Johnson committed to UGA right after G-Day. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
When the four-star prospect heard that, a light bulb went off.
“Guess that means I’ll have to find some yellow dye,” Johnson said, cracking a smile that feels like it matches his 344-pound waistline.
The nation’s No. 5 offensive guard was pledged to Alabama but de-committed and soon flipped to UGA once the Kirby Smart era really got rolling at G-Day.
“My hair is probably going to be red and black right now for a long time,” Johnson said when he committed on April 19.
Johnson does cartwheels, or will break out in an off-the-hip dance routine between drills at camps. His greatest asset? He radiates pure joy. He’s always ready to cut up and enjoy every moment.
Which recruit do most guys want to play with? Not for talent or ability — that query is meant to identify the guy who would keep them laughing during the practice grind. The majority of votes would go to Johnson. Easy.
Johnson was once committed to Alabama. (Chris Kirschner / AJC)
Yet he has every reason not to seem larger than life. His older brother committed suicide when he was a freshman. He does not have a relationship with his father, and then lost the man who first filled that void to cancer last January.
Netori’s story impossibly includes each of those events. Nobody could ever guess that after spending any amount of time with him.
That’s what makes the person and personality more impressive than the physical aspect of an imposing 6-foot-4 building block of Sam Pittman’s future line at UGA.
Johnson spent his freshman year at Prime Prep Academy in Texas. That was the boarding school and intended football juggernaut led by NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.
“I stayed with Deion when I was out there,” said Johnson, revealing a little insight into the confidence he exudes to be himself at all times.
Johnson grew up around dangerous influences in a not-so-safe neighborhood. That move made sense to bolster his football career. His size, speed and strength had already materialized. He hit another youth so hard he broke their collar bone.
Johnson is rated as the No. 125 overall prospect for the Class of 2017. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
He played one season for Prime Prep, but a family crisis brought him back to Georgia.
“My big brother, who was 23, passed away when he killed himself,” Johnson said. “He hung himself in his closet.”
Johnson was expected to return home but discussed it at length with his mother. He was going to stay in Texas. It was the best thing for his future.
“But then something else happened,” Johnson said. “I came back down home for Christmas break and my grandad told me he had cancer. I came back in town for the break. When I got back to Texas in January after the break, my mom said my granddad was back in the hospital again.”
It was one of those “He doesn’t have that long” calls. Those days still cause the big kid with the bigger heart and crazy hair to tear up.
“My grandad was everything to me,” Johnson said. “He was the man. My biological father is in prison right now. So my granddad was my father figure. He was my dad. He raised me. That man — his name was Alfred Meadows — taught me what it means to be a man.”
After all that pain, where does the seemingly limitless joy come from?
“It is just life,” Johnson said. “That is just me. Man, losing my granddad was something hard. He wanted me to go to Mays High School. He said that to me on his deathbed. But I told him Cedar Grove was where I wanted to be. You know something? Before he passed away on Jan. 17 that year, he told me about that with one of his last breaths. He told me if (Cedar Grove) was the place he wanted me to be where I wanted to go instead of going to school at Mays. He was just a special man.”
Johnson has tattoos of his brother and grandfather’s names. He suffered those losses and made something out of it.
Johnson would often wear some UGA gear even back when he was committed to Alabama. (Joshua L. Jones / Special )
“Basically all of that hard work I do for football goes toward the memory of my lost brother and my granddad,” Johnson said. “Death is a part of my life. Death is a part of life. So I don’t want to ever be sad about that. I want it to motivate me because that is a big part of my story. So when I make it, I will be able to share that with more people.”
He has a few tributes in mind. If a pro career follows, he could fund scholarships for young people in the names of his brother and his grandfather.
“I want to build stuff and do things to honor them,” Johnson said.
Johnson now stays with his grandmother.
“My mother has my step-dad who has become like a father to me,” Johnson said. “But my grandmother doesn’t have anybody. My grandfather is gone and she’s all by herself. So I stay with her and take care of her basically.”
Johnson committed to UGA last month, but his hairstyle choices have mirrored his favorites. He tried Auburn. He tried UGA. He even tried the school colors of the program he was once committed to.
Johnson has maintained a vibrant outlook on life despite enduring a few personal tragedies during his high school years. (Jeff Sentell / AJC)
But the Alabama hairstyle never really fit him either.
