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Being named a Bison football team captain crowns Kobe Johnson's 'long, hard journey'

NDSU senior running back has gone from quiet, timid freshman to a respected leader

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson celebrates his touchdown run with teammate Christian Watson during the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — It wasn’t that long ago when a young Kobe Johnson, fresh faced and wide eyed, made the long trip from Lawrenceville, Ga., to Fargo to start his football career at North Dakota State. It was out of his comfort zone, and then some.

And look at him now. Not only has Johnson been a regular in the Bison backfield, he’s grown off the field to the point where he was elected one of NDSU’s captains this season. Johnson calls that his No. 1 off-the-field accomplishment in his young life.

“It meant the world to me to hear my name when coach Entz called the captains,” he said, “and I’m just looking forward to making everybody that voted for me proud.”

It was another jolt of motivation for the 5-foot-9, 188-pound senior. He’s gained about 20 pounds since arriving at NDSU with a good dose of big plays over the years.

His 97-yard run against Indiana State last season set the Bison single-game record for longest run from scrimmage. He topped 100 yards twice last season, including a 76-yard touchdown run in the Division I FCS national title game against Montana State, a sprint through the left side of the Bobcat defense that put NDSU up 21-0 in the second quarter and was perhaps the shot MSU could not recover from.

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A difference away from the field, Johnson said, probably came during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being separated from his teammates had him thinking about himself. Moreover, he missed half of the 2021 spring season because of injury.

“COVID really allowed me to understand who I am as a person and a player and things like that,” he said. “And to come back from COVID and figuring things out and to relate who I am to my teammates and my coaches and really express who I am really played a big factor in it.”

Johnson has another year of eligibility after this year because of the pandemic, but is undecided about it. He played as a true freshman in 2019 and was selected to the Missouri Valley Football Conference all-newcomer team, leading NDSU running backs in yards per carry at 7.7.

It’s also when he started to figure out the balancing act of being a college athlete.

“That was part of the reason I chose NDSU because I knew being far from home would give me the best opportunity to really grow as a person,” Johnson said. “Just knowing how to carry yourself as a college athlete and going into Year 4 now it’s been a lot of practicing that, learning what I’m good at and not good at when it comes to those things.”

The other team captains are cornerback Destin Talbert, tight end Noah Gindorff, safety Michael Tutsie, offensive tackle Cody Mauch and defensive end Spencer Waege.

Gindorff, Tutsie, Mauch and Waege are in their sixth year of school. Talbert is a fifth-year senior making Johnson the youngest captain.

“It’s been a long, hard journey to getting to the spot that I am and it’s just a testament to what I’ve been doing on and off the field,” Johnson said. “Also it says a lot about how my teammates feel about me. It makes me feel really good as a person and a player."

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