A Kansas State star, who turned down a $5 million payout after a scary on-court collapse, says there's 'no price tag' he'd put on his Elite 8 run
By Meredith Cash,2023-03-24
- Keyontae Johnson suffered a scary on-court collapse during a 2020 game, while with the Florida Gators.
- With his basketball career in jeopardy, he faced a choice between a $5 million insurance payout and a potential future in hoops.
- Johnson chose the latter, and as the star of Kansas State's March Madness run, his bet is paying off.
NEW YORK — As the stands at Madison Square Garden filled in with hues of purple and hunter green, Marrecus Johnson stared down at the hardwood floor from a few rows behind the Kansas State bench.
He was trying to lock eyes with his son — Wildcats superstar Keyontae Johnson — ahead of Kansas State's Sweet 16 matchup against the Michigan State Spartans. Once he caught his gaze, the elder Johnson lifted the purple-and-gray ball cap off of his head in acknowledgment.
"Every game my parents come to, I always make sure I see my dad in warm-ups to just know," Johnson told Insider. "They wasn't there when I collapsed in the game, so it's the eye contact. I always tell my mom I love her before the game, and I always tell my dad, like, we always do a head nod. It's just showing that he's here."
"Here" means more to the Johnson family than to most. Here isn't guaranteed, and they know it first-hand.
Keyontae wasn't supposed to be here.
He wasn't supposed to be at Kansas State. If life had gone according to plan — or what he assumed was the plan at the time — the 6-foot-6 forward would've been well past college basketball and into the pros by now.
And he surely wasn't supposed to be here, at Madison Square Garden, leading the scrappy underdogs to a thrilling, 98-93 overtime victory over the March Madness mainstay Michigan State Spartans for a trip to the Elite Eight.
No, Keyontae Johnson wasn't supposed to be here at all after December 12, 2020 — the day his journey took a sudden, drastic turn that threatened not just his basketball career, but his life.
And yet, this is exactly where Johnson feels he was meant to be. Now that he's gotten "a second chance," he said, there's no place he'd rather be.
And there's no amount of money — not even the $5 million insurance payout he could have cashed in on two years ago — that could replace this feeling.
"You can't put no price tag on this moment," Johnson said.
Johnson was a top college star en route to the NBA — until his sudden collapse during a 2020 game changed everything
All eyes were on Johnson as he headed into his third season at Florida, some two-and-a-half years ago. The athletic and muscular small forward had gone from a solid freshman reserve to a consistent starter and budding star in his sophomore season with the Gators.
But by his junior year, Johnson was expected to become the guy in Gainesville. He was named the Southeastern Conference's (SEC) Preseason Player of the Year — a vote of confidence from members of the media watching from press row.
Reporters weren't the only ones expecting greatness from Johnson; NBA scouts were also bullish on the Norfolk, Virginia, native. By the time Florida's 2020-2021 season got underway, Johnson's name was appearing in the first round of several different outlets' 2021 mock drafts .
And he was living up to the hype. Through his first three games of the year, Johnson averaged 19.7 points and six rebounds per game.
And in the Gators' fourth contest of the season — a tough test against the No. 20 Florida State Seminoles — Johnson had started out hot, with an early and-1 and a flashy alley-oop. But as the team broke out of its huddle following a timeout, Johnson took a few wobbly steps on the court.
Then he crumpled to the hardwood , his face hitting the ground first without any attempt to brace the fall.
All it took was one look at his teammates' faces to know that something horrific had just taken place in front of them. And as medical personnel rushed the still-unconscious Johnson off the floor, his teammates looked on with tensed jaws and tears in their eyes.
Johnson remembers none of it. He only recalls regaining consciousness in a hospital bed back in Gainesville three days later.
With his mother, Nika, by his side, Johnson spent two nights at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital in a medically induced coma, as doctors attempted to determine the cause of his sudden loss of consciousness. They were then airlifted 130 miles to Gainesville.
A full three days after Johnson's initial collapse, the Florida program announced that the star was "breathing on his own and speaking," noting that he even FaceTimed with his Gators teammates . Still, it took another week for Johnson to leave the hospital, and many, many more for him to know whether he'd ever make his way back to the court.
As he spent 2 seasons seeking the green light from doctors, Johnson served as 'basically another coach' for the Gators
While in the hospital on Florida's campus, Johnson was diagnosed with acute myocarditis — a disorder causing inflammation of the heart muscle that could have fatal consequences such as heart damage or cardiac arrest if left untreated. And shortly after rejoining his team, Johnson learned that he'd been ruled out for the remainder of the 2020-21 season.
He soon became "basically another coach" for the Gators , then-teammate Colin Castleton told 247 Sports — and a good one at that. Castleton noted that Johnson would assist the coaching staff with scouting responsibilities, relay information about individual opponents to the team's players, and help his teammates keep their emotions in check throughout the game.
"He's in the locker room, talking to us in timeouts," Castleton said at the time. "If I made a mistake in the first half, he was like, 'Hey man, you got it. Keep it up. Just keep doing what you're doing.' He's our guy, he's our leader and everybody looks up to him and listens to him."
