Duke Werner is in his 19th year working with the Florida athletic department, and currently holds the title of “Assistant Atheltic Director for Sports Health.” He is responsible for athletes’ care and injury prevention, and rehabilitation in the Gators basketball program.
No person has a relationship with Duke Werner like Keyontae Johnson does. That’s because Werner helped bring Johnson back to life.
On Dec. 12, 2020, Johnson collapsed about four minutes into Florida’s game at Florida State because of a then-undetected heart condition that the still lives — and plays basketball with — today.
In the minutes after collapsing to the court in Tallahassee, Fla., Johnson was attended to by medical personnel, including a cardiologist who was sitting courtside at the game as a fan. Johnson believes that the lady may be one of the biggest reasons that he’s still breathing. But Weerner might be one of the biggest reasons that Johnson is still playing basketball, and what is life to Keyontae Johnson without basketball?
Before Johnson’s 2020-21 season at Florida, when he was named the preseason SEC Player of the Year, his family signed an insurance policy stating that if Johnson suffered a serious injury that altered his earning potential as a basketball player that he would be able to receive $5 million dollars.
Playing basketball again, though, was worth more than $5 million dollars to Keyontae Johnson. It’s why when Florida’s team doctors refused to clear him to play for the remainder of the 2020-21 season and the 2021-22 season at Florida, they began seeking alternative opinions, including doctors from the NBA Player’s Association and the Mayo Clinic. Both permitted Johnson to play basketball again, despite the heart condition, but he’s required to take the necessary medication.
Kansas State’s athletic department cleared Johnson to play basketball again, too. But before signing necessary documentation, K-State was in routine conversation with Werner about Johnson’s medical history, given that Werner helped monitor Johson’s health following his collapse at Florida State.
“He helped us in the recruiting process,” Kansas State basketball coach Jerome Tang said following Saturday’s game of Werner, “by giving us information and helping us as were helping Keyontae get back.”
Best. Handshake. Line. Ever. @Keyontae @KStateMBB @GatorsMBK pic.twitter.com/oP3kMronwX
— Rich Hollenberg (@RichOnSports) January 29, 2023
And Keyontae has helped get Kansas State basketball back on the map in Tang’s first season leading the program. Kansas State’s win over Florida on Saturday improved the Wildcats’ record to 18-3 on the season, equaling the program’s best start to a season since 1972-73. Johnson is averaging career highs in both points (18.3) and rebounds (7.5) this season for Kansas State, while also making 39 percent of his shots from the 3-point line, the second-highest mark of his career.
Saturday’s game against Florida, though, marked a new milestone for Johnson in his basketball career, even if it was an unintended stop on the way to the NBA — a league he is again being projected to play in following this season. Playing against Florida — and some of his former teammates — came with a lot of emotions for a player who looks back on Dec. 12 every year as his “reborn” day.
“Today was a special day,” he said. “Seeing my old teammates. It was fun out there playing against them. It felt like practice. Just joking around throughout the game, but you got to keep being competitive throughout the game. I felt like it was a great experience.”
Despite not having his best game — Johnson scored 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the field, which included a missed windmill dunk attempt in the second half — he still had a double-double and led the team with 11 rebounds in the Wildcats’ win.
“My emotions were good,” Johnson said. “My parents, my family is here. My old former family (Florida) and I still have my brothers with me (Kansas State), so it’s not a bad day.”
Playing at K-State wasn’t part of Keyontae Johnson’s plan. More specifically, nearly dying on a basketball court wasn’t part of the plan Keyontae Johnson had for his basketball career. Yet, Saturday provided Johnson — and his family — an opportunity to celebrate the rebirth of his, basketball, life.
“It was really cool, Tang said. “As a fan, I wanted to see him have a good game and get the win. I think our team wanted him to get win. We knew it was important to him even though he didn’t make a big deal out of it.”
He did, however, make a deal out of the moment he had with Duke Werner after the game. After all, Werner helped save his basketball career —— and so much more.
“Duke, he’s one of the main people that saved my life on the court,” Johnson said. “Seeing him on the bench, talking to him after the game helped brighten up my day. I don’t think this day could have been better.”