Virginia Tech LB Matt Johnson is Striving To Be Exceptional at Everything He Does

In striving to be intentional and exceptional, fifth-year Virginia Tech Hokies linebacker Matt Johnson has become inspirational in Blacksburg.

For a walk-on linebacker who has missed two seasons with injuries, it might seem like a bold expectation. Yet, you better believe Virginia Tech linebacker Matt Johnson when he says he’s striving to be exceptional in everything that he does.

He hasn’t had the opportunity to show it on the football field so far, but his contribution to the community is the epitome of excellence.

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Virginia Tech LB Matt Johnson is Striving to be Exceptional at Everything

“Completely represent myself, and the people that I represent who have supported me,” Johnson explains his goals for the 2023 college football season during an exclusive interview with College Football Network. “Represent them completely to the best of my God given ability. Just to be exceptional. Keep striving. Let everything that I do be intentional and exceptional.”

While his journey to exceptional on the football field has been hindered by injury, his pursuit of personal excellence while at Virginia Tech is there for all to see. Johnson is the program’s nomination for the 32nd Allstate AFCA Good Works team and begins his fifth year in Blacksburg on the watchlist for the 2023 Wuerffel Trophy, both awards that honor off-field excellence.

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It’s a mark of the man that he’s become while with the program, that while calling the national recognition an “honor” and a “blessing,” he’s adamant that everything he does within the program, within the Blacksburg community, is not for him, but to be the best version of himself and represent others to the best of his ability. He’s certainly succeeded in doing the latter.

“I have never met someone that truly embodies Virginia Tech like Matt does,” Virginia Tech’s Director of Player Engagement Carrie Lynne Wolford tells me about Johnson’s contribution to off-field initiatives. “He is always wanting to give back and participate in everything. He’s always involved, he’s always giving back to somebody else, and that’s refreshing in today’s society.”

The Origins of Exceptional

The youngest son of Vicki Proctor and Michael Johnson Sr., the Virginia Tech linebacker is a local kid whose hometown of Richmond, VA, is a little over 200 miles from the Blacksburg community that he now calls home.

According to welfareinfo.org, the poverty rate in his hometown is 94.12% higher than the Virginia average. For Johnson, this exposure to the harsh realities of life at a young age helped form his drive to be active in giving back to the local community once he reached the platform of being a college football player.

“I think about my childhood and some struggles that we had growing up financially,” Johnson explains. “Understanding, with the struggles that I had and how hard they were for me, what someone could be going through who had less, and had less opportunity and doesn’t have football to help pull them through.”

“I think about other people and how much they might be struggling too. When you see struggle in somebody else, you can kind of relate because of the struggles that you had.”

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Despite the difficulties of his upbringing, Johnson began his quest to be exceptional at everything he did at a young age. While shining on the football field at Deep Run High School as a two-way player with all-conference accolades, his work to better himself and positively impact others around him began when he received the Martin Luther King Jr. Light of Hope Award.

Johnson arrived in Blacksburg in 2019 as a walk-on, redshirting after seeing action against Furman. A knee injury combined with the global pandemic of 2020 forced the Virginia Tech linebacker to consider what lies outside the game he’s played from a young age. It proved a catalyst for the community endeavors that he’s now being recognized nationally for.

“That kind of started maybe COVID, around that sort of time,” Johnson says of his community work at Virginia Tech. “I really couldn’t be involved in football as much as I wanted to. That helped me to get my mind into a different place, to think about things other than football.”

“Not to forget about football, obviously. But to remember that I’m a person too, and not just an athlete, and try to think about things I’m good at outside of football, and things that I liked to help me when I was away from football.”

Planting Progress and Changing Perspective

The answer was to throw himself into community initiatives, combining the positive elements of his upbringing with the struggles and battles of living below the poverty line in Richmond. Johnson has helped with many projects in various arenas, such as juvenile detention centers and food kitchens, all while striving to help others in any way that he can.

Johnson’s pursuit of excellence in both the community and academics combined with the formulation of “Planting Progress” — a non-profit organization that started out as a class project with multiple other Virginia Tech students but has grown into something much bigger, tackling issues close to his heart.

“It’s designed at helping combat food and health inequities in the Southwestern region of Virginia. We go into schools throughout the area, and we educate them on the importance of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle options. Then, we implement a community garden in their school. We try and partner with them long term so that we’re leaving a lasting impact there.”

“We started it in entrepreneurship class. Our project was on the topic of food and health inequities, and we created something that at first we thought was a model but it turned into something real, and has actualized into something that is actually helping people. My childhood experiences definitely flowed into into the motivations for starting that.”

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In addition to helping the community, “Planting Progress” enabled Johnson to tap into an element of creativity that flows through his veins.

He might be a football player, with the platform that allows, but the Virginia Tech linebacker is also a creative with a passion for writing that has afforded him further opportunities outside of football.

In the fall of 2022, he was named the winner of the James Kennedy Law One Tough Student Scholarship. His winning essay, discussing inventive ways to combat drunk driving, earned him a $1000 prize, helping contribute towards “a more comfortable living” during his time at Virginia Tech. His love and talent for writing have opened other doors during his time with the Hokies.

“I spoke about how injury forced me to change my perspective,” Johnson explains. “I was able to join a marketing agency here at Virginia Tech that works with real companies and real clients and I Colley Copy for them in my down time. It’s always been a passion of mine, writing.”

Becoming Inspirational in Pursuit of Exceptional

Johnson has achieved and contributed more in his pursuit of being exceptional than most will do in a lifetime. Yet, there’s a sense that the Virginia Tech linebacker hasn’t done enough, that how he’s lived his life to this point hasn’t been enough.

On a whiteboard in the Hokies locker room the day before our interview, he’d written two words. “Let go.”

“I think it’s just understanding that I’m a young, black individual in America,” Johnson responds when I ask what those two words mean to him and who he is. “I can’t continue to be the same person that I was, that I’ve always been, if I want to be somebody exceptional, somebody that does amazing things.”

“There’s so much that I want to do, but I can’t continue to be childish or I can’t continue to be unintentional in my actions, I can’t continue to not forgive people or do the things that don’t serve me. I’ve got to keep taking steps forward in my personal development. I have to let go of old perspectives.”

They’re powerful words delivered in a passionate tone, striking me in multiple ways. Here, we have a young man who has battled personal and professional adversity to rise up as a pillar of his community, giving back to those suffering through the same inequities that impacted him as a child growing up in Richmond.

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Johnson strikes me as humble in his quest to be exceptional, almost to the point of not fully understanding how much of an impact he’s already made on those around him.

Talking to Virginia Tech Director of Player Engagement Wolford immediately afterward, it transpires that is exactly who the Virginia Tech linebacker is.

“He is one of those guys that gives 120%, but to him, he’s only giving 40%,” Wofford explains and concurs. “He is always wanting to do more, always trying to find ways that he can be better, that we as a team can be better. He’s truly inspirational.”

While neither his on-field nor off-field journey is anywhere close to complete yet, in his pursuit of being exceptional — whether intentional or not — Johnson has become inspirational.