We need more athletes like Johnson

Published 6:29 pm Thursday, August 29, 2019

All too often in sports the players who get the most attention receive it for the wrong reasons. The news cycle — and most viewers, even if they won’t admit it — crave more face time for the diva receiver, the NFL player who is another arrest from being out of the league or the basketball player who demands more shots.

Unfortunately, that leaves less attention on the men and women who are truly doing great things in their community. 

One of those guys retired this past weekend after a 10-year NFL career. Michael Johnson, a Georgia Tech graduate, retired on Tuesday night, ending a career that was mostly spent with the Cincinnati Bengals. The news didn’t get much fanfare — not with Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement coming just a few days before — and unfortunately Johnson hasn’t been able to stay healthy the last few years. 

However, I’m sure Yellow Jackets fans remember him and his fantastic 2008 season when he finished third in the ACC in sacks.

I got to know Johnson a little bit when I worked as the sports editor for The Selma Times-Journal. Johnson was a Selma native and returned each year to a poverty-stricken community to give back in any way possible and to set him an example for the boys and girls who looked up to him and his enormous 6-foot-7 frame.

You could almost see it in young kids’ faces when he talked to them. “If he can do it, why can’t we?”

And more than anything else, that was always Johnson’s message. If he could play in the NFL from little bitty Plantersville, Alabama — an unincorporated town with a caution light and a high school —then anyone could be successful from anywhere. 

Even Selma, where too many young people find trouble instead of success.

But Johnson was more than just a star athlete. 

He was the valedictorian of his high school class at Dallas County High School. How many NFL players are valedictorians? 

I actually missed playing against him in high school by about a year, and thank goodness for that. I played tight end and defensive end — the same positions Johnson played — and we played Dallas County every year back in those days. If I was a year older, I would’ve had to try to block him or get around him all night.

Thankfully I met him off the field, several years later in Selma. By that time, he had finished at Georgia Tech, been drafted by the Bengals and had become a star. Johnson was a high sack guy in 2012, but his career was mostly successful because he played his assignment, led by example and was a class act. He did finally score a NFL touchdown last year on an interception against the Miami Dolphins. 

In Selma, hundreds of kids participate in his annual football and cheer camp every year. Bengals teammates used to tag along with Johnson, giving all of the children a real treat. 

He also held an annual Fun Fest, where he had games and activities for children of all ages to take part in. He paid for an entire computer lab of new equipment at Martin Middle School, which he attended. One year, he paid for 40 local students to travel to Tampa to watch him play when he was a member of the Buccaneers. 

He paid for students from every school in Dallas County, Alabama — both private and public schools — to take part in a football trip to Clemson and Georgia Tech. He held an annual school supplies drive in Selma.

He always did something special around Christmas and Thanksgiving for kids in Selma and in Cincinnati, where he played nine of his ten seasons. And those are just some of the donations that were publicly known. 

“Everything I do in Cincinnati I want to mirror [in Selma],” Johnson told me in 2016. “Even if I’m not able to physically be here when everything is going on, I do a lot in Cincinnati and everything I do [there] I want to do at home too. [Selma] is home and I always want to make sure I take care of home.”

Already a millionaire, Johnson returned to Georgia Tech during three consecutive summers to complete his business administration degree. When I asked him why, he told me he was always telling kids how important it is to finish school, but he had hadn’t even done so himself before going to the NFL. 

“The main motivation is I tell kids all the time to finish their degree and go to school,” Johnson told me in 2015. “I want to show them it is important by going back myself.” 

Johnson is still young. At 32, he’s already had a decade-long NFL career, and he’s got a college degree. He’ll go on to do plenty of other great things without the same attention that comes from being a NFL player. 

In our star athletes, we need more like Johnson. He does what he says off the field, was a class act on the field and represents his hometown and college well.