Gone from a dying city, Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson finds life in Lexington

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GARY, Ind. — When Lonnie Johnson says nobody knows what he’s been through, he’s referring to his life in a crumbling town. To the house he grew up in, a rendering of which is tattooed above his left pectoral. The sign of the 8th and Durbin Street intersection stretched across his left shoulder. The words “Scary Gary” inked in cursive script along the inside of his left arm. But more than those, it’s the name written on his right hand: Daja, a girl lost far too early.

His words tell a comeback story, but they’re denser than that. They’ve been dipped in defiance, danger and death.

Don’t nobody know what I’ve been through,” he says, “to get to here.” 

Here is a meeting room inside Kentucky’s $45 million football facility. He’s sitting with his shirt off and wearing blue gym shorts with a blue and white checkerboard pattern running down each leg. He just finished a morning workout with his new team. Johnson, a cornerback who arrived on campus in January, is one of seven early enrollees in Kentucky football’s 2017 signing class.

Here is Lexington, Ky. In a life full of potential dead ends, it’s a stop he almost never reached. 

***

Gary is nestled in the northwestern tip of a state largely filled with farmland, but just a 30-mile curve along Lake Michigan from Chicago. Fields are flowered with windmills 80 miles south of Gary, their metal petals a foreshadowing of the industrial scene ahead along Interstate 65.

Steam from Gary Works, U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant, is lofted above the outskirts of Gary. But the city’s tale is told through rows of dilapidated houses scattered across town. Roofs are caved in for some. Others are missing front doors or have them swung open — signs of the emptiness inside. The seat of a swing hangs vertically, unhooked from one of its chains on a playground. Several businesses are closed and bars protect the windows of several that aren’t.

An abandoned playground near downtown Gary. (Joe Mussatto/SEC Country)

Poverty and crime have ripped apart Johnson’s town. A place once known as “Home of the Jackson 5,” by 1994 was labeled “Murder capital of the U.S.” by the Chicago Tribune. A record 110 killings occurred in 1993, according to the report. More recent numbers released by the Gary Police Department show 55 murders in 2013, 51 in 2014 and 50 in 2015. Indianapolis, by comparison, had 144 murders in 2015. Gary had more than a third of Indianapolis’ total despite having just 10 percent of Indianapolis’ population.

Gary’s population in the mid 1990s hovered around 120,000. By 2015 it had dwindled to an estimated 77,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The exodus has led some to call the city a “ghost town.” Downtown would be quiet on a mild but breezy February afternoon if not for the busy train tracks.

And while many people have left, the crime hasn’t. Johnson’s description for his hometown, “a killer’s playground,” refers to the violence that still seeps through the city. Violence that can numb ears to the point where gunshots sound normal.

“We know at any given moment you can come across the wrong street and it’s bullets flying,” Johnson says, “just because you came down the wrong street. It became so natural we go to sleep to it. I heard gunshots all my life. I lived on the block where they goin’ at war across the tracks.”

He’s seen pickup basketball games where people tuck pistols in their waistbands. He’s had a teammate who walked home from football practice and was shot. A cousin was shot in the back of the head while “riding with the wrong people.”

Most of the violence stems from neighborhood beefs. Glen Park, Bottom Side and the Bronx, where Johnson grew up, all are neighborhood divisions. People are killed for being from different areas. It’s to the point where, Lonnie says, it’s dangerous to be seen on the streets with someone not from your neighborhood.

“It’s real-deal crazy out there. I done lost so many friends,” he says. His voice shakes. “So many friends, family members, all type of stuff.”

One of the 50 murders in 2015 happened Aug. 2 — a Sunday. Daja Brookshire wasn’t the target when she stepped out of the car on Adams Street and 7th Avenue — four miles from where Lonnie lived. The bullets were meant for her boyfriend, Lonnie says, but it was Daja who died almost two hours later at the hospital.

