“It Makes It That Much Sweeter”: Xavier Johnson Grateful for Journey from Ohio State Walk-On to Block O Recipient

By Dan Hope on August 31, 2023 at 8:35 am
Xavier Johnson

“Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain.”

Xavier Johnson used that lyric from 50 Cent’s “Many Men” to sum up what it means to him to be the recipient of Ohio State’s Block O jersey this year.

Johnson’s journey to earning the coveted No. 0 jersey and being named one of Ohio State’s three team captains this season hasn’t been an easy one. He started his Ohio State career as a walk-on and has switched between position groups numerous times as a Buckeye, spending time at wide receiver, running back and even cornerback. He’s acknowledged on several occasions that his Ohio State career hasn’t gone the way he initially thought it would, as he played very sparingly on offense until last season when he played 207 snaps between the receiver and running back spots.

But now that he’s been recognized as both the team’s most inspirational player and one of its top leaders, Johnson feels all the struggles and sacrifices he’s had to endure over the past five years have been well worth it.

“I think that it makes it that much sweeter,” Johnson said. “I think that going through all that and maturing in the way that I did and growing in the way that I did it, I wouldn't change it for the world.”

Johnson said it was “definitely surreal” to hear his name called when Ryan Day announced him as the recipient of the Block O jersey on Aug. 19.

“I was overcome with emotion. Because everything that I've been through with teammates, with guys, I think all that emotion kind of came to the forefront when I heard my name called,” Johnson said. “Because when I reflect on my career here, it hasn't gone exactly how I wanted, exactly how I would have drawn it up. But it's been beautiful in its own right. When my name was announced, when Coach Day kind of honored me with that honor of being the Block O and representing this university, it was something that I definitely didn't take lightly and I was extremely honored to receive.”

A sixth-year senior, Johnson is the fourth Ohio State player to receive the Block O jersey, which the program has awarded annually since 2020 – the first year the NCAA allowed players to begin wearing No. 0 – to a player who exhibits toughness, accountability, character and a fighting spirit.

Ask just about anyone inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center about Johnson, and they’ll tell you he exemplifies all of those traits. Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline said he “could not think of a better person” than Johnson to wear the Block O this year, referencing Johnson’s character and the way he makes the people around him better.

“I know he's made an impact on our room. And I've seen that. I'm sure he's made an impact in the running back room when he was in there. He impacts those on special teams with direct relation to them,” Hartline said. “Stats are one thing, they come and go. I've seen lots of great stats. But the way you make people feel and the way you help people grow, they remember that forever, and couldn't have picked a better person.”

Johnson has made his biggest impact of his Ohio State career on special teams, playing 480 snaps in that phase of the game over the past four seasons as a starter on both kickoff and punt teams, and special teams coordinator Parker Fleming agreed with Hartline’s assessment that Johnson was the perfect choice to earn the Block O award.

“A better guy couldn't have got it,” Fleming said. “I can't speak more highly of a guy that's just put in the work and everything that he's done and how he's just developed. He's earned everything he's got.”

Ohio State’s biggest star, wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., described Johnson as “the perfect example for what you want an Ohio State player to be.”

“He's played in so many different position rooms – corner, running back, he moved to receiver – and he just always kept working. Never complained about anything,” Harrison said. “And just his leadership on and off the field, he’s a guy that you want leading the team. He’s just a great example for myself and just the rest of the guys on the team, so I think he's just the perfect person to wear the Block O.”

Both Fleming and Ryan Day referenced a two-play sequence by Johnson in last year’s season opener against Notre Dame, in which he caught a 24-yard touchdown pass then proceeded to make a tackle at the 13-yard line on the ensuing kickoff, as an encapsulation of who Johnson is as a player.

“There's two clips back-to-back that I’ll use for the rest of my career,” Fleming said. “He catches a touchdown pass on a third-down play down in the north end zone and he scores, I think we were losing at the time and now we're winning. And I'm not gonna say it was the biggest moment of football of his life, but it doesn't get much bigger than that. And he was running down on kickoff all game and the whole place is going nuts, he's excited and I go run to him and I say, ‘X, if you need a sub, I got you on this one.’ He looks at me dead in the eyes and says ‘No chance, coach. I got this.’ He runs down and makes a tackle on the 15-yard line. Gets off a block and does it. And it just, some guys look for ways to do the other. Not X.”

Another way in which Johnson’s selflessness is encapsulated is the fact that he has now worn five different jersey numbers in his Ohio State career. As a freshman, Johnson wore No. 49 in practice and No. 19 in games. He switched to No. 8 as a second-year Buckeye, then wore No. 25 for each of the next two seasons before switching to No. 10 last year.

Johnson had coveted the No. 10 because of its connotation with his nickname, X, the Roman numeral for 10. But Johnson had no hesitation about giving that number up when he was awarded his new number for this season. The only thing that gave him pause, he said, was knowing his parents would have to buy yet another jersey.

“I've changed numbers five out of my six years, so that's kind of been hard on them,” Johnson said. “But like I said, it's an honor to represent the university and wear the Block O, and so when I received that honor, there was not much thought that went into it.”

Johnson said he is close with all of Ohio State’s three previous Block O recipients – Jonathon Cooper, Thayer Munford and Kamryn Babb – which makes it all the more special for Johnson to now have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.

“I'm just honored to continue that tradition of excellence that the Block O award winners have set the standard of in the past,” Johnson said.

“I think X is the perfect example for what you want an Ohio State player to be.”– Marvin Harrison Jr. on Xavier Johnson

With a new number now on his back, Johnson will look to make his biggest impact yet on the field in his final season as a Buckeye, which begins Saturday at Indiana. Johnson had the most productive game of his Ohio State career to date in last year’s game against the Hoosiers, in which he ran for a 71-yard touchdown, gained 47 yards on just two catches and recovered a blocked punt.

Going into this year’s game against the Hoosiers, however, Johnson said he just wants to make sure he helps the Buckeyes start the season with a win.

“My focus is on that. My focus is on going 1-0 as a team and getting the ball rolling in the right way,” Johnson said. “We're gonna go out there, put our best foot forward and I think we're gonna like what we see.”

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