GOLDEN, Colo. — At Ralston Valley, Levi Johnson figured his football career would end with high school graduation.
"I was third string on the freshman team [at RVHS]," said Johnson, who is now the 6-foot-5-inch, 285 lbs. senior starting right tackle at the Colorado School of Mines. "I never thought college football was an option."
As the Orediggers (13-0) barreled through the NCAA Division II playoffs to their third straight national semifinal, Johnson was named the winner of the 2023 Gene Upshaw Lineman of the Year award. He's the first Mines player to ever win the award.
"I think it's more of an award for the [offensive line] and everyone else who's excited we have an Upshaw guy," said Johnson, shifting the spotlight from himself to the team in classic offensive lineman fashion. "I think it really means a lot more to the team as a whole than it does to myself."
Thinking back to his days at Ralston Valley, Johnson remembers one moment as the catalyst to his football success.
"We played Cherry Creek in the playoffs, and I played really well," said Johnson. "All these coaches were there to scout other guys and they were like, "Who are you?""
To truly get to know the best lineman in the country, it's best to ask his coaches and teammates.
“He's definitely a unique personality," said Orediggers head coach Pete Sterbick. "[Johnson] loves his music, he's a big bluegrass fan.”
“He wants to be a ski bum, too," said Orediggers quarterback and Johnson's roommate, John Matocha. "It's pretty impressive. He'll go back-country skiing all day and still get better grades than me.”
The Upshaw Award is as unique as Johnson because it recognizes the best lineman in the country, combining both offensive and defensive players.
"[Defensive linemen] actually have stats," said Johnson. "My stats are: did John [Matocha] play well or did John run into my guy this week? It's really cool to [win the award] over some [defensive linemen]. That definitely makes it way harder."
Wingate defensive end Marquise Fleming was the runner-up in the voting, with Slippery Rock offensive tackle Yuriy Hryckowian third. The Gene Upshaw Award is voted on by the nation's NCAA Division II sports information directors.
Johnson has started 37 consecutive games for Mines, a constant on the offensive line as the Orediggers have won three consecutive Super Region 4 titles and advanced to the 2022 national final. This season, he was a D2CCA First-Team All-SR4 and First-Team All-RMAC selection. The Orediggers' line helped power Mines to the nation's No. 1 scoring offense with 50.5 points per game.
“He’s put the work in over the years, and it's been awesome to see him continue to get better," said Sterbick. "He’s got all the tools in the world, so it’s awesome to see it culminate in [the Upshaw Award].”
If he's not too busy bombing black diamonds, the tools Johnson picked up at Mines may be put to use on Sundays soon.
“Everyone comes and says, "Hey, are you going to play in the NFL?"’" said Johnson. "I'm like, "Nobody's told me anything. I'm just going to practice." It would be definitely cool to think about, but I have no idea really. I guess this award means I have a chance.”
The Orediggers will host Kutztown in the NCAA semifinals Saturday, Dec. 9 at 1:30 p.m.