Daja was about to start her junior year at West Side High School and Lonnie was set to begin his second year in college. Their moms were friends. Lonnie and Daja played sports together. He calls her his sister and the tattoos running up his right arm are dedicated to her. Despite all he’s witnessed, nothing was harder than losing Daja, he says. It was the first time he cried “real tears.”

But as much as Gary has taken from him, it’s home.

His mother lives in an apartment just outside Gary in Merrillville, Ind., with her youngest son, Darion. She moved there with her two sons when Lonnie was a freshman at West Side. It’s quieter and easier to stay out of trouble there.

Nora Johnson is close to her sons. She talks to Lonnie every day. She and Lonnie’s father, also named Lonnie, split, but she says her son is still close with his dad. Lonnie says it’s more of a brotherly relationship. Nora doesn’t believe one is simply shaped by where she or he grows up. The thought would make Gary an easy trap.

“If you have a parent that don’t care, of course you’re going to grow up and you’re not going to care,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You can be from Beverly Hills.”

Nora has a morning and afternoon shift driving a bus for Merrillville schools. But a more important job was being the mother of two sons growing up in a violent place. Lonnie went to the same elementary school, now closed and with a few broken windows, as his mom. She went to West Side more than two decades before.

A short drive into Gary near her old house where Lonnie was raised brings back memories of her oldest son at 5 years old running up and down the street. The turn signal clicks as the car turns left down a pothole-stricken drive.

775 Durbin St. — the house tattooed on Lonnie’s chest — is the third on the right. It’s boxy and beige with maroon shutters. Paint is peeling from the siding and a lamp post with a globe-shaped bulb stands in the front yard.

“This is it,” Nora says. “This is where it all began. Right here.”

The house Lonnie grew up in on Durbin Street in Gary, Ind. (Joe Mussatto/SEC Country)

***

Lonnie’s uncle, Jason Johnson, knew his nephew could become a special athlete when Lonnie was 5. Jason is the head football coach and restorative justice liaison, but his primary job at West Side is helping kids transition from high school to college. He’s one of a handful of coaches that have been mainstays in Lonnie’s life since he started playing football for the Gary Steelers Pop Warner team when he was 6.

But the reason Lonnie got involved in sports wasn’t because he was talented. It was Nora’s way to keep her son out of trouble.

“It eliminates what they do on the streets and how much time they have,” Nora says. “Because by the time they go to practice and to school, they’re tired.”

She was a talented track athlete at West Side and played basketball and volleyball. Jason, her brother, played football at Illinois State and in the NFL with Denver in 1988 and Pittsburgh in 1989. Athleticism is in Lonnie’s blood. His cousin, Jon’Vea Johnson, is a wide receiver at Toledo.

West Side hasn’t had much on-field success, but Jason estimates that 50 kids from West Side have gone on to play college sports since he got there in 1992. “Diamonds in the rough,” he calls them. A way to capitalize on athleticism to get away from Gary and go to college for free. Brandon Moore, a former Pro Bowl guard who played 10 seasons for the New York Jets, is a West Side graduate.

“When we go into houses we tell parents: ‘Our school is lacking. We do have leaks. When it rains it pours around here. It’s like being outside,’” Jason Johnson says. “But the culture of what we do as coaches and human beings to transition from childhood to adulthood is kind of hard to match. In our community, this is probably one of the only places where you have positive black males — lawyers, doctors — we’re all in the building. You can’t get that too many places here.”

West Side’s halls are wide, and in the middle of the afternoon, largely empty. The school’s orange and blue colors pop in several places. “It’s the hood,” Jason Johnson says, but it’s impossible to tell from inside. Drums are banging from the band room, but Jason notes how quiet it is — no yelling, no violence — a safe place in a city where safety is lacking.

A red and white banner hangs outside one entrance, “40 percent increase in graduation rate since 2012,” it reads. The football field is across the parking lot. It’s patchy with lumps, but it’s the offseason. An even patchier track rings the field. The white lane numbers are faint. The rubber surface is crumbling. It’s Gary through and through — rugged and not what it once was. There’s a mural of the Jackson 5, but the voices — like many of the jobs — are gone.