Still, Johnson never lost his desire to step off the sidelines and into the game. But as he waited for doctors to definitively determine whether his collapse was caused by a heart condition, he was not allowed to run , jump, or exercise in any meaningful way.
Johnson spent the better part of a year waiting for clearance — spending practices taking shot after shot without moving from a designated spot on the floor — and the Gators' medical staff determined it'd be too risky for the star to suit up for the team again. He was devastated, and he genuinely feared that his playing days were behind him.
"I mean, I thought I was done," Johnson said . "I didn't know what other doctors were going to clear me. Shands Hospital at the University of Florida is like one of the top hospitals, hearing it from them that they won't clear me – it was real big."
Still, he stayed "very engaged in our program and in the game and into his teammates' future" throughout the 2021-22 season, then-Florida head coach Mike White told The New York Times . And on his senior day, Johnson received a standing ovation after making a ceremonial start and bending down to kiss the Gators logo at center court.
All the while, he sought a second — and third — opinion. He consulted doctors at the Mayo Clinic, specifically shouting out Dr. Michael J. Ackerman, and doctors referred to him by the NBA Players Association. After thorough testing, both medical staffs told him he had "athlete's heart" — an expansion of the heart that sometimes comes with intense athletic training — and gave Johnson the green light he'd been searching for.
So after graduating from Florida with a degree in Education Sciences, Johnson entered the transfer portal.
Johnson was ready to get back to basketball. But he had a $5 million incentive to call it quits.
Five months before that life-altering day in December 2020, Johnson took out an insurance policy through the NCAA's Exceptional Disability Insurance Program . The plan allows top college athletes with potential to go pro — like Johnson — "with the opportunity to protect against future loss of earnings as a professional athlete due to a disabling injury or sickness that may occur during the collegiate career."
Johnson surely fit the bill, and according to the Associated Press , he was eligible to receive a whopping $5 million. But there was a catch: If Johnson were to cash in on the policy, he wouldn't be allowed to embark on a professional basketball career or play more than nine additional college games.
But he "never really considered stopping," he told the Times. And connecting with newly minted Kansas State coach Jerome Tang only further underscored that mindset.
Tang, who spent 19 years as an assistant-turned-associate head coach at Baylor, worked with several players who struggled with similar heart conditions. The first-year head coach told Insider that experience "gave me the comfort level that I knew that I could help him get into basketball shape."
"Having dealt with those doctors before, I was very confident when they told me what the situation was and that he was good to play, and if it was their son, they would be on the court, also," Tang added ahead of the Sweet 16.
He offered the same analysis to Johnson and his family. And soon, the school's medical staff was on board, too.
So Johnson chose Manhattan, Kansas, as his new home.
"It wasn't hard to give up [the money]," Johnson said after Thursday's win. "Me and Coach Tang had a meeting when I first got on campus, and he brought it up. He asked me will I take the money and I told him I came here to play the whole season — I'm not worried about the money. We never talked about it since.
"So when I came on campus, the money was out of the equation," he added. "I told him I knew my goal was trying to get to the NBA and taking the money and doing that was not gonna get me there."
Both Johnson and his team defied expectations. Now they're playing with a Final Four trip on the line.
No one thought the Wildcats would be anything special in Tang's first year at the helm. With a new coach and 12 new players, Kansas State was picked by SI to finish dead last in the Big 12 and to miss the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Wildcats earned a 25-9 record, a third-place finish in their conference, and a 3-seed for March Madness.
And with the medically-induced coma, months of intense medical testing, two lost seasons, and multi-million-dollar decision behind him, Johnson shined brighter than ever before on the basketball court. He led Kansas State with 17.5 points and seven rebounds per game on the season — good enough for third-team All-America honors.
For the first time in his collegiate career, Johnson's team is making a significant run through March Madness. Under the brightest lights in all of basketball — the high beams of Madison Square Garden — Johnson scored a team-high 22 points on 55.6% shooting from the floor to help the Wildcats best the Spartans and advance to the Elite Eight Thursday.
And he's well on his way to achieving his goal of making it to the NBA. Despite lingering concerns from front offices about the risks surrounding his physical health, Johnson has climbed back onto draft boards. Now that he's "showing NBA teams that I could play a full season," Johnson is projected to go in the second round.
But through his improbable comeback, Johnson has found something beyond the pursuit of a national championship or the prospect of playing in the pros. Having "something taken away from him," as his dad explained to Insider, has made Johnson's life and basketball career "mean more this time."
"God gave me a second chance," Johnson told Insider. "I'm just out here taking advantage of it."
He's not taking that opportunity for granted.
"Watching Keyontae just continue to grow as a player and do the spectacular things on the court has been extremely rewarding, but not near as rewarding as watching him be thankful every day for the opportunity," Tang told Insider ahead of the Sweet 16. "If you watch him, this dude is an All-American, and he always wears the team shoes. He doesn't have — like most guys want to have their own thing.
"He always wears the team shoes, and he doesn't complain," he continued. "He plays video games with the walk-ons. Everybody in the locker room loves him. He's just a great teammate.
"That's the thing to me that's been the most rewarding, to see someone as talented as him be really thankful for this opportunity and then display it with his actions."Read the original article on Insider
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