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Max Johnson: Meet the True Freshman QB Who Helped Take Down the Gators—and His Football Rich Bloodline

Who is Max Johnson? He’s more than just a guy with a strong football pedigree.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mark Richt was supposed to be on air talking about ACC football on Saturday evening. That’s what college football analysts working for the ACC Network do—they talk about ACC football.

But this Saturday was different. Richt’s 19-year-old nephew, Max Johnson, was getting his first college start at quarterback when LSU played at No. 6 Florida. Knowing this, Richt’s ACC Network colleagues implored him to take the night off.

“I watched every play,” Richt says during an interview with Sports Illustrated on Sunday. “It was just one game, but his life has certainly changed in a 24-hour period.”

Max Johnson, nephew to the former Georgia and Miami coach and son to Super Bowl champion quarterback Brad Johnson, introduced himself to the college football world on Saturday here in North Central Florida. Overshadowed by one of the most bizarre games of a wacky 2020 season—the Tigers won 37-34 in dense fog after a shoe-tossing penalty and 57-yard field goal—Max effectively handled LSU’s offense on the road in odd conditions as the captain of a 23-point underdog.

He’s the kid who helped topple the Gators in what was arguably the biggest upset of the college football season. In a way, he outperformed a veteran Heisman Trophy candidate on the other side. He completed 58.3% of his passes (21 of 36) for 239 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

SU Tigers quarterback Max Johnson (14) looks for a receiver against the Auburn Tigers during the third quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

He showed touch, poise and wheels (he ran for 65 more yards). From the stands, his ex-NFL father watched his son play in a stadium in which he himself never got the chance to play. As a college quarterback at Florida State, he was on the sideline as a backup when the Seminoles played in Gainesville.

It took his son nine games of college to do it. In fact, one year ago from Sunday, Max had lost in the state championship game as quarterback for Oconee County High, a small school near his hometown of Athens, Georgia. A few days later, he enrolled at LSU and began practicing with the Tigers ahead of the national title game, finding himself last in the quarterback stretching line. The first in line: Joe Burrow.

“The whistle would blow and his head was spinning,” Brad Johnson laughs in an interview Sunday.

So who is Max Johnson? He’s more than just a guy with strong football bloodlines. But he is a guy with strong football bloodlines.

Brad Johnson played under Richt while he was quarterbacks coach at Florida State in the early 1990s and later married Richt’s sister, Nikki. As it turns out, without Richt and wife Katharyn maybe Max wouldn’t be in this world at all. He and Katharyn set up Brad and Nikki on a double date in Tallahassee—a bowling trip. They did not hit it off.

But Katharyn insisted on making the match work.

“Katharyn took my sister by Brad’s to pick up yogurt and they got alone time together,” Richt says. “It sparked their relationship.”

He watched the product of their marriage Saturday night in what he called the best display of arm talent he’s seen from Max.

“The faster the game got, the faster the ball came out,” Richt says. “He understands how to pass a football. There are throwers of the football and there are passers of the football. He’s a passer. He has the touch and anticipation.”

Those skills are rooted in 15 years of football with dad. Mom holds an athletic background too. Nikki is a former standout volleyball player for South Florida. Richt calls Nikki and Brad “fun-loving jocks” who, he says chuckling, both dislike ketchup.

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The Johnson family

Brad has never not served as his son’s coach—until this year. That includes youth football, middle school, junior high and even high school. Brad still serves as the quarterbacks coach for Oconee County, where his youngest son, Jake, is a junior tight end and is one of the most hotly recruited prospects in the country.

The Johnsons are a football family disguised as a regular family. There is little national attention paid to Brad and his two sons. That’s by design, says Oconee County coach Travis Noland. The Johnsons are not spotlight-cravers.

Brad’s approach has rubbed off on Max. During the recruiting process, Max disliked recruiting more than any other player that Noland has seen. He began receiving big-time scholarship offers in the ninth grade.

“I had an SEC coach call me when he was a sophomore, and the coach said ‘If Max will come down to camp, we’ll give him an offer,’” Noland says. “I said ‘Coach, he’s not coming to your camp. If you really like him, you can come up here. He’s not out chasing offers.’”

In a virtual news conference with reporters after the win over LSU, Max’s... personality oozed off the screen. Emotionless. Bland. Boring.

“That’s Max,” his father says.

Don’t let his persona fool you, they say—Max is as competitive as anyone, most notably that father of his, a ninth-round NFL draft pick who had a 15-year pro football career, highlighted by his Super Bowl ring in 2003 with the Buccaneers.

The Johnsons are a competition-fueled family. Dad is too old to play football with his sons, but he’s not too old to play ping pong, cornhole, darts and bowl.

In fact, Richt used to hold an annual yard game-type Olympics called the QB Classic, first in Tallahassee, then in Destin and finally in Athens. All former Richt quarterbacks at FSU and Georgia were invited back to participate. Ribbons were distributed, and the overall champion had his name engraved on a plaque.

“We had to always change the games up each year,” Richt says, “because Brad would practice all year on a game and master it.”

Things got competitive. One year, Brad beat Richt in a ping pong match, triggering the coach to kick the ping pong table. He broke his foot. Later that day, Brad injured his elbow during another game. The two of them spent the next morning in the University of Georgia football training room getting treatment.

But enough about the old guys. On the football field, Max is made in his father’s mold—not flashy or prolific but efficient and consistent. He became LSU’s third different starting quarterback this season on Saturday, taking over for another true freshman, T.J. Finley, who had replaced injured starter Myles Brennan.

“The kid is a stud,” one LSU coach said after the game of Max.

“He will be the real deal,” said another.

There is a long, long way to go, of course. He’ll get a second act to his opener on Saturday in the season finale against Ole Miss (LSU has imposed a bowl ban this season). But no matter what happens there, Max will go down in LSU history. He’s the only Tigers quarterback to win his debut in a road game against a top 10 team.

The game also unearthed a potential new game to add to the Johnsons’ yard-game repertoire.

LSU’s game-winning drive was only extended because a Florida defender, Marco Wilson, pulled off the cleat of LSU tight end Kole Taylor and threw it downfield. The 15-yard unsportsmanlike flag set up Cade York for the game-winner.

Max Johnson’s roommate? Kole Taylor.

“He didn’t realize what happened,” Brad Johnson says of Taylor. “He was like ‘I was just trying to get a first down!’”

“The Shoeless Kole,” Brad says. “It will go down in history. Maybe we’ll start doing that. Corn toss? Let’s start playing shoe toss.”