us, and we’re going to go get better,” Johnson said.
Johnson wasn’t always the guy to be called upon to do postgame interviews, as his journey to becoming a starter was a long and challenging one.
After being recruited as a tight end, Cal’s coaching staff decided that Johnson was a better fit on the opposite side of the ball and subsequently moved him to defensive end. He redshirted his freshman year as he continued to adjust to his new role, and did not make a single in-game appearance. Although he wanted to be battling on game days, Johnson fully trusted his coaches to put him in the best position possible.
“Not everybody wants to be a scout team guy, but I had to know my role and work through it. Everyone’s a star on their high school teams — everybody’s the guy,” Johnson explained. “Until you get to college and you got to buy into the team. It’s not about individualism.”
In his second year, he saw action in 11 games coming off the bench, and was finally starting to settle into his role with the team before his significant knee injury in 2017, which was the first year under current head coach Justin Wilcox.
After his grueling year of regaining his strength and confidence in his knee, he was ready to step back on the field. And the next year, Johnson was a centerpiece in forging Cal’s newfound identity.
“Initially, coming into college, our defense was horrible. I remember sitting in situations watching us play and being like, ‘Dang, we can’t get a stop,’ ” Johnson said. “Just hearing all the media surrounding the defense and all the negativity — that was for sure a down for me. But the up was watching the rebirth with mostly the same players. We had guys that just turned a new leaf. It revitalized us.”
Spearheaded by Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, the Bears catapulted themselves from a defense that was historically bad into one of the nation’s best, and Johnson was a key cog in the process.
Currently, Cal’s defense is leading the charge to give the team its second straight bowl game appearance, and Johnson’s role as a starting defensive end gives him the opportunity to help the Bears reach that goal on any given play.
“Every snap, you have a chance to make an impact. When you can dominate a block, get off and make a tackle for loss — you can affect the game by yourself,” Johnson said. “That’s monumental, and I think it gets overlooked a little bit.”
When not wreaking havoc on the gridiron, Johnson is as much of a family guy as they come. After all, his favorite part of growing up in Fresno was the community and camaraderie.
“It’s a great place to raise a family. It’s not necessarily a small town, but it has small-town perks. Everybody knows everybody,” Johnson said. “So, it’s a good place to bring up a family and I’m glad that I’m from there.”
One of the aspects he misses most about his childhood is looking across the sideline and seeing his relatives wearing the rival’s colors on Friday nights.
“I had cousins everywhere — every school had somebody I was related to,” Johnson said of his kin, many of whom have gone on to play football collegiately. “I just like putting on the TV every now and then to catch a game, or just going back and hearing about how college is going for them.”
Johnson’s family, though, is not limited to blood. He spends nearly all of his free time with his teammates, whether it be playing guitar or seeing the newest Avengers movie with other Marvel fanatics.
In fact, his relationship with fellow defensive lineman Luc Bequette goes all the way back to when they were freshmen living together in the Foothill residence hall down the street from California Memorial Stadium. Johnson and Bequette both redshirted their 2015 seasons before eventually earning their spots as starters, and the two still room together for away games.
“He’s a brother in every sense of the word. On the D-line, we’ve got a really good family atmosphere, and he’s a big reason,” Bequette said. “He’s a real loyal friend and he’d do a lot for anyone and everyone that asks. He really is just a great guy.”
The best news? Wilcox expects both players to be granted a sixth year of eligibility as a result of past season-ending injuries, meaning that the duo could possibly return in 2020 as the dinosaurs of the defense.
Whether Johnson plays another season or not, he is simply trying to make the most of what he has now, knowing that his time playing for his dream school is limited.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because I know I’ve been here a while and had fun with it, but it eventually does come to an end,” Johnson said. “But the sweetest part is knowing that when I leave this defense, there will be a time they can look back and say, ‘Well, when did that happen?’ It was between those years — I was a part of that.”
Johnson said he will put all of his efforts into making the professional ranks when the time comes, but for now, he’s staying focused on getting his team back to a bowl game.
“I’m going to wait until after the season to even open that can of worms,” Johnson said. “Right now, I’m just focusing on putting together good game after good game and doing what my team needs. I’ll worry about all that other stuff afterward.”