The monstrous steel mill remains, but the industry has been declining since the 1970s. U.S. Steel laid off more than 1,000 workers in Indiana in 2015, according to the Northwest Indiana Times.

Nora Johnson stands near the long jump pit at West Side. It’s hardly definable from afar with its light dirt against the dead grass. Lonnie played football, basketball and ran track at West Side. He won the Indiana state title in the long jump despite track being his least favorite sport.

“I was pretty much thinking I was gonna be Derrick Rose or whatever,” Lonnie says back in Lexington with a laugh.

He didn’t take football seriously until his sophomore year. It’s when Jason, his coach, started using him on the field in every way possible: defensive end, outside linebacker, wide receiver, quarterback, running back.

“I mean, he played everything,” Jason says.

The football scoreboard at West Side High School. (Joe Mussatto/SEC Country)

The first college offer came from Bowling Green after his sophomore year. Lonnie started going to camps, and with the exposure came attention. More offers came, and then the big one: Ohio State. But the offers didn’t register with Lonnie. He didn’t know what they were all about until his uncle explained that he could get his college education paid for.

“I really didn’t take note,” Lonnie says. “People don’t get that where I’m from. Ohio State not coming to look for nobody. When they came and offered, I’m like, ‘OK.’ I really didn’t show no emotion. My uncle, he was the one that was like, ‘You got an offer from Ohio State.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, bro.’”

Offers from Illinois and Nebraska followed. Then Kentucky, Indiana and Cincinnati. There were more from smaller schools as well.

He committed to the Buckeyes on May 12, 2013, but Lonnie’s path led everywhere but Columbus, Ohio.

***

J-O-H-N-N-S-O-N.

Lonnie swears he didn’t make the mistake. He said it was a computer mishap. His last name was spelled wrong on an ACT he needed to count. By this time Ohio State was out of the picture because Lonnie couldn’t academically qualify. Recruited by P.J. Fleck to Western Michigan, he seemed set to enroll before the school told him he wasn’t accepted.

“’How? How is my name spelled wrong?’” Johnson remembers thinking. “There was two Ns in Johnson. I didn’t do that. I know how to spell my name. They didn’t really count my ACT. I think that’s probably why I didn’t qualify right there because the NCAA’s not taking it. I guess it’s considered as cheating if you spelled your name wrong. I know for a fact I didn’t spell my name wrong.”

But regardless of what went wrong, school just was never his concern. He said he tried to make things right in his senior year, but it was too late. He wasn’t going to Ohio State, and now he wasn’t going to Western Michigan either.

“Where I come from, don’t nobody teach us that, to take care of your academics. I’m from a city where you can get killed like that,” Lonnie says, snapping his fingers. “So, it really wasn’t about academics for me in high school. It was about staying out the way. Trying to get home, stuff like that.”

The athletes at Gary are a close-knit bunch, Nora says. It’s because most of them have had the same coaches since they were in elementary school. Sports was a separator. Those that played them were more immune to some of the dangers on the street.

“I never was that type of person like, ‘Let’s go out here and let’s go kill somebody. Let’s go rob someone.’ Because how mom and dad didn’t raise me like that,” Lonnie says. “They raised me to protect myself when it comes to me, not to go out there and start trouble with nobody. I never did that but some of my friends, growing up in the hood area, that’s what they was used to. Some of them was like, ‘You got the football stuff, we’ll protect you. We’ll do all this stuff.’” 

Nora Johnson tried to stay on her son about school knowing athletics was his way out. During her senior year at West Side, she went to school for half a day and decided to stop playing sports. She calls it the dumbest thing she ever did and wanted to keep Lonnie from making the same mistake.

But that one extra ‘N’ equaled three years of junior college. He headed to San Bernardino Valley College in California — exiled from the NCAA for not meeting eligibility requirements.

