LEXINGTON, KY. – While his teammates quietly collected their Raising Cane’s meals as they quickly made their way to the Ball State team bus, Caden Johnson stood off to the side in a pile of gravel and rock.
Despite the Cardinals’ 30-point loss to Kentucky, the redshirt freshman couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
Johnson, a Lexington native, thought back to fifth grade when he and his teammates woke up before school to run hills at Masterson Station Park. Once they made it to Frederick Douglass High School, that same group of friends woke up early to lift weights together before class.
“We used to dream of stuff like this,” Johnson said.
Not only did Johnson have the opportunity to play against his hometown university, but he did so alongside fellow Frederick Douglass alumnus, freshman running back TJ Horton. What Johnson said meant even more to him was playing against some of those same friends he ran hills with back in fifth grade: Kentucky sophomore wide receivers Dane Key and Dekel Crowdus, freshman defensive back Ty Bryant and sophomore offensive lineman Jager Burton.
Before this group of Frederick Douglass alumni reached this stage, they told each other, ‘This is what we have to do to make it.’
Those on the field weren’t the only ones in Lexington with a connection to Johnson. His mother, Alisha, and his father, R.J., led a pack of family and loved ones decked out in red, white and black to support Caden.
Ironically, Alisha and Caden’s older brother both call Kentucky their alma mater.
“People are like, ‘Do you feel like you’re being a traitor?’ I say, ‘Absolutely not,’” Alisha said. “I cheer for my son, that’s always who I’m rooting for.”
The shine from the big ring on R.J.’s hand matched his shining smile in agreement.
“We’ve been wearing it for a year,” R.J. said. “It looks good on us.”
The Johnsons said when Caden was being recruited in high school, he was tasked with choosing between 12 programs. After a visit to Ball State, every other university paled in comparison.
Caden always gravitated towards Muncie.
“When he chose Ball State, he said it felt like family,” Alisha said. “It felt like home to him.”
It wasn’t just Caden who fell in love with Ball State’s hometown, but his entire support system too.
“The town embraces the guys,” R.J. said. “We hit a home run picking Muncie.”
Caden’s girlfriend, Kiara Henderson, grew up with Caden in Lexington, but now attends the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. After making multiple five hour drives to visit Caden at Ball State, she said the two-hour drive to their hometown to support her partner felt like nothing.
“I know this is really big for him, so I just wanted to show my support,” Henderson said. “I just wanted to make him feel at home again.”
Caden said although he and Henderson are 304 miles apart, she sends him paragraph texts every day before practice telling him to work hard and keep chasing his dream of playing in the NFL.
“I talk to her a lot about my dreams,” Caden said. “She makes it easy for me to believe. She’s really my backbone.”
While Caden called both Henderson and Alisha his “MVPs”, he laughed and admitted Alisha has always been his number one fan.
“I couldn’t really ask for anything better,” Caden said. “That’s the best mom in the world, and she does everything for me.”
While Henderson was showing her support for Caden, Sydney Eaves, who is a current student at Kentucky, was showing her support for Henderson. Although Eaves said she felt out of place, she even donned a Ball State t-shirt to amuse her best friend.
Eaves works night shifts at a local hospital and came to the game running on no sleep to support Henderson and the Johnson family.
While they probably got at least a few hours of sleep the night before, plenty of other Cardinal fans made the trip to Lexington for week one. A group of Ball State and Kentucky alumna, brought together by marriage, tailgated prior to the game. Another family of five, including a young boy who was practically swimming in his Ball State jersey, made the drive to Kentucky as well.
And although Caden amassed just one tackle in his limited action during the Wildcats’ 44-14 beatdown on the Cardinals, he played with the knowledge that he wasn’t just playing for the logo on his helmet. He wasn’t just playing for the name on the back of his uniform.
He was playing for the city that raised him, too.