FORT WORTH, Texas -- When the moment came to talk to his cousin for the very first time, Tejay Johnson lifted his hands and let the words spill out.
His cousin looked incredulous. Nobody in her family had ever done this for her. Nobody had ever learned how to sign.
Perhaps skeptical of her little cousin, she demanded he say "cat."
Say "dog," she signed.
The TCU starting free safety had just started learning sign language as part of his major, habilitation of the deaf and hard of hearing, so his sentences were a bit choppy. But it was an extraordinary day last February at their grandmother's house, especially for Johnson.
His decision to help those who cannot hear came from many years of watching his cousin sign with her friends while struggling to communicate with her family.
"I'm so proud of him," LaQueena Johnson said through an interpreter. "It makes me feel so good that Tejay is trying to communicate with me. He isn't shy about using sign."
Johnson isn't shy about much of anything, really. On the field, he is the vocal leader of the secondary. Having started the last 25 games, he is the most experienced player in the defensive backfield going into the opener Saturday against Oregon State. His job is to communicate with the other players, making sure they have the right reads and are positioned correctly on the field.
Coach Gary Patterson is relying on Johnson to lead the defense this season. "He's one of those guys that don't come along very often," Patterson said. "He's always worried about somebody else."
That is the way it has been for most of his life. As the oldest child of 11, Johnson took charge from an early age. His mother was in and out of their lives, dealing with personal struggles. At the time, there were five Johnson siblings, and they shuffled from one family member to the next in his hometown of Garland, Texas.
In middle school, he went to live with his grandmother, who helped provide more of a structure. But even then, Johnson had to protect and provide for his younger siblings. With so many distractions and nary a role model, it is a wonder Johnson embraced the responsibility with a vigor others could never muster.
His high school coach, Mickey Moss, remembers that dedication to his family vividly. There were times Moss would buy Johnson a burger and fries, and the youngster ended up saving half his meal to give to his brother. Another summer, Johnson earned $800 for helping paint a house. He told Moss he was saving $500 to buy his siblings clothes for school.
"He always put other people above himself. How do you not love a kid like that?" Moss asks.
Johnson credits a spiritual faith for allowing him to make the right decisions. Rather than looking at his situation as a negative, he tried to figure out how he could help others, so they would not experience what he had.
"I tell people now my outlook on life is a lot different than other people," Johnson said. "My mind is so open. Just growing up I always had this view that everything would be all right, like someone is watching over me."
When he got to TCU, Johnson decided on a social work major. It was through one of his first professors, Linda Moore, that he realized habilitation of the deaf was a major at the school. He thought back to his cousin LaQueena, who was born with profound hearing loss. With five children to take care of, her mother never had the time to learn how to sign. When she tried, it was simply too overwhelming.
So LaQueena communicated with a few words, but mostly a notepad and pen. She felt incredibly alone.
It was with her friends that she would always come alive, her arms and facial expressions transforming her into a different person. Tejay always wondered what she was saying.
As a senior in high school, Tejay tried to teach himself to sign. He bought a book and learned the words to songs and would sign them. But he never quite mastered it. When he switched his major at TCU, he began learning sign English as a sophomore. He is just now learning ASL, American Sign Language.
His major is more than just learning sign language. He must learn about the science of hearing, do internships and lab work and visit agencies, all in the hopes of having a career as an interpreter.
"You don't go into habilitation of the deaf as a blow-off major," Moore said. "You can't because there are so many requirements and so many ways you have to perform in the classroom and the lab.
"Tejay just has such a passion for it. He always has this big grin on his face, and even though he is always so busy, he never seems pressured. He brings a very different picture of what football players really are to the campus."
Johnson also volunteers for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and sings in the gospel choir on campus. He has been selected one of 30 finalists for the Lowe's Senior CLASS award, which honors student-athletes for being positive leaders in the community.
For Johnson, it all goes back to helping his family. He now has a strong relationship with his mother, whom he talks to every day. He has a stronger relationship with his cousin, whom he texts every day.
When he was home for his grandmother's birthday this summer, he was so much better at signing, he had a full conversation with his cousin. As all the gathered cousins got up to say a few words about their grandmother, Johnson was able to serve as an interpreter for LaQueena for the first time. Two of Johnson's siblings are learning how to sign in high school.
"It's really rewarding," Johnson said. "My childhood was really shaky. I never really had a role model growing up. When I help other people, it just feels really good to know I'm making a difference in somebody's life and being a role model to somebody who was in the same position I was in. I get a good feeling when I help them out."
Just as good as the feeling he gets every time he communicates with his cousin.
Andrea Adelson is a national college football blogger for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.