California was too far away. He wasn’t able to go home. His mom couldn’t see him play. He hated it. Lonnie’s goal was to do two years of junior college, but he could only stand one in San Bernardino. He headed back to the plains to Garden City Community College in Kansas. And after playing there a season, he thought about quitting football. Garden City coach Jeff Sims said Lonnie would do well on a few tests in a row, and then bomb one. He went to his classes but that wasn’t enough.

Sims described Lonnie as a jigsaw puzzle missing one piece. Academics.

“On a scale of 1 to 100, Lonnie Johnson is 105 in personality and in athletic ability,” Sims said. “In every positive thing you could say about somebody. But when it comes to academic confidence, he’s a 0. And it’s not because he’s unintelligent. Lonnie’s very intelligent. It’s because a lack of success.”

Two years of junior college for a player once destined for Ohio State wore on him. He hadn’t met his goal of qualifying for a Division-I spot after two years. He committed to Iowa State after his first season at Garden City but again failed to qualify.

***

The conversation happened at Nora’s apartment. She was working two jobs when Lonnie told her he couldn’t do it anymore. He was done chasing football. He was done going to school. He could work with his father at a nearby natural gas plant. It’d be easy for him to get a job there.

“You’re not supposed to question God, but I asked him all the time, like, why did he put me through all this? Why did my cousin go straight to D-I and I had to go to the long JUCO route? I thought about giving it up but seeing my mom cry, that’s one thing that just changed me,” Lonnie says.

Nora Johnson walks into the house she grew up in. Lonnie’s grandma used to take care of him there. It’s abandoned now. (Joe Mussatto/SEC Country)

Nora knew quitting school was a mistake. “You either get it together or you be like I am,” Nora remembers telling him. “You work hard, you struggle and you go through this just like your mom going through.” Tears of his own soon followed. He was on the verge of getting kicked out of junior college for not making grades so together they came up with a plan.

After years of failing to take responsibility for his academics, Lonnie asked Sims to redshirt him in what would’ve been his third season. Football came easy and his ability wouldn’t disappear even with a year away from the game. School became the focus for the first time.

“There was no reason not to go to school,” Lonnie says. “I didn’t have no brakes on the car, I had wires hanging out of one of the tires.” Sims attests to this. The coach said he never saw anybody drive on one tire that looked as bad as all four of Lonnie’s bald tires. “I was getting to school regardless because I knew for a fact I had to do something for not just me now. It was for my family. It was for Daja.”

It’s the commitment he lacked all those years before, as if the thought of the consequences had no brakes as well, their speed finally matching the type he showed on the field.

Kentucky, which had first offered him in February 2013, gave him another look and an offer in late November. Lonnie was a top-50 ranked junior college player and the No. 2 JUCO safety in the 2017 class, according to 247Sports. He took an official visit to Lexington on Dec. 2. He took an official visit to Georgia a week later. The decision was between the Wildcats and Bulldogs.

Nora remembers their trip to Lexington. Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale had visited them in Gary and Lonnie said Clinkscale and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow felt like an uncle and father. Once, in the hotel room, Nora opened the windows and said, ‘Look at all this love.’ She laughs about it now. Kentucky, she said, felt like family. 

Lonnie committed to Kentucky on Dec. 13 — his fourth college commitment. And later in December, a week after he left Garden City, Lonnie got the clearance he had waited three years on. He was in.

“Until they give me my gear, my locker code, everything,” Lonnie says, “when they give me all that, that’s when I’ll actually believe I’m Division-I.”

***

There are things at Kentucky’s new facility he’s never seen before, like an eye scanner to get through the glass double doors leading from the lobby of the facility to the team-only areas. He says he spends nine hours every day at the facilities. There are TVs and game systems. It beats the dorm. And it sure beats junior college.

“Life in junior college is terrible,” Johnson says. “We don’t eat. The beds are small. It’s like the difference between being poor and rich. This is rich right here.” He watched Netflix’s “Last Chance U” series on East Mississippi Community College and his takeaway was that players there had it better than he did.

