'I Just Want to Help': Gus Johnson on Attending Harvard And Being a Man For Others

Gus Johnson
Gus Johnson / Courtesy of Fox Sports

Gus Johnson almost didn't go back to school.

After life began to return to something resembling normal following the COVID-19 outbreak, the Fox Sports announcer applied and was accepted to Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative. In fact, he was the first candidate to be unanimously accepted in the fellowship program's history. Beginning in January 2022, Johnson was to take two semesters' worth of classes at Harvard with the goal of becoming a better leader, capable of enacting the change he wants to see in the world. A life-changing experience and an opportunity Johnson never dreamed he'd have.

But it almost didn't happen because Johnson, a larger-than-life figure in the eyes of millions of sports fans, felt a very human emotion.

"I was really afraid," Johnson told The Big Lead. "When I got in, I was so scared I thought, ‘Maybe I should just not go.' I was talking to my girlfriend and she was like 'Come on, man. You’re talking crazy. You can do this.' So then I went. I was nervous, but in the end it all worked out. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’m so happy about it, and so proud."

Johnson's year at Harvard is the subject of Fox Sports' newest documentary, Back To School With Gus Johnson, scheduled to air on February 18. It follows the broadcaster as he attends his fall semester at Harvard and juggles his announcing work for college football at the same time. The audience learns how deeply the quarantine stretch of the pandemic affected Johnson and inspired him to go back to school. Johnson brings us all on a tour of the Harvard campus, greeting his classmates and professors with the grandiose enthusiasm that makes him so good at his day job.

The documentary is more than a chronicling of his time at Harvard, though. It is a reflective piece. It takes viewers on a journey to understand who Johnson is, how he got here, and where he's going. At times, it lays bare his soul.

"I felt a little naked," Johnson said. "I felt exposed. I felt… there’s a word that everybody’s using now: transparency. Sometimes when you go on camera, you aren’t showing who you really are because the game is what’s most important. I’m not trying to make the game about me. I’m going to talk about the game and study the game. I’m trying to tell stories about the game and the players. This time, I was the player. And that felt a little weird.

"What I did like about it, though… The characters in the documentary, my classmates, production crew, my professors, they were really the story to me. It was just so cool letting people into that part of my life. This one-year journey. To see the people I met and the people that helped me grow and learn and become smarter. It was a little uncomfortable, but I think in the end it was worth it."

Courtesy of Fox Sports
Courtesy of Fox Sports /

It may come as a surprise that Johnson was uncomfortable with the spotlight. But the documentary touches upon the ethos that Johnson lives by and explains why he believes so strongly that the best stories are about other people-- being a man for others, as he was taught at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School.

That's what all this is about for Johnson. Harvard's Advanced Leadership Initiative was not just a chance to go back to school, seize the opportunity to learn from the brightest minds academia has to offer, and meet brilliant students from around the world. It gave Johnson the tools he needed to make the biggest impact possible in the communities he cares about the most.

"The program is called the Advanced Leadership Initiative," he said. "Think about that name– Advanced Leadership. They think we’re leaders and we have to go out and lead. The way I want to lead is, I want to help the Black kids.

"Education is the transference of knowledge. If we have Black kids focus on educating themselves then they can conquer the world. They can go to Harvard and it’s not even a big deal, you know? If it’s not Harvard it’s Howard or Morehouse or Michigan or Ohio State, Northwestern or USC or Cal. I think when people receive their education they make the world a better place. We need knowledge to make this world a better place. African-American kids, growing up in the hood, [they're] not really seeing what the opportunities are. Helping them seek that knowledge, that working hard in school can help them become better people and help the world become a better place."

Johnson has a few specific ideas he's working on to lead and be a man for others. One, called the Backpack Initiative, is featured in Back To School. Others, like a stock market project Johnson is designing in order to help raise math and science scores in the Black community, are still in the works. He hopes the documentary will accomplish the same goals as those projects-- inspiring others in the pursuit of making the world a better place.

"I love kids, man," said Johnson. "I love to help young people, people that kind of resemble me a little bit, as they try to get through. Get motivation. To know they can accomplish things and go different places.  I was kind of nervous about [the documentary] but I thought through it and decided, this is a good thing. I’m open to whatever comes my way because I think down the road this can have an impact. Even if I just help one person, it’ll have an impact.

I just want to help, man. I just want to be a leader. I want to make sure I can do something to enrich the lives of other people. I want to continue to be a man for others. If I can do that… I’m in the third quarter of my life. I don’t know how long I got left, but if I can continue to serve, I think the Good Lord will shine his light on me."

Back To School With Gus Johnson will air on Saturday, February 18.