He walked in off the morning practice field, headed to his dressing stall on the far side of the Cincinnati Bengals locker room and soon lowered his 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame onto a small wooden stool there.
Above Michael Johnson hung two of the things he counts on most to get through his life.
On the left side of his locker was his orange, tiger-striped helmet, the headgear that’s served him well for nine quarterback-chasing years in the NFL.
Behind him on the right was small piece of paper bearing a version of the biblical verse, Luke 12:48.
“I’m a big believer in that,” he said as he pointed a thumb over his shoulder and, without looking, began to recite.
“Everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded and from the one who has been entrusted much, much more will be asked.”
He thought about it a second, then nodded: “I’ve taken that to heart over the years. I’ve seen the way I’ve been blessed, but I know those blessings aren’t just for me, so I try to pay them forward.”
And he has done as well as anyone in the NFL.
That’s why the Bengals nominated him for the league’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award last season. And it’s why, just last week, his teammates voted him one of their captains for the season, which opens today against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“He’s pretty much like the mayor of the locker room,” said fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap. “It’s just for the way he carries himself in here and in the city, too. When he goes around town, all the kids know him. He’s probably visited half the schools here and done events all over Cincinnati.”
Johnson has made even more of an impact in his small, fabled hometown — Selma, Ala. — which is best known for the voting rights movement of the 1960s and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “Those people, black and white, they marched, they were beaten, some died. They gave up so much so I can do the things I’ve done and will do. They paved the way for me and now it’s my job to make the road wider for others.”
For the 31-year-old Johnson, these aren’t just lofty words.
With his MJ 93-90 Fund, he has focused especially on kids. He paid for a state-of-the-art computer lab for students at Martin Middle School outside Selma.
A few years ago, when he left the Bengals to play for Tampa Bay for one season, he provided an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida for 40 students from his alma mater, Dallas County High, because they had excelled in the classroom.
As they engaged in various activities, dined at the restaurant of the late, famed Buccaneer Lee Roy Selmon and attended a Tampa Bay game, Johnson hoped there would be interaction between the black and white students that might nurture more lasting friendships.
He helped pay for the refurbishment of the YMCA in Selma, and he runs a summer football camp for the kids of his hometown. He’s hosted veterans at NFL games, and he and Dunlap have provided school supplies, health check-ups and fun at big back-to-school parties for hundreds of kids.
But it’s something else Johnson does in Cincinnati that Dunlap said should be especially celebrated.
“Last year he started doing what he could to merge a relationship between the community and police officers,” Dunlap said.
It spun off of the national anthem protest that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick launched a season earlier to protest social inequality in America and the too-often brutal treatment of blacks by police officers.
Although he doesn’t bring it up, others will tell you Johnson experienced an unwanted encounter with law enforcement. Back in 2011, he and teammate Clinton McDonald — both dressed in suits and with Bengals identification — were pulled over in their SUV in Northern Kentucky one Sunday evening after leaving the airport following a team flight from a game in Baltimore.
McDonald was made to get out of the vehicle and lie flat on the pavement. The cops were looking for three guys who had committed a robbery. Eventually the pair was allowed to continue on home.
Johnson never made a public stink, but that and other similar incidents made an impression and prompted him to follow up on Kaepernick’s protest.
But before he did anything he sat down with his dad, Samuel Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who had earned a Purple Heart after his patrol triggered a land mine.
He lost a toe and a finger, and Johnson told me last year that, to this day, “shrap metal still comes out of his body.”
Johnson said his dad always imparts sound, sometimes homespun, advice to him.
“He’ll say things like, ‘When you got your hand on the plow, just focus on the row. You can’t look around because then when you get to the end the row it will be crooked,’” he said.
And that’s what he was looking for this time – proper focus.
His said his dad told him Kaepernick had a right to protest, saying “That’s what we fought for — that right.”
Johnson said his dad then pressed him: “’OK, Kap has started the conversation, now what are you going to do to carry it a step farther?’ That made me really focus on ground zero.”
He realized black kids are often afraid of the police and that the police are often afraid, too: “It’s about perceptions each side has. They need to understand each other better.”
He launched various activities that had children and police officers doing volunteer work side by side, and he also became actively involved in the Cincinnati Police Department’s annual food giveaway.
“With the platform we have, we can be a bridge for a lot of things,” Johnson said. “That’s what is great about sports. If you go back in time you see how sports has been transcendent, how it’s been a catalyst for a lot of positive change.”
Learning from his hometown
Although he has a rare athletic talent, longtime fame and a multi-million dollar contract, Johnson is as caring and sincere and down-to-earth of a person as you’ll find.
Asked where that makeup comes from, he didn’t hesitate. He said it was his hometown and his parents.
“When you’re from a place like Selma, it can almost sound like it’s fictitious or made up,” he said.
But rather than a place of fantasy — like that Iowa cornfield in Field of Dreams — Selma in the 1960s was the center of real struggle, protest, bloodshed and finally a resounding victory.
His mother, Thomasene Johnson, knows all about it. She was a Selma teenager then.
