On Tuesday, November 26, 2013, I went to St. Paul Central to cover a nonconference boys’ basketball game between the Minutemen and Minneapolis North, and to see a sophomore guard named Tyler Johnson. People had been buzzing about this young man as a student-athlete who would be remembered, so I went to my alma mater to see what the hype was about.
Johnson had just completed a football season in which he—as a dual quarterback—led the Polars to a 5-1 City Conference record and Class 1A Section 4A semifinal finish after passing for 1,929 yards and rushing for 571.
The young Polars played the more experienced Minutemen tough, losing a 52-51 nail-biter with Johnson contributing 10 points in a balanced attack. Then the hype got real.
While displaying the attributes that would make him one of the best athletes to ever come from Minneapolis, Johnson went on to lead North in scoring, averaging 20.1 points per game. He helped North tie for the 2014 City Conference championship with Washburn and make it to the Class 1A Section title game.
Johnson’s and the Polars’ success continued the following season in both sports as the junior passed for 1,143 yards and ran for 681 while leading the football team to a 6-0 City Conference championship and another semifinal finish in the Class 1A Section 4A playoffs. He then continued displaying his brilliance that winter during basketball season, averaging a team-leading 16.3 points and helping them garner a second-straight conference title in 2015 with an 11-1 record and another trip to the Class 1A Section 4 championship game.
Everything then came together in Johnson’s senior campaign during the 2015-2016 school year as he passed for 1,157 yards and rushed for 621. North easily completed an 8-0 regular-season record and made it to the Class 1A football championship game, finishing runner-up to Minnesota.
Leading a balanced scoring attack with a 17.2 points-per-game average, Johnson led the Polars to the City crown, Twin City title, and Class 1A state championship with a victory over Goodhue.
That spring he accepted a scholarship offer to play football for the University of Minnesota. He recently completed his U of M career as the most prolific receiver in school history.
After watching Johnson and his teammates for the first time six years ago, I told Head Boys’ Basketball Coach Larry McKenzie that he had a very talented group of young players. “Yep, very young,” the Hall-of-Fame coach responded. “We are a work in progress.”
Six years later, the Minneapolis North Polars are no longer a work in progress in football and basketball. They have fully arrived. Though no one realized it at the time, it all started with a student-athlete named Tyler Johnson.
Dr. Mitchell Palmer McDonald is a contributing columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.