September 23, 2020

Tyrese Johnson-Fisher: How rugby lost its first viral wonderkid

Tyrese Johnson-Fisher
Tyrese Johnson-Fisher was a promising teenage track athlete and footballer as well as a rugby sensation

Tyrese Johnson-Fisher felt queasy.

The 15-year-old was due to perform in a stage adaptation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales in the evening. He took a nap. When he woke, the sickness – whether theatrical butterflies or upset stomach – was gone.

Instead, something else had gone viral.

“Someone had sent me a message saying, have you seen this?” Johnson-Fisher, now 20, tells BBC Sport.

“For the next 30 minutes my whole Facebook timeline was blowing up with people from all different walks of life, saying ‘congratulations’ and I was still confused.

“Then finally I watched the video and I was like ‘OK’.”

It seems pretty much everyone got round to watching it in the end.

England Rugby’s YouTube channel has published more than 2,500 videos over the past decade.

They include highlights of England’s epic Rugby World Cup win over New Zealand last autumn, Jonny Wilkinson’s famous drop-goal in 2003, all manner of behind-the-scenes material and high-end production.

Click through to view the viral video that made Johnson-Fisher famous.

None has even half the 2.9m views that their showreel external-linkof a teenage Johnson-Fisher’s performance back in March 2015.

A little over a minute long, the videoexternal-link shows centre Johnson-Fisher scoring four tries in Oakham’s win over Bishop Wordsworth’s School in a semi-final of a national schools tournament, culminating in an extraordinary 80m score as defenders are left tackling nothing but his vapour trail.

Football had had its viral wonderkids, but Johnson-Fisher was rugby’s first.

Part of the fascination was his potential, not just as an individual, but an idea.

Brought up in Croydon, south London, football was his first love. Two Premier League clubs would try to convince him to leave Oakham to join their academies.

Eight months before his viral performance on the rugby pitch, he had won his age-grade English Schools 100m title, running 10.91 seconds aged just 14.

If he could be convinced that rugby, rather than football or athletics, was the best route for his talent, what could he become? Could more similarly multi-talented prodigies, normally outside rugby’s relatively narrow orbit, be convinced to follow in his wake?

For the teenager at the centre of it all, there were more immediate concerns though.

“I remember opening inboxes and I would get a lot of really nice messages, but I would also have people telling me that I would never be good enough, that I was only this and only that and it really did affect my mental health,” he said.

“I was trying so hard to be a great athlete. I didn’t ask to go viral. To have so much backlash was difficult to handle.”

Tyrese Johnson-Fisher
Johnson-Fisher scored another three tries as his Oakham school team were beaten in the Twickenham final, following his viral semi-final performance

The trash talk was on the pitch, as well as online. Even the best teenage rugby players usually find their reputation extends only as far their own club or school circuit.

Johnson-Fisher’s, fuelled by blizzard of clicks and social media posts, was of altogether greater magnitude.

“On the field, people would try to rough me up to see if I would break mentally,” he adds.

“There were comments after tackles and people really did target me.”

The spotlight was focused on Johnson-Fisher, but he wasn’t focused solely on rugby.

Although he was part of the Leicester Tigers academy system, his sports scholarship meant he was never a specialist.

“Because I would always do athletics, I never really had the off-season to focus on my skills,” he said.

“I was always juggling, always dipping in and out of different sports.

“And because rugby was not a sport that I was exposed to as young as many of my team-mates, perhaps I did not love it as much as they did. I was always really an athlete who was playing rugby.”

His viral video brought even more distractions.

As it spread globally, it caught the attention of prep schools in the United States, a couple of which wanted to take him across the Atlantic to play American football.

Johnson-Fisher turned down those offers, but, inspired by promising track athlete turned NFL running back Adrian Peterson, accepted an invitation to become the first non-American to appear in the All-America game in Orlando, where the best high-school prospects attempt to impress college scouts.

He duly won a football scholarship to Coastal Carolina University, but there was still time for a final fling with rugby.

In August last year he signed a year’s contract to come back to England with Premiership side Bristol Bears. He did not make a single appearance of significance and left after only six months.

Tyrese Johnson-Fisher
Johnson-Fisher’s sole Bristol appearance came as a 66th-minute replacement in the low-profile Premiership Rugby Cup in October

“Literally every aspect of my game was nowhere near good enough,” he reflects.

“My pass – short, medium and long – the timing of a pass, my hand-off, my high balls, my kicking, my game understanding, I only really ever understood football and athletics, not rugby.

“I had so much to work on and mentally that was very difficult.”

Now, with his 21st birthday coming up in September, he is dedicated to American football, playing for a junior college in Kansas and hoping to climb the long ladder to the NFL.

His chance to make it with rugby is now surely gone. But, equally, so is rugby’s chance to make something of a captivating 15-year-old who runs on and on forever online.