OXFORD — Tysheem Johnson didn’t know just how similar he and Isheem Young were. Sure, they’re both from Philadelphia, but it’s not exactly a small city. And yes, their first names happen to rhyme. But as more and more details of their lives came to the forefront of their ever more frequent conversations, it became a little eerie just how much they had in common.
Johnson, a sophomore safety at Ole Miss, and Young, a junior safety transfer from Iowa State in his first season with the Rebels, both hail from the City of Brotherly Love. There are three years between the two, and several miles of real estate between where each grew up — Johnson is from the north side of the city, while Young is a proud representative of the south side, putting a good 20 minutes or so between them.
In the words of his head coach at Imhotep Institute Charter High School, Albie Crosby, Young was the “King of Philadelphia.” His reputation preceded him — the hard-hitting safety would “decapitate you,” Crosby said. In a city that is often overlooked for football prowess, Young was one of the city’s superstars from a young age, having led his Northwest Raiders Pop Warner team to a national championship. He scored four touchdowns in the Pop Warner Super Bowl.
Johnson, meanwhile, played high school football at Neumann Goretti. His high school coach, coincidentally, was also Crosby, who left Imhotep after the 2015 season. Johnson, too, won a Pop Warner national championship, his with the North Philly Blackhawks.
“A lot of people would look and people would always try to compare which ‘Sheem’ was better, whatever the case may be,” Crosby said. “So, I think that’s how they got to know who the other one was.”
But it goes far deeper than that. They are nearly exactly the same height and weight at 5-foot-9 and 200-ish pounds. They both almost left Philadelphia to play high school football in Florida before opting to stay home. Their mothers’ birthdays are one day apart. At this point, the roommates agree they even have the same gait.
In other words, Young and Johnson have found they have a lot more in common than just being from Philadelphia.
“We relate to each other a lot. Like, sometimes we (are) thinking the same thing. Sometimes we even say the same thing,” Young said. “I think one time we wore the same thing one day by accident, and (teammates) didn’t know which one was which from behind us, because we both walk the same.”
‘The King of Philadelphia’
Philadelphia is known more for producing basketball players and boxers — Johnson even notes he has a cousin currently boxing. But Young and Johnson both became football prodigies at young ages whose reputations preceded them.
Though he is from south Philadelphia, Young played Pop Warner in the northern part of the city. Because he had roots all over, he was well-known in every possible circle. He backed it up with his prowess, earning his first college scholarship offer before ever playing a down of high school football.
“Isheem has always had a lot of hoopla. He’s literally like, the prince or the king of Philadelphia,” Crosby said. “People know him.”
Crosby fondly recalls the Pennsylvania Class 3A 2015 state championship at Imhotep. The opposing team attempted an onside kick to open the game. Young was on the kickoff return team and had absolutely no intention of recovering the bouncing ball — his teammates could handle that.
No, Young had one goal in mind: to obliterate the unfortunate young man across from him. He knocked that player out of the game, setting the tone for a 40-3 win. Imhotep finished a perfect 15-0 and was ranked among the top teams in the country. In addition to being a star safety, Young dabbled on offense, too, scoring 17 rushing touchdowns as a senior on better than 10 yards per carry.
“He was one of the best kids in the city, from when he was playing Little League all the way up to high school,” Johnson said. “I always knew and heard about him.”
Crosby built relations with a number of transcendent players in his career — Carolina Panthers star receiver D.J. Moore played for him at Imhotep, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons was on one of his seven-on-seven teams, and Crosby spoke at the funeral of former NFL quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
But the longtime coach can’t help but remember that hit from nearly seven years ago. That was Young — seek and destroy. A human missile.
“I don’t think you can teach that. I think that’s just something that has to be in you,” Young said. “I think you have to have heart to really come like how I come.”
‘Little Sheem’ no more
Johnson came to Neumann Goretti as an offensive and defensive star from his Pop Warner days. But, given the fact Crosby had a pair of Division I running backs already in tow, Johnson only played defensive back as a freshman in 2017 — which, coincidentally, was Crosby’s first year at the school. Johnson intercepted 10 passes that season.
He started playing offense again later in his career and, in a single game his junior year, scored six touchdowns in six different ways — one rushing, one receiving, a punt return, a kick return, a pick-six and a fumble recovery. Crosby refers to him as “Mr. All Everything.”
By the time he was done in high school, Johnson was his own person. He was all-state three times and was named the Player of the Decade at Neumann Goretti.
Johnson never gave too much thought about being compared to Young. He actually thought it was kind of cool, he said. Deep down, there was always a reassurance that, soon enough, people would know his name without needing a point of reference.
“He knew he was going to make a name for himself,” Crosby said. “And he got to a position where people didn’t call him Little Sheem (anymore). They called him Tysheem.”
Toughness and grit
Philadelphia breeds a no-nonsense attitude. If you’re from the city, everyone knows you’re going to be tough and often underestimated, Johnson said. It can be a hard city to grow up in.
“What I always tell people is, our kids don’t play out of motivation. Our kids play out of desperation,” Crosby said. “… It’s a situation where we don’t see too many palm trees. We are literally in a concrete jungle.
“… It’s a great place, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great place. But it’s a tough place.”
