Teammates such as Feleti Mateo marvel at the manner in which Warriors superstar Shaun Johnson copes with the expectation that has followed him even before getting his start in the NRL.

Disillusioned when junior rugby league coaches repeatedly told him he was too small to make it, Johnson and his mates from Orewa College took their frustrations out on the touch football field and the result was a YouTube video that has now had more than 323,000 views.


It's a video that many of the 89,000-plus people who attended the Auckland Nines in February will have seen and although all 16 NRL teams were on show at Eden Park, those fans were there to see one man: Shaun Johnson.

"He's got a lot of responsibility and I think what he's doing is incredible," says Mateo, who also happens to be Johnson's next door neighbour.

"New Zealand Rugby League pretty much hang rugby league on him and he's responded really well. From the Nines and now going into the season I think he's had a wonderful season and hopefully it can continue."

He's the Benji Marshall for a new generation, raised by a single dad who helped put together the highlights reel that would change his life and who admits to goose bumps just thinking about the Auckland Nines experience. But before we get into all that...

What is your favourite word? Unreal.

What is your least favourite word? [Long pause] I don't have a word that I hate.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? I feel pretty good when I see my family happy.

What turns you off? Seeing them unhappy. That probably sums me up. I'm a pretty happy person and if I see someone unhappy I sort of feel that too.

What is your favourite swear word? F***wit.

What sound or noise do you love? I like the sound of the ocean, I really do.

What sound or noise do you hate? Traffic.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Probably golf. I play off 18 but that's because we can't play enough. It'd be real fun to give golf a good crack.

What profession would you not like to do? UFC. I'm a lover, not a fighter.

And if Heaven does exist, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Come on in my brother.

As someone who attended the hugely successful Auckland Nines in February I can tell you that the pressure falling on the once skinny shoulders of 23-year-old Shaun Johnson was immense.

He was the poster boy and man everyone wanted a piece of and handled the media spotlight like a seasoned professional, his good looks and cheeky nature the perfect sales pitch for an audience of which many were attending a rugby league event for the first time.

They knew of him and what the prospect of more open space would allow him and they turned up in their thousands to watch Johnson deliver in spectacular fashion.

The sense of anticipation was so great that when Johnson led his team around from the north-eastern corner of Eden Park two-thirds of the way around the ground back to the players' tunnel on halfway, the crowd who were settling in for the Warriors' opening pool game went absolutely berserk.

"The first time, I had no idea they were cheering for us," Johnson said of their rapturous lap that was repeated for each of the five games that they played over the two days.

"I thought they were watching the game and something in the game was happening. It wasn't until I looked up and we started going along one of the stands, they started standing as we were coming past and I just remember doing a bit of a twirl and just taking it all in for the first time and looking at the boys and we were so pumped.

"There have been a few proud moments in my short carer and for me that was certainly one of them. I'm getting goose bumps even thinking about it because it was just unreal. I'd played in front of big crowds but those crowds have been in Australia, the Grand Final, or World Cup final last year in England but to have it at Eden Park and they're all Kiwis and mainly Warriors supporters... You're the captain and you're the one leading them and you're the one running out first, it was just unreal."

That Johnson is able to carve out a career in rugby league and thrill fans in the manner in which he does is due predominantly to the influence of his father, Paul Johnson, or 'PJ'.

Having been awarded sole custody of his four boys following a split with their mother, Thongsay, in 1995, PJ put his energies into their upbringing and fostering a talent in Shaun that blossomed in almost any sport he played.

Shaun's first love was always rugby league, a sport he had played from the age of four, but as he entered his teens he was almost lost to the game for good, walking away to play touch football and rugby union with his mates, heartbroken that his diminutive frame was considered too frail for the rigours of rugby league.

"That's where it's probably been a bit lost. People think I was a touch player before I was a league player but I played league from when I was four," Johnson tells NRL.com in T-shirt and shorts sitting in the lobby of the team's Brisbane hotel on the eve of their Round 19 clash with the Broncos.

"I didn't play any other sport, league and touch. League in the winter, touch through the summer but I was always too small to be really noticed. 

"I remember the coach telling me, he just told me I was too small, that's what he told me. It's probably a bit cliched where a lot of people say that but I truly remember it and that's probably where, from that point on, I started focusing on touch a bit more and a couple of years from then I played rugby with my mates at school and just lost a bit of interest [in rugby league].

"That's where my respect for my dad really starts to come in. He could have easily just let me play touch because I was good at it. He could have let me play touch and keep playing rugby with my mates because he saw that I was having fun with it but he didn't forget how much I loved league and without him, there's no way I would have put on that weight."

At 13 years of age Johnson was reportedly tipping the scales at just 35 kilograms but a devoted father refused to see his gifted son denied opportunities simply because of his size, devising a weight-gain plan that launched the transformation that sees him today weighing in at 89kg.

"Every morning without fail, from about Fifth Form through to Seventh Form, so 16 through to 18, I'd wake up to two pieces of toast with baked beans and a fried egg on top with melted cheese. Every single morning," Johnson recalls. "It might not sound like much but back then when I was little I had to force myself to get that down.

"He would make my lunch, I was constantly eating bananas, nuts and sandwiches, fruit and I'd come home and there'd be shakes, it was all there.

"He signed me up to the gym, he took me through the gym, showed me how the machines worked... Didn't pay anyone to teach me, he showed me and I just went hard. I worked hard and you will notice the difference if you look back on those touch videos of 2007, the difference I am from then even to 2008. I put on quite a bit of size; I had to.

"Back home everyone knows how much he means to me but I don't know if anyone would ever understand how much he's exactly done. He was a solo dad raising four boys and he quit his regular-paying job so he could be around us as we grew up.

"He did little things along the way just to tie himself over; car alarms, then he went into real estate and he did OK in real estate and he's still in real estate so he did whatever he had to but I think the biggest part was that he saw more importantly that it was going to be better for us to have him around than to have money.

"We just wanted him around so that's the sacrifice he made and it's paid off."

Having studied YouTube footage of his idol, Benji Marshall, growing up, Shaun, his mate Cameron and PJ cut together highlights of his touch football exploits from 2007 and 2008 and put them online for the world to marvel at.

There are left-foot steps that are so dramatic he regularly beats two defenders along with speed, no-look passes and bullet-like cut-outs that hit his teammates on the chest who just wait patiently for their chance to play their part. 

The Warriors needed just one look before signing him on the spot and by 2010 he had helped to bring home the club's first premiership – the National Youth Competition under-20s title – and 12 months later faced off against fellow rookie Daly Cherry-Evans in the Telstra Premiership Grand Final.

The pair meet again on Sunday and, just like the Nines in February, Warriors fans will be looking to 'Magic' Johnson to make the difference.

"I've had to deal with it over my whole career, people saying all these things about me and not delivering and then playing a good game and having to back up that good game, it's sort of always been there," he admits.

"For myself, it wasn't so much about what people were saying and building up about me it was about what I thought I could do and me being disappointed in myself if I didn't achieve what I thought I could have achieved.

"I'm a really competitive person and when I don't succeed at something – again, like the Nines when I thought I could – it hurts. I'm like a normal person."

A normal person with extraordinary gifts.