The hunt for zen: Cal football’s Brett Johnson on the field, off the field and outdoors

Photo of Brett Johnson
Kelley Cox/KLC fotos/Courtesy
October 18, 2020; Berkeley, California, USA; Cal Football Media Day; . Photo credit: Kelley L Cox/KLC fotos

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It’s 2008 in Sahuarita, Arizona, and James Johnson is taking his son out to play football for the first time. His son is only in first grade, and even though he’s inexperienced, he’s one of the biggest kids on the field. That first grader, Brett Johnson, would grow into a 6’5”, 250-pound Cal defensive lineman. But while he wasn’t quite that colossal on that fall evening, after a month of practices, Brett was still almost too big to play.

“He comes to the last practice (before the season starts up) and there’s weight requirements … He comes to the last practice and he’s 12 pounds overweight,” Mr. Johnson said. “He was just a big, strong kid. He’s got 12 pounds to lose.”

First-grader Brett was in a league of his own when it came to sheer size. The weigh-in for the season was in three days. Mr. Johnson had to consider other sports for his son in case he didn’t make weight.

“I’m looking around this field, this huge park, and I notice there’s a soccer team,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m like ‘there’s no way we’re going to play football this year, so I’ll go talk to the soccer coach’.”

The soccer coach was willing to take Brett onto the team. After the football practice had ended, Mr. Johnson broke it down for his son.

“Hey guy, you haven’t lost any weight; you’re twelve pounds overweight and weigh-in for the season is Saturday. You have three days. There’s no chance you’re going to make this thing,” Mr. Johnson said to the eventual Cal football star. “So how about soccer? They’ll take us.”

Brett didn’t budge. He wanted to play football.

His father tried again: “That’s only going to happen, Brett, if you don’t eat for three days. There’s no other way to drop 12 pounds.”

“Okay, I won’t eat,” Brett said and also agreed to endure school days on his own. It would be on him, he would do it all.

“I’m trying to talk him out of it,” his dad said, before giving it one last go, attempting to get his kid to quit on his unrealistic weight loss goals if not commit to them fully. “So I said, ‘The other thing about it is that I’ll wake you up every morning at five o’clock and we’re going to go for two-mile runs on top of not eating.’ ”

Brett said okay and he meant it. Weigh-ins came after three days of early morning jogs without food.

“The last day, the poor kid’s blood sugar was like zero, he’s crying the whole run, but he made it. He dropped 12 pounds, made the team,” Mr. Johnson said. “The willpower piece has always been crazy with him.”

After 12 years, that willpower hasn’t left — it’s matured along with Brett. It’s been sharpened throughout his high school  career where he excelled and loved football and wrestling. It manifests itself now in a sharp focus which he brings with him into games.

“He is laser-focused, to the point where it seems like he’s dang near a robot. He’s just wired to go. That’s it,” said fellow defensive lineman and sixth-year senior Zeandae Johnson. “You can tell when he flips that switch. He’s in. He’s done. It’s on.”

Brett’s play is something of a hallmark. He doesn’t engage in trash talk or celebration. He speaks very little beyond discussing the next play.

“I’m pretty quiet during games,” Brett said. “I don’t say anything, I just play.”

It’s an almost notorious aspect of his style of competition. Defensive line coach Andrew Browning described it as if Brett was looking “right through you.”

“Emotionally, he’s very even keeled. You never see him get too high or too low with the ebbs and flows of the game, which is a good thing,” Browning said. “He keeps his world very, very small, to the things that are right in front of his face.”

His coaches at Cal and at Desert Vista High School back in Arizona, recall that specific aspect of the true sophomore defender almost immediately.

“He gets hyper-focused and locked in on the task. One thing about Brett: He never waivers,” said Brett’s high school defensive line coach Derek Kennard, Jr. “He’s consistent and stays the same — level-headed, cool, calm and collected.”

One of his high school wrestling coaches, Brian Popadak, pointed to the steadiness Brett generated during matches. Through the highs and lows, Brett is balanced, stable and focused on his job and his play at any given moment.

During his high school football career, Kennard mandated that Brett celebrate successful plays, solely so the coaches could see him outwardly display emotion. The lack of sentimental displays, however, nearly prevented Brett from being recruited. Scouts from colleges around the nation dismissed his hyper-focus as apathy and disinterest. By the time they realized their mistake, Cal had stolen the march on any rivals and Brett was on the path to becoming a Bear.

Stepping up to the next level has changed little. While earning a place as a starter, Brett buckled down even further.

“Last year, I didn’t even take my helmet off when I was on the sidelines,” he said. “Being a freshman starter, on the D-line, I felt like I just had to be locked in, always.”

“On the bench … he keeps his helmet on,” Browning said. “I’ve never seen that before for the whole game.”

Photo of Brett Johnson

Kelley Cox, KLC fotos

T he 2020 season may be slightly different. After nearly a full season of college football, Brett has settled into Memorial Stadium and is ready to take off his helmet.

”It’s irrational of me to be like that. I think this year you’ll see me a lot more open and chopping it up on the sidelines,” he explained.

