Moving on up — north: Football stars Nykeim Johnson and Dustin Crum go pro in Canada

Isabella Schreck, Sports Editor

Over five collegiate seasons, Nykeim Johnson played for two teams and totaled 1,675 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.

Now the professional wide receiver competes with the B.C. Lions in Canada, and he couldn’t be happier.

“I am ready to play ball,” Johnson said, two days after starting practice with his new team. “I’m excited to be a professional football player, and I just can’t wait until I get the opportunity to play. I’m really soaking it all in and embracing the moment and trying to be the best player I can be.”

Johnson and quarterback Dustin Crum, two of last season’s offensive threats, signed with the Canadian Football League in September. Its season started in early June.

Johnson had been on the Lions’ negotiation list since 2020, meaning the team had exclusive rights to the wide receiver if he came to play in Canada. In summer 2022, he came to the Minnesota Vikings mini camp as an undrafted free agent.

Last year at KSU, as a graduate-student transfer from Syracuse, Johnson finished third on his team in receiving yards.

“My greatest assets are my knowledge of the game and my speed,” Johnson said. “I can do everything. I can work the slides and work the outside. I can do whatever the team needs me to do, so I just want to be able to show them that.”

Crum now plays for the Ottawa Redblacks. In April, the quarterback signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs. The program waived him in late August.

In his five seasons at Kent State, Crum is the second player in program history to throw for over 9,000 total offensive yards, earning 9,491. He is the only Flashes QB to throw for over 3,000 career yards — totaling 3,187 passing yards.

Kent State coach Sean Lewis said his former leaders add value to their new teams.

“[Crum] holds the process of winning in high regard, and Nykeim does the same,” Lewis said. “It’s just great that those guys have a burning desire to continue to play football and that they have the opportunity to find a spot where they get to do that.”

In Canada, 12 players compete on a field 110-yards long and 65-yards wide. The extra body plays in the backfield. American football consists of 11 players on a 100-yards long and 53.3-yards wide field.

The CFL’s end zone is 20 yards deep – it’s 10 yards in America – with the goal post right behind the goal line.

Johnson said the turf changes work to his benefit.

“It’s an advantage for me because my game is about space,” Johnson said. “I run loose on the field anyway, so you give me more space to do that, to use my speed, it’s just more opportunities.”

This wide receiver dreams of playing in the NFL for eight to ten years. During his taste of this goal with the Vikings and now in his CFL career in Vancouver, Johnson learned a hard truth: everyone’s expendable.

“Your job is not secure unless you make it secure,” he said. “The one day you have a bad day could be the day you’re getting cut. You have to show up everyday. That’s how I live my life, just making sure I’m focusing on every little detail, every day, every second.”

Matthew Middleton, Kent State’s wide receivers coach/offensive recruiting coordinator, and Lewis worked closely with Johnson during his single year with the Flashes. In his post-collegiate play, the wideout found that mantras from last season became even more applicable.

“Coach Lewis always says ‘you don’t know what you don’t know,’” Johnson said. “Being a professional athlete, if you don’t know something you better ask the question because if you don’t, then you’re just not going to know. And you want to know as much as you can. You have to know everything – the ins and outs of the game, the rules, any little thing that you can use to your advantage.”

After his team’s first win of the season Sept. 17 against Long Island, Lewis repeated another piece of advice for his new pros: “work works.”

“It’s simple, it’s not easy, but work works,” Lewis said. “At the end of the day, what they’re after and what they’re looking for to continue to extend their ability to play and to get another pro contract after their rookie deal – there are no shortcuts. You have to put in the work to do that.”

Johnson echoed that sentiment.

“Being prepared is the name of the game,” Johnson said. “I’m already a guy that likes to be on the top of his game, so I’m always preparing.”

Former KSU wide receiver Keshunn Abram signed with the New York Jets in May but was waived in August. He ranked second in receiving yards at Kent State last year.

Jamal Parker, the third player Lewis’ program has sent to the CFL, signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in May. He played for the Flashes from 2016 to 2019 and has earned 16 tackles this season.

No graduates since 2018 currently play in the NFL.

Lewis, whose team has gone 20-26 in his five seasons as head coach, said alumni success is a testament to his program’s goal of preparing players for after Kent State.

“My passion is to help our young men grow,” Lewis said. “Every single kid that’s come through our program, that’s earned a degree from Kent State has gone ‘pro’ in something, whether that be pro football, whether that be a job, whether that be graduate school.”

“And I’m more proud of that than any home winning streak because this game will end at some point in time, but those lessons are going to help them be better people in this world.”

Isabella Schreck is sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].