As the Bears' 2010 season opener approached, Baylor filmed and released a series of commercials featuring the "Rise Up" slogan the team adopted for the season. Each commercial featured a single individual (player or coach) explaining how he would "rise up" for the Bears this season.
Senior linebacker Antonio Johnson, a hometown product of Waco High School, was selected as the first player to be featured.
"That was a great honor," Johnson says of his selection. "I got a lot of phone calls that day [when the commercial debuted]. It was really nice of them to pick me, knowing that I have been a leader on this team and that they can show me out in public like that."
Whether it was the commercial or something else, Baylor fans have indeed risen up in strong numbers in 2010. Baylor football posted the program's highest average home attendance (40,043 per game) since 1995, and the total attendance for the year (240, 259) ranks third all-time in the 61-year history of Floyd Casey Stadium.
"To have a lot of support here for the team and for me enjoying my senior year, especially my last homecoming, means a lot," says Johnson, one of 14 local products on BU's roster. "I wanted to come in and help get that Baylor pride back, to become part of the change in Baylor football - to make people look at Baylor differently, as a contender, and to get Baylor back in a bowl."
Now in his third season as a starter for the Bears, Johnson has played a large part in Baylor's progress. He played in 11 games as a defensive end in 2007 as a true freshman when the Bears went 3-9, then moved to linebacker and into a starting role the next season as Baylor won four games in Art Briles' first year at the helm.
Johnson then started all 12 games at linebacker in both 2009 and 2010, and his 34 career starts are more than any other Bear. During his junior season in 2009, Johnson tallied 77 tackles, and ranked 25th in the Big 12 Conference in tackles per game.
Of course, all this very easily could have happened at another school. As a senior, Johnson was rated among the top players in Texas following Waco High's state 4A runner-up finish. He considered Kansas State, but in the end, decided that playing in front of family and friends was too important for him to leave the state.
"I just thought about my family, and they're not big travelers," says Johnson. "I wanted my parents to see me play college ball, and my cousins, my nephew, all that, so I stayed close to home."
All those friends and relatives in the area have provided Johnson (and the Bears) with a nice cheering section at each game, in addition to the other 39,000-plus fans in attendance.
"I just want to thank all our fans for their support, from high school on through college. Thanks for supporting Baylor," he says. "Know that we're gonna do whatever it takes for you, to put Waco on the map and to put Baylor on the map. We appreciate the fans."
After graduating in May, Johnson hopes those fans will continue to be able to watch him as he joins the other 11 Bears in the NFL. After his playing career, however, you're likely to find him right back home, working with kids in one way or another - perhaps helping run a YMCA or something like that, he says.
For now, as long as the Baylor Nation continues to rise up for the Bears in Houston, Antonio Johnson will continue to rise up on the Baylor defense as the Bears look to take down the Fighting Illini on December 29 at the Texas Bowl.