But just because fans will be able to see Brett’s face and long, curly hair on the sidelines this year doesn’t mean Cal’s No. 90 will approach his game any differently. He will still wear his helmet a lot, creating a personal football environment and allowing him to zone in. But Brett’s focus goes beyond the exterior; what his teammates, opponents and coaches observe when he’s on the field is only a small part of the story.

Brett doesn’t have a pregame ritual, as he puts it. There are no traditions, superstitions or music. He sits, watches and organizes his time before a game. He tries to keep his focus in the moment and maintain awareness for what’s around him.

His focus is analytical. Brett is not simply in one moment, but in the process of the game. He can recall plays and sequences when he steps off the field.

“The play-by-play synopsis, the step-by-step. He’s able to give very vivid details as to what’s happening and what’s going on while he’s doing his job,” Kennard said. “He was very aware of what was happening and what he felt and what an opponent was trying to do to him … That’s a reason why he’s had so much success, he understands the process.”

It is finding and channeling this focus that makes Brett most successful. Throughout his athletic career, he’s worked to get past any nervousness or anxiety to reach a point where he can get fatigued yet still focus on what’s in front of him rather than anything else. Once he’s broken a sweat and gets his body moving, he can access a “zen state” in the midst of the “suddenness and violence” of a game. When Brett is playing well, he “flows” through the game.

“You get into this mode of execution. You think about moves and you do them. You don’t think about moves and think about the move and think about the move and think about the move and maybe try to go for it,” he explained. “No, you just kind of do it. If you miss it, you have faith in yourself to rebound.”

When Brett competes, he knows what he has to do to be victorious. The onus is on him and no one else. Success is personal and comes when he does exactly what he needs to do.

“Whatever happens, I know I’ll be ready for it. I know I can deal with it, I know I can handle it. And if not, that’s part of the game. I understand that things can’t be perfect all the time, but I believe in myself enough that I’ll be good most of the time, and even then I’m just out here having a good time,” Brett said. “Football is football. At the end of the day, you got your hand in the dirt and a guy coming at you.”

Photo of Brett Johnson

Kelley Cox, KLC fotos

But every on switch has its off switch. Brett is in the zone in the game, but off the field, he is his own person, as any player is.

He’s funny; Brett isn’t a trash talker on the field, but he’ll crack plenty of jokes off of it. In the words of Zeandae: “Brett’s got jokes.” He seeks out others and tries to bridge gaps between people, according to his cousin and close friend Ian Johnson, who laughs when recounting a young Brett panicking when coming home to an unusually empty house.

Those who know him reveal that Brett is someone who leaves a different impression with everyone he meets. He’s a “gentle giant” by his cousin’s estimation, “unique and okay with that,” in the words of Kennard and an “old soul” who is a pleasure to be around on and off the mat, according to Popadak.

On and off the field, though, he still finds those moments of zen and focus.

Between football and family, Brett maintains a love for the outdoors. During his first bye week as a college football player, he returned to Arizona for a hunting trip. He can summon a wealth of stories about the canyons, rivers and sky islands around his home, of taking hikes through redwood forests while wisps of fog rolled in and backpacking through the wilderness.

There’s something in the immediacy and visceral nature of these activities which makes them worthwhile. It’s the physical nature of hiking which appeals to Brett — being outside, sleeping on the ground, hunting your own food and exploring places beyond trails.

Brett finds zen there, something akin to what he finds on the football field. He’ll hunt in the wind and cold, hidden on an overlook and simply take in the scenery, slowly scanning his surroundings and finding satisfaction in the silence.

The standout sophomore will slow down. During his latest backpacking trip with his family, he imparted some advice to his father.

“It was funny, the last trip we went on … I guess I was charging a little too much in the front,” Mr. Johnson said. “(Brett) said ‘Dad it’s not the getting there, it’s the journey part, you have to slow down and look around more.’”

Ian describes his cousin fishing, wearing the same expression he wears when he is completely focused: tongue stuck in cheek as he learns something new or puts his mind to a specific endeavor.

It is the tasks and process that absorb Brett whether he’s playing football, throwing pottery (another hobby) or exploring the outdoors. They do not simply come to him, either — he has constantly sought out activities and sought opportunities to do what he enjoys, to find those processes and hone them. 4-year-old Brett got his father to take him out for wrestling. Second-grader Brett went three days without eating to play football. Brett’s love of the outdoors has motivated his family’s hunting and backpacking trips.

Whether he is tracking an elk or preparing for a game on Saturday, Brett applies himself so he will accomplish that to the best of his ability. It is what makes him one of Cal’s best lineman. It’s never about the opponent or the obstacle in his way, it is simply about Brett and his ability and work.

He hides nothing when he steps on the field. When he competes, he simply does everything he has to, and if he does that right, he will win. To beat Brett, you must be stronger, more focused and more hardworking than he is.

Popadak describes his former pupil as one who focuses on himself and what he needs to do.

“When he’s ready to compete, you’re just going to have to be better than him,” Popadak said. “You’re not going to stop him, unless you are just flat better than him.”

And if you’re not better than Brett? Then it’s over.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].