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Keyontae Johnson inspiring others with comeback after medical scare

MANHATTAN, KS (KSNT) — If there were a Comeback Player for Life award, K-State forward Keyontae Johnson might win it.

“Two years felt like four years,” Johnson said. “A lot of days where you’re down.”

Johnson isn’t playing basketball like someone who took two years off.

“To come out the gate that fast, I don’t think anyone expected that,” K-State head men’s basketball coach Jerome Tang said.

Even his teammates are surprised how quickly Johnson’s improved.

“You would expect to see some type of rust or some type of process to get back to the top,” K-State senior guard Markquis Nowell said. “For him, right away, since he was able to start running and doing contact, he was elite.”

On Dec. 12, 2020, Johnson passed out after a timeout during the Florida/Florida State men’s basketball game.

“It basically was like a freak thing,” Johnson said. “They’re still trying to do tests. They still have my medical stuff, so they’ve still been looking into it and doing a lot of research behind it.”

Luckily, the only injury he had was a busted lip, so there wasn’t much to recover from. However, Johnson had trouble getting doctors’ clearance to return to basketball because of the uncertainty surrounding his collapse. He didn’t get to play the game he loves for almost two whole seasons.

“I knew teams was going to be scared to take the risk with picking me up, so Coach Tang let me know from day one he wasn’t scared,” Johnson said. “He just saw how I could help the program, which made it stand out for me to come here.”

Johnson had no doubt he wanted to play Division I basketball again.

“There was no apprehension on his part or our part,” Tang said. “He wanted to play. There’s this great desire in him. He just loves the game of basketball.”

When he could finally play again, a school with a high-quality medical staff was one of his top priorities when in the transfer portal.

“I had to find the right school that had the perfect medical team,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of schools I wanted to go to, but the medical wasn’t up to date. I just felt like, with Coach Tang, he had a similar situation at Baylor with one of his former players. How they was up-to-date on the doctors, making sure I was going to all the doctors’ appointments. To this day we still do a lot of doctors’ appointments.”

Johnson doesn’t worry about collapsing again, but his coaches and teammates make sure they’re taking care of him anyway.

“We’re so grateful that Mom and Dad had a peace about our staff,” Tang said. “That includes Luke and Phil, and Dr. Wahl, everything that we had in place to help Keyontae and to monitor everything.”

Through it all, his goal stayed the same: to play in the NBA. That resilience is inspiring this generation and the next one.

“For me, it’s just a blessing to see how many kids still enjoy watching me play,” Johnson said. “I could’ve given up. I feel like that could’ve changed a lot of people’s lifestyle, just seeing me give up and they feel like it would’ve been the right way to give up.”

Johnson has quickly become a Manhattan celebrity, but his reach is impacting the nation.

“He’s like a rockstar here,” Nowell said. “He’s giving high fives. He’s shaking kids’ hands. He’s talking to them and being very transparent with them. That’s why they love him so much.”

Johnson is averaging 18.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as K-State basketball embraces his contributions to an electric start. The Wildcats are 15-2 overall and 4-1 in Big 12 play. K-State will host KU for the first of two ‘Sunflower Showdown’ matchups of the season on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

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