In XBox and on field, Kerryon Johnson is going to try to beat you

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Darius Slay walked through the Detroit Lions’ locker room when he spotted Kerryon Johnson. Slay had an urgent message for the rookie, so he stopped mid-sentence and started yelling: “Kerryon, get home right now.” Johnson laughed, told Slay he’s not even home yet so why does it matter.

Soon enough, he’d be there. And when he arrived, Slay and Johnson – along with countless others worldwide – had a date on the sticks in competition away from football but almost as intense.

If Johnson isn’t there when Slay is ready, Slay will log on and have tens of people trying to join. Johnson becomes one of the gaggle, but Slay insists “I’ll kick them all out for you. Like, ‘Hey, we waitin’ on Kerryon. Boom, I got you.’”

The two – along with other Lions – are devotees to “Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds,” commonly known as PUBG. They’ll spend hours playing the game, often posting their wins to the world in their Instagram stories.

Johnson is an avid gamer – has been since he first picked up an XBox. In the early days, he played Halo and sports games. He is at home in the virtual world of first-person shooter games, both online and offline.8

“That’s my go-to,” Johnson said. “My place away from football when I have time. Just something I have fun with, something you can do to relax. And that’s the most important thing.”

Football players all have different ways to relax. Some play another sport. Others hunt and fish. Some read. Some find peace working within the community or their religious affiliation. Johnson’s escape is on the screen in front of him, controller in hand. Always has been.

Teammates like Slay broadcast their gamertags – allowing fans to play with them. Johnson won’t. Before he posts a story touting another victory – there are a lot of them – he blurs out his tag. He prefers it that way – for only his actual friends and teammates to know who they are playing with.

This allows the 21-year-old to hold on to the last sliver of anonymity for a life lived increasingly in the public eye. It was hard at Auburn, where he was a star running back and last year’s SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Then he got drafted in the second round to the Lions. On Sunday night against the Patriots, he had the franchise’s first 100-yard rushing game in over four seasons. In public, anonymity can be tricky.

Inside PUBG, he can be. Random gamers, he said, haven’t discovered his true identity. If one did, he would be polite, but probably move on to play with another person instead. This is his time, his haven from a world becoming much more public.