Boy who lost family in Athens house fire bonds with UGA football players

ATHENS, Ga. — One of Georgia football’s biggest fans will be at the College Football Playoff championship Monday night to cheer on the Bulldogs against Alabama.

For Taeden Johnson, his connection to Georgia football is more than what happens on the field.

In the early hours of Jan. 27, 2021, Taeden woke up to smoke and fire filling his family’s Athens trailer.

“When I went out of my room the whole left side of the house was on fire,” he said. “I ran to where my mama room at and tried knocking on the door to get her up.”

Taeden escaped and ran to his neighbors for help for his mother Penyade, grandmother Penny and 9-year-old sister Mariah. Neighbors had to hold Taeden back.

“They wouldn’t let me go back in there,” he told Channel 2′s Steve Gehlbach.

“But you tried?” Gehlbach asked.

“Multiple times,” replied Taeden.

The now 13-year-old has recovered physically from the second degree burns on his back. Emotionally, it is still hard dealing with the loss of his three family members.

Georgia football program heard about the tragedy. Two weeks after the fire, the team invited Taeden to practice where he met with coaches and players, where he was given a jersey and the chance to workout with the Dawgs.

“It got my mind off what happened,” he said.

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“I went over, a little tentative, didn’t know what to say, but he had a big smile on his face. Had such a positive attitude and just shocked me,” head coach Kirby Smart told ESPN, which is airing the championship game Monday night.

ESPN’s College Gameday featured Taeden during its special ahead of Georgia’s Orange Bowl win over Michigan.

“I’ve gotten to know him at a deeper level. He’s a strong kid and what happened is not the end of the world for him. I think that’s what makes him strong,” Smart said.

Taeden even got the chance to race his favorite player, Georgia running back Zamir White. He beat him.

“Even though he gave me like a 40-yard head start,” he told Gehlbach.

Since the practice last spring, the Dawgs have given Taeden something worth much more than just football.

“They still keep texting me, saying ‘How are you doing? What are you today? Want to do this, do that?’” Taeden said “They’re like big brothers.”

Taeden now has a chance to return some of that support. He wasn’t there for Georgia’s big win in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Taeden will be in Indianapolis though for the College Football Playoff Championship.

“I’m excited...gonna watch Georgia beat Alabama.”

Taeden not only wants to thank UGA and the football team, but the entire Athens community for supporting him and his older sister who was not at home when the fire happened.

A GoFundMe raised over $250,000 to take care of the family. It was setup by Taeden’s mentor, who will be accompanying him to the game on Monday.