As of the 2020 census, Philadelphia is a city of just more than 1.6 million people. A total of 361 homicides have already taken place within the city this year as of Aug. 28, according to the Philadelphia Police Department; there were a total of 562 homicides the previous year.
In 2021, there were a total of 15,013 violent crimes and 53,325 property crimes committed in Philadelphia, according to the police department. And, according to 2019 data compiled from CBS News, Philadelphia had the 16th-highest murder rate in the U.S. among major cities at 22.47 per 100,000 people.
The estimated poverty rate in Philadelphia is 23.1 percent, according to the census; the national average is 11.4 percent.
Both Young and Johnson were determined to find something better.
“I knew I could use (football) to be something in life, like, to go to the NFL. And I like being different … I like being the different one out of the community,” Johnson said. “I want to be the one to make it out and the one who didn’t just follow everybody around the path.
“That’s what always just kept me going.”
Young had his own incident that proved pivotal in his life.
He was arrested in 2017 for robbery of a convenience store, according to NBC Philadelphia. Penn Live reported that Young agreed to plead guilty to counts of robbery, conspiracy and possession of an instrument of crime. He was tried as a juvenile after initially being charged as an adult. A Penn State commit at the time, Young had his scholarship pulled. He reclassified to the class of 2019, the Des Moines Register said.
From that moment, Young was determined to never let anything get in the way of his end game again.
“Once I got that second chance, it was nothing but to go up. Now I have that second chance to get my mom out the hood and really work from there,” Young said. “… I knew I had that second chance and I wasn’t going to fall off ever again.”
‘Clarity is power’
While Chris Partridge isn’t from Philadelphia, he has a lot of the same grit.
Ole Miss’ co-defensive coordinator is from New Jersey, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Philadelphia. Partridge has well-planted roots in the northeast — in addition to being the former head coach at Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, Partridge served as the secondary coach at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College in 2005.
He sees no point in sugarcoating.
“Clarity is power. I just think, you give these guys clarity, and you show them the good and the bad, just like when you were being raised,” Partridge explained. “… I think we’ve established a program that constantly is talking about life and football, and constantly telling them what’s real out there. Because, when we get these guys, they’re young men, right? They’re not grown men. They haven’t seen it all.
“… I think I’ve preached that constantly with everyone around: be clear, be concise. Give them a plan, give them a personal plan, give them a defensive plan, give them a position plan. Be all in on making them understand what the mission is.”
Crosby has seen plenty of college coaches tell players what they want to hear. The first thing he requests when scouts are watching is rather simple — don’t pretend to be something you aren’t. If you coach in a strict manner, recruit them that way. If you recruit as a father figure, be there for them all hours of the day like you promised, Crosby said.
Partridge and Crosby have a relationship that goes back from when the former was an assistant at Michigan. Partridge has been, and will always be, apologetically himself. As Johnson said, he “felt like CP was one of us” from the first moment they spoke.
“Partridge is a North Jersey guy. We laugh and joke, but right now I’m not looking for no more 20-year-old friends. I’m not going to tell them something that’s going to just make them happy for that moment, then I have to double back,” Crosby said. “… (Partridge) is who he is. … And I think that’s what they appreciate.”
Johnson went straight from high school to Oxford as a four-star recruit in the class of 2021, choosing the Rebels over Arizona State and Maryland. Ole Miss was exactly what he needed in order to “lock in.” No distractions, nothing to get lost in.
Young eventually committed to West Virginia. After the assistant coach that recruited him left for Iowa State, Young followed and signed. He was named the 2020 Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year after amassing 50 tackles, three forced fumbles and an interception for the Cyclones.
Iowa State was a good fit for Young, he said, because it accentuated his strengths as an in-the-box safety. But with professional aspirations, Young said he needed a defense that would allow him to play more coverage.
He had been on the phone during the 2021 season with Johnson, telling him it was likely he’d be leaving. Once it was official, Johnson sold Young, and Partridge was a large part of that conversation.
The two had worked out previously in Philadelphia in addition to having known about each other forever. Their relationship took off when Young hit the transfer portal.
“I feel like I’m blessed to have someone like that. I know when I’m down and I needed to really have somebody to talk to and who could feel for me, I know I can really talk to him,” Johnson said of Young. “We come from the same (situation), so he’s going to understand me.”
Yin and yang
When you get one Sheem, you are almost assured of getting the other, too. The roommates are a package deal at this point.
“We have to check in for breakfast every morning. When one of us walks in, we just check both our names,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Isheem’s here? Tysheem’s here, too.’”
Young and Johnson might always be together, but they have very different personalities, according to Crosby: Young is someone who thrives in the limelight, while Johnson is someone who keeps his circle smaller. Young admits that he can be a little hot-headed (he’s working on it, he notes). Johnson, meanwhile, is the calm one. He is never rattled, never flustered.
Think of them as a two-on-two basketball tandem — which isn’t a stretch, given they team up from time to time. When they play, Young is the driver, the ballhandling wizard who finishes at the rim. Johnson is the sharpshooter, patiently waiting for his chance to rip the opposition’s heart out. They are a perfect yin and yang, complementary pieces that make a whole.
Come Sept. 3 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium against Troy, Crosby, Young and Johnson admit it’s going to all be a tad surreal. It will be the first time Big Sheem and Little Sheem have ever played in a game together.
It’s been a long time coming.