“I tried Alabama for a minute but it came out more like burgundy than crimson,” he said. “It just wasn’t working out with me.”
When Smart was hired, Johnson took a couple of visits to the new UGA.
“The bond with the new coaches was just beautiful,” Johnson said. “I know I’m not supposed to go to a school necessarily on the coaches that are there because they switch around a lot. But I know I’ll at least get two or three years with those coaches now. I want that. I want to be coached by those guys while I’m in school there.”
Johnson took his mother to Auburn for “Junior Day” this spring. They also went to UGA in Athens for the now-much-acclaimed #93KDay.
He watched her radiate joy. That trait must run in the family. His mother, Tara Stroud, captured a lot of video on her phone.
“She’s from here,” Johnson said. “She’s not from Alabama. I could tell she loved it and Georgia was already starting to feel like home to me. My mom loved it and me already feeling it on my own about Georgia was basically why I switched it all up.”
The G-Day experience nailed it.
“It is really just the whole vibe around Georgia now,” Johnson said. “It is all just a feeling like home to me. I even know a lot of the 2016 (signees) dudes. I know Mecole (Hardman) and Julian (Rochester) and Isaac (Nauta) all real well. Chad Clay. Those are my dudes. I got respect for all of them in a strong way. Those are all from the crib. All from Georgia. All from home. Georgia boys.”
Johnson got to know several current UGA commits at the Rising Seniors game and practices back in December. (Michael Carvell / AJC)
Rewind those DVR files of G-Day. Johnson can be found talking to Smart on the field. That’s when he dropped a hint.
“I didn’t say I was committing in the middle of that game but I told him I had a surprise coming for him,” Johnson said.
Johnson will take his official visits. He wants to have fun and enjoy the recruiting process, but he says there is no chance of another de-commitment.
“This commitment is truly 100 percent,” Johnson said.
He was almost set to release a top six right before G-Day, but backed off that. Stroud had a big impact on his decision. So did his Cedar Grove coaches and teammates. His classmate, Justin Shaffer, is also committed to play guard at UGA in the Class of 2017.
“I was ready and didn’t see the need to release a top six,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t see the point in playing with anyone’s emotions any longer.”
Johnson said former UGA offensive line coach Rob Sale impressed him, but he would not have committed to the old staff. He would’ve wound up at Auburn or Alabama.
“A lot of stuff changed,” Johnson said. “Those coaches for Mark Richt were old school, but still good. But this new staff has made the atmosphere just a whole lot more fun. I love it. The people at G-Day were screaming out, ‘Netori’ and, ‘Come be a Dawg’ and man I tell you that was just beautiful, too.”
The origin of ‘Snowcone’
Johnson actually rocked that red hair before he knew Deion Sanders. Those roots go back prior to his year at Prime Prep.
“When he first got here, he had red hair,” Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith said. “It was flaming red. All of it. So I told him he had to get that red out of his hair, man. I told him I didn’t like it. He was like, ‘Alright’ with no fuss about it at all. Netori is a good kid so I thought that was it.”
That was not it.
“He comes back the next day with blue hair,” Smith said. “My mindset was when I said he had to get that red out of his hair I was thinking he would dye it back to black.”
Those big mitts are going to be on Sam Pittman’s offensive line at UGA next season. (Joshua L. Jones / Special)
His big offensive lineman had a colorful reply.
“‘Coach you didn’t say I had to go back to black you just said I had to get the red out,” Johnson told him.
Smith couldn’t help but laugh.
“I was like, ‘Man don’t even worry about it then,” he said. “I remember him telling me that he didn’t mean any harm to anyone by it. He just liked to color his hair.”
His high school coach will never forget that story.
“I told Netori he had to understand people look at him differently with red or blue hair,” Smith said. “It is funny to some people but some people try to find a problem with it. I just wanted him to understand that not everyone has good intentions and he might have to take the negatives with every positive. That was not a big deal to me, but I just didn’t like that red in his hair back then.”
Johnson said he’s leaning on majoring in sports management at UGA. He wants to be an agent so he can be around athletes when he is done playing.
“I can help make things fun for them when it is their turn,” Johnson said. “I think I could do that.”
Count on that. The hair dye would be optional.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.