121 is 11 squared. And this week in Florida athletics is going to be mostly about its two most prominent No. 11s: Keyontae Johnson, and to a far lesser degree Kyle Trask.
With respect to Trask, he’s far in the background of the picture for now.
Johnson’s status is, I believe, the biggest story in not just Florida athletics but sports period at this moment in time — and while any prominent athlete who collapsed out of nowhere and remained hospitalized with no updates on his condition being issued, Johnson is a collegiate athlete who reportedly had COVID-19 this summer.
The collegiate portion of that matters a bit to most and a lot to a few. By virtue of his existence in a pseudo-professional system and not a true professional one, Johnson will be a deeply sympathetic figure to most — and, to some, a victim of a coercive scheme that left him more vulnerable and less empowered than professional athletes no matter how good he has it as a Florida Gator. And there’s truth to both viewpoints.
But Johnson’s status as a human being recovering from COVID-19 and suffering a medical emergency while playing high-level sports makes him unique.
There is, to be crystal clear, no obvious link between COVID-19 and whatever has befallen Johnson. And I believe is a touch irresponsible to invoke the specter of COVID-19 — even given its known potential for causing myocarditis and the subsequent potential for myocarditis to lead to sudden cardiac arrest, sometimes in young athletes — without stressing that Johnson would have had to go through significant testing administered by Florida after such an infection, and that said testing would very likely have discovered any myocarditis in Johnson at that time.
And to editorialize a bit, I feel strongly that there is a zero percent chance that Florida’s men’s basketball medical staff and decision-makers would have allowed Johnson to practice, much less compete in games this fall, if he were suffering from known myocarditis. Florida’s head trainer for men’s basketball, Dave “Duke” Werner, has a stellar reputation — he’s been in that current job for 16 years, and now carries the title Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Health — and has been exceedingly conservative with bringing players back from concussions in recent years.
Florida is also rare among programs in major college sports in having medical facilities on the level of the UF Health hospital system at its disposal; if Johnson’s condition — or that of any Gator who has tested for COVID-19 — required the gold standard for post-infection cardiac screening, the program was better-equipped to provide it quickly than the vast majority of colleges.
If there is an insinuation being made that Florida erred in its pre-collapse stewardship of Johnson in some way, I can’t agree with it, and feel that is the sort of extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary proof to make, rather than asking an audience to presume that two and two are present and equal four.
But there exists the dark and tragic possibility that Florida provided exemplary, best-in-class care to Johnson, a healthy athlete who contracted a novel virus that has produced bewildering and debilitating effects, and that he appeared to make a full recovery — only for something related to that virus to contribute to or even trigger a medical episode that has thrown his very life into question.
That would be the most dramatic worst-case scenario, of course, but if COVID-19 is to blame for whatever has happened to Keyontae Johnson, it is likely to throw the entire enterprise of sports back into flux. Thousands of American athletes have now suffered from COVID-19, including hundreds of prominent players in professional leagues and revenue-driving college sports; suddenly discovering via truly tragic means that COVID-19 might increase the chances of collapsing out of nowhere even in the absence of symptoms that medical professionals are looking for would be a shock to the system that could conceivably shut it down.
And the fact that Johnson’s collapse came against Florida State reminded me of the tragedy that has me especially worried about the web of possibilities for COVID-19 survivors: Former Florida State center Michael Ojo’s death this summer.
Ojo, who had gone on to a professional basketball career in Europe after his Tallahassee days, died of an apparent heart attack after training in August. Initially, this was reported as Ojo dying after an suggested recovery from coronavirus — but it would later be reported that Ojo had returned to training against medical advice after being diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs in July, and told a doctor that he was tiring quickly.
Johnson is very unlikely to have returned to training before he was fully cleared to do so, and equally unlikely to have been permitted to continue in a workout or a practice if he struggled. If Ojo was recovering, Johnson is probably better categorized as recovered.
(Ojo’s extreme height — he was listed at 7’1” — may have also increased his risk of heart issues, as height has been linked to increased chances of cardiac problems. But Johnson is listed at 6’5”, taller than most anyone found anywhere but a basketball court.)
And yet Johnson in a hospital, in critical but stable condition, with the world worried not if he’ll ever soar for an alley-oop but if he’ll survive this crisis. And the bottom line with this wicked virus is that we still don’t know everything we want to know about it, especially when it comes to long-term effects.
What we do know is that what we can do at this moment is think good thoughts and pray for Keyontae Johnson to recover fully and swiftly.
I ask you to join me in doing so, and I ask this from a Weekly Open Thread in hopes that anyone who drops by this week will see it.