Keyontae Johnson inspiring Florida Gators to play with gratitude

Every single day, athletes step on the court or the field and unknowingly take that opportunity for granted. Any day could be the last day they get to go out and do the one thing they love the most.

When Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court at FSU on December 12, that became a devastating realization for the Florida Gators.

Now, the Gators are playing grateful, and playing great. After taking an 18 day hiatus, Florida is off to a 2-0 start in SEC play with wins over Vanderbilt and LSU.

Though head coach Mike White would like to believe his team played just as hard before Johnson’s collapse, he admitted there is a new spark since they returned.

“I wouldn’t doubt that we would play even harder now,” White said. “I think gratitude, our guys might tell you that they’re playing with even more right now. Because there are certain guys like Keyontae that don’t have the opportunity to lace them up tomorrow night. And also I think that there’s probably a certain sense of playing for him.”

It is even easier to play for him when Gators’ players look to the bench and see him as a constant reminder to give it their all. Johnson did not make the trip to Nashville last Wednesday, but he joined his team for its 83-79 home win against LSU on Saturday.

Taking on a coaching role now, Florida affectionately introduced him as “Coach Key” before the game.

The Preseason SEC Player of the Year obviously longs to play with his teammates again, but junior forward Colin Castleton said Johnson does not hang his head despite the adversity he is facing.

Johnson could have easily, and understandably, taken some time away to recover both physically and mentally, but instead chose to stay. He is now an integral part of Florida’s scout team and continues to be an inspiring leader.

“Him being on that sideline with us helps us,” Castleton said. “And when you make a good play or you have something fun and energetic on the court, you look over and you see him cheering for you. It makes you want to just go ten times harder and play as hard as you can, because you know if he was on the court, he’d be doing that for us as well.”

The Gators will have to continue playing that way to defeat a hot Alabama team on Tuesday night. A win in Tuscaloosa would make Florida the lone 3-0 team in the conference.

With daily reminders from White to play with gratitude, and a living reminder in Johnson, there should not be a game this season that Florida’s heart comes into question.

“I think a lot of people in our position are ungrateful for the little things that you get every day in life,” Castelton said. “[White] just talks to us every day and tells us this can be taken quickly. Like, just how you have it right now, the next day it could be gone. Just make sure when you go on the court, or whatever you’re doing, be passionate about it and be grateful for all the little things.”

Bailiegh Carlton
A lifelong sports fan, Bailiegh Carlton knew from a young age that she wanted to work in sports in some capacity. Before transferring to the University of Florida to study journalism, she played softball at Gulf Coast State College. She then interned for Gator Country for three years as she worked toward her degree. After graduation, Bailiegh decided to explore other opportunities in the world of sports, but all roads led her right back here. In her time away, she and her husband welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world. When she isn't working, she can almost always be found snuggled up with sweet baby Ridley, Cody and her four fur babies.