These days, Keyontae Johnson has a permanent smile on his face.
He’s living out a dream that at several points seemed unrealistic, never mind unlikely.
A little over 27 months ago, the star forward collapsed on the court while playing for Florida.
On Saturday, he hopes to lead third-seeded Kansas State to the Final Four out of the NCAA Tournament’s East Region.
“I can’t be blessed enough to be here, so just trying to enjoy life, enjoy the moment,” the Norfolk, Va., native said on Friday. “You’re only in college for so long. So everybody that comes back to K-State or previously at Florida always told me, enjoy college life here because it’s going to be gone.
“Basketball was almost taken away from me, so I go out there to have fun and show my teammates the love and joy that I have for them.”
On Dec. 12, 2020, while playing for the Gators against Florida State, Johnson collapsed on the court and was rushed to a nearby hospital.
He was placed in a medically induced coma for three days and was initially diagnosed with acute myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle.
It was later revealed to be “athlete’s heart,” an increase in cardiac mass due to intense training.
The 6-foot-6 Johnson was an honorary assistant coach for Florida last year — he was known as “Coach Key” — and because school doctors wouldn’t clear him medically, he entered the transfer portal.
Two other doctors cleared him, giving Johnson confidence he wasn’t putting himself at risk, and he transferred to Kansas State.
“I don’t really think about it,” Kansas State’s leading scorer (17.7) and rebounder (6.9) said. “I just go out there and play.”
Initially, he did think about it.
But as he pushed himself through offseason workouts with his new team, it began to fade.
By the fall, his focus was on helping Kansas State on the floor.
“I had a goal for myself coming into the basketball season, I wanted to take advantage of it. And my goal was to try to change the program,” Johnson said of Kansas State, which was picked to finish last in the Big 12 under first-year coach Jerome Tang. “I was preseason Player of the Year in the SEC, so I just wanted to transfer my talents to the Big 12, what they call the pro league.”
His collapse sidetracked Johnson’s career by sidelining him for more than two years.
But there was a positive to come out of it.
He frequently receives messages from others who are dealing with — or have dealt with — similar heart problems, giving them hope to make their own comeback.
“A lot of people hit me up just saying I am inspiring them,” Johnson said. “They motivate me and I’m motivating other people, and I feel like that’s just driving me to keep going.”