She can tell you about the segregated lunch counters, library and schools. How blacks were sold inferior text books. How they could only watch movies from theater balconies. How just one percent of the black people then were registered to vote in a town that’s 80 percent African-American.
Back then a White Citizens’ Council subjected potential black voters to a rigged test which almost none passed.
That prompted the push for voters’ rights, but Thomasene said her widowed mother, Elizabeth Smith, who worked as a domestic for a white family, had to stay out of the fray:
“My mother wasn’t able to vote, but she couldn’t afford to march either. She had five kids to raise. She had to put food on the table.
“I was the oldest of the five — I was like 16 — so I felt I needed to march because she couldn’t. And I knew in order for us to have some equality, we had to have the right to vote.”
Thomasene didn’t take part in the first march — on March 7, 1965 — which became known as “Bloody Sunday” after the 600 participants crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge going out of town and were immediately teargassed and beaten with billy clubs by angry county sheriff’s deputies until they turned back.
A few days later the Ku Klux Klan murdered a white minister who had joined the protest.
Finally on March 21, some 3,200 marchers that included Thomasene for part of the way, were led by the Rev. Martin Luther King across the bridge again. This time they were protected by the National Guard sent in by President Lyndon Johnson.
It took them four days to go the 54 miles to the state capital in Montgomery, and by then the protest had mushroomed to 25,000 people.
Within months, Congress passed the Civil Rights Voting Act, and soon more and more blacks were able to cast their ballots.
“Coming from where I come from, I learned right away the importance of looking out for your fellow man,” Johnson said.
Much of the teaching came from his mom and his dad, who is from nearby Marian Junction, a tiny town west of Selma. For the past 30 years, his parents have conducted a weekly Bible study for people in their home.
“We raised Michael to understand life is bigger than just yourself,” Thomasene said.
They made that point when it was time for their son to go to high school. He wanted to attend all-black Selma High, but they pushed him to the nearby Dallas County High, which was integrated.
“We wanted him to know the world is not all black and it’s not all white,” Thomasene said. “He needed to see a world that was diverse. People are people. We wanted him to understand you can’t just go around looking at color because God doesn’t look at color.”
Johnson remembers his mom’s guidance back then:
“She wouldn’t allow me to say that ‘white boy’ or that ‘white girl.’ She wanted me to find other ways to describe people. She didn’t want me to label people because you know what comes from labels? Stereotypes.
“And she wanted me to always be able to stand up, look another person in the eye, shake their hand and be confident …because once that wasn’t possible.”
Johnson embraced the challenge at Dallas County High, where he was a football and basketball star — and, more importantly, the class valedictorian.
Those lessons also served him well at Georgia Tech, where he was an All-American defensive end before leaving college early for the NFL. He was the Bengals’ third-round pick in 2009, when he made his mother a promise.
“He said, ‘I promise you Mom. I’m gonna finish. I’m gonna get my degree,’” Thomasene said.
And he did.
He went to summer school in the off-seasons, and in 2015 — six years after he left Georgia Tech — he marched in cap and gown to get his diploma.
“I wish my grandparents could see all this,” he said the other day. “I think about them with an eighth-grade and sixth-grade education. They were denied, but they worked and sacrificed and raised my parents to both be their families’ first generation of college graduates.
“Now they have pushed me and I’ve had the opportunities to take it to another level.”
Becoming a trusted pro
When he joined the Bengals, several of the veteran players took him under their wings: “They treated me like a little brother and helped me become a pro.”
He learned quickly, and in 2012 he had 11.5 sacks.
Two years later, he signed with Tampa Bay for five years for $43.98 million. But that initial 2014 season was marred by injuries, and within a year the Bucs released him to save salary cap space.
He immediately resigned with Cincinnati.
Last weekend, though, the team waived him in what turned out to be a roster manipulation so the Bengals could keep a hobbled rookie who would have to make the 53-man roster in order to go straight to the injured reserve.
If he was cut, he could be grabbed by other teams.
If Johnson, a vested veteran, was released, he’d become a free agent and could sign with anyone, including Cincinnati again. He trusted the Bengals wanted to resign him, and a day later they did.
The following day, his teammates voted him their captain. Dunlap said the team and the city are blessed to have him here:
“He influenced me to take ownership of our community here, too. He made me realize some things are bigger than sports and that we should be a positive influence in our city.”
While Johnson is heavily involved in Cincinnati, he admitted, “Selma is my heart.”
And that’s why in 2015 he took part in the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. President Barak Obama walked alongside him, and once again — just as in 1965 — the group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“It was really cool,” Johnson said. “To think 50 years ago my mom was a young girl walking alongside Dr. King and here I was walking with the first African-American president.
“We talked just a little bit and I told him about my hometown and following the footsteps of my mom. I told him how important it was for me.”
Johnson then grinned and said Obama had told him that he liked his blue suede shoes.
So now, speaking of footsteps, you wondered what had happened to those shoes. Were they now a keepsake somewhere, alongside his valedictorian’s stole, his college diploma and all those trophies and awards?
Johnson started to laugh:
“Naaah, I gave ‘em away to my buddy. He’s my best friend from high school, and he’s a fireman now in my hometown.”
And that’s fitting.
Michael Johnson is all about giving.
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