KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Tyrese Johnson-Fisher wavers between perplexed and downright lost, mostly lingering in the latter, as he slowly trots toward the line of scrimmage at Under Armour All-America High School practice.
Running backs coach Peter Gambardella told Johnson-Fisher to “just run a simple flat route” on the next play, and in the short seconds it took for him to line up, Johnson-Fisher contemplated asking a question he knew other players would find ridiculous.
Then he just went for it.
“What’s a flat route?” Johnson-Fisher said.
There’s no such thing as second nature without experience.
Johnson-Fisher, a rugby star from London, put on pads for the first time at Tuesday’s practice and will tangle with some of the top high school football players in the country when the Under Armour All-America Game kicks off Thursday at 6 p.m. EST (ESPNU) at Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
Johnson-Fisher is the first international player to ever play in the game.
“I still can’t believe I’m actually playing football,” said Johnson-Fisher, a senior running back. “It’s a dream come true.”
Johnson-Fisher gained international attention after his dominant videos on the rugby pitch went viral as captain of Oakham School’s U15A team. He also won the 60 meter National Indoor Finals with his time of 6.89 seconds, and ranked third in the country in the U17 100-meter sprint with his time of 10.73 seconds.
“It was all off my highlight videos,” Johnson-Fisher said in a distinct British accent. “The selection committee liked what they saw and here I am.”
They weren’t the only ones.
Johnson-Fisher has already picked up a scholarship offer from Coastal Carolina based off that footage. The buzz around him being in the Under Armour All-America Game has schools such as Texas, Penn State, Mississippi, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Central Nebraska watching to see how he performs.
“It’s a great platform because I’ll have all of these schools watching,” Johnson-Fisher said. “There’s definitely a little pressure just because I’m learning so much in such a little amount of time. I don’t know whether I’ll pick a college or go to a place like IMG Academy. I’ll have to see how the game goes.”
At a chiseled, 5-foot-10, 194 pounds, Johnson-Fisher certainly has the build to produce. In addition to sprinter’s speed, he possesses the innate toughness that tends to accompany rugby players.
His biggest learning curve after his first day in pads?
“I’m trying to learn the names of certain plays, and also why I’m running those routes on specific plays,” Johnson-Fisher said. “Like, what’s the purpose? I like to know all aspects of everything because that just gives me a better understanding of the game as a whole. I’m always thinking.”
Still, Johnson-Fisher learned there’s a fine line between overthinking and playing instinctively during practice.
On one play, he was so focused on running his route and seeing the play through that he got caught off guard and received a proverbial welcome-to-football hit.
“He hit me pretty good; it hurt,” Johnson-Fisher said with a smile. “But I jumped right back up like I do in rugby and got ready for the next play. I loved it.”
Justin Fields said that after just one practice with Johnson-Fisher, he sees “a lot of potential.”
“He’s a super athlete and he’s fast and big,” said Fields, the top-ranked quarterback in the class who is signed to Georgia. “You can’t expect him to just pick up everything from day one, but he showed enough in that first day to see that he’s gonna have a bright future in this game.”
That much was evident by the end of practice when Johnson-Fisher barreled across the goal line for a score during an intra-squad scrimmage.
“It felt even better than I thought it would feel to get a touchdown,” he said. “All of my teammates came around me and were offering their support and they were happy for me. It was great. Now I need to get one in the game.”