Lonnie expects to play corner, though at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he’s big for the position. But Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, a former corner himself, likes athletes like Lonnie: big, fast and former multi-sport stars. If corner doesn’t work out, there’s always safety, but corner “is where the money’s at,” Lonnie says with a smile.

He said his recruitment was a wrap once he found out Stoops coached what Lonnie calls “Miami dogs.” Players like Ed Reed and Antrel Rolle — 24 years in the NFL and 12 Pro Bowl appearances between them.

Kentucky returns its two starting corners, juniors Derrick Baity and Chris Westry, so Johnson will have to challenge for a spot in the rotation. It wouldn’t follow the arc of his life if it came easy. Kentucky is more structured than a junior college program. Lonnie threw up after the first two days of workouts. He hadn’t eaten right, still stuck in his JUCO mindset.

“When you have a young man that didn’t know what he was going to eat every day or every other day in junior college and you get him here and he’s got a lot of things laid out for him, structured for him, it’s a relief because he sees all his hard work has paid off to this point,” Clinkscale says. “But now he understands it’s time to get going. It’s time to do well in school, don’t get behind in school.”

He’s not afraid to ask questions in class. And on this particular Monday morning, he’s already finished an assignment that’s not due until Thursday. He wants to prove what he can do it, but a failure in academics has kept his talent hidden for long enough. “Why would I want to go back down?” Johnson, a pre-journalism major, says about his old life.

He’s listed as a redshirt junior, but his goal is to only be at Kentucky for one year. He wants to leave for the NFL if at all possible. He prays before he eats: ‘Thank you for getting me here and help me have a successful season so I can leave and take care of my family.’

That NFL dream might not be out of reach. Sims, who’s coached 41 NFL players, 13 of them active now including Jason Pierre-Paul, thinks Johnson could be a first-round draft pick. But he said Lonnie doesn’t know what that takes. He’s never been pushed hard enough to know what he’s capable of. He has a similar size to another of Sims’ former corners: Stanley John-Baptiste, a second-round selection by the New Orleans Saints in 2014. “Lonnie is way better than Stanley,” Sims says.

If that bears out, it would mean life-changing money. He wants to take care of his mom and his brother. He wants to take care of his dad. He’s playing football for all of them.

He’s also playing for Daja. Things changed when she was killed. He was in bed when his mom told him, “Daja just got shot.” He didn’t believe it. He saw the news on social media and immediately went to the hospital. Everyone was crying, everyone but Lonnie. It was his way to stay strong for them. He went home around 11 p.m. because he had to wake up at 3 a.m. to drive to Kansas and get back to school the next day. But by the time he got home Daja was dead. Still no tears. Not until he was on the road to Kansas with nothing to think about, for 13 hours, except the reality of Daja’s death.

He missed the funeral.

“When that happened it just sparked a fire under me,” Johnson says. “I’m not scared of nothin, nothin at all … the only thing I really care about is football. Other than that I really don’t care what people be talking about. I don’t care what people say about me. Like, you can’t hurt my feelings no more than what I’ve been through.”

It’s a blessing and a curse. A football player without feeling, supremely talented but desensitized as a product of where he came from. On the field he wants to inflict pain. It’s a part of football, but for Lonnie, it’s a way to redistribute so much of what he has inside him.

If nobody knows what he’s been through, maybe he can let them know hit by hit. He can already feel himself getting stronger and faster, scarier, he says. Kentucky’s Blue-White game is April 14. His mom said she’ll be there if she has to walk the 342 miles to Lexington.  

“I just can’t wait to have that feeling all over again — just to see him play,” Nora says. “I wouldn’t miss it for nothing in the world.”

He’s already told his teammates: “Y’all better watch out. I’m not going to try to hurt you, but I’m going to hit you hard.” The weight of his life is lined up behind all those hard hits — from Gary to San Bernardino to Garden City and finally to Lexington. Lonnie Johnson bet on football and it hasn’t paid off until now. But rather than an ending, what’s next might matter more.


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