Making a difference: Tayquon Johnson's story tells itself
|Monday, January 20, 2020, 7:01 AM- -|
It would be easy to try and compare the story of Tayquon Johnson to “The Blindside” story made famous by offensive lineman Michael Oher. It would also be lazy because Johnson’s story is one that can’t be told with a catchy headline or title.
It’s a story that tells itself.
Head coach Dabo Swinney mentioned to the media last year that we needed to learn Tayquon Johnson’s story, to learn where Johnson came from, to learn about the circumstances behind the young man. I filed the information away and hoped I would one day get to tell that story. Most recruiting writers are only interested in what visits are taken and leaders and decision dates, so I texted Johnson one day and told him I wanted to tell his story, to provide a different take on recruiting.
“I would love to tell it to you,” Johnson wrote back, “But I can’t do it over the phone. It’s a story I want to tell face-to-face. Is there any way you can come up here?”
I tried to make the travel work, but the few weeks I had between learning some of the details of the story and Johnson’s arrival on campus proved to not be long enough. The ACC Baseball Championship and the start of Swinney’s high school camps were too much to overcome and Johnson made his way to Clemson to start his collegiate career.
Johnson redshirted this season, appearing in just three games and logging seven snaps. There were no media opportunities, no chance to approach him and ask about his upbringing, but Media Day at the National Championship afforded the opportunity.
Amid the din of a busy hour, I asked him if it was finally time to let everybody in Clemson – and the nation – know what kind of person Johnson is, what he’s been through, and what he can be. Because the potential is there. The potential is huge and mostly untapped. He’s bright and erudite and matter-of-fact about his life experiences.
He’s also one of the most positive people you will ever meet, and if he isn’t already your favorite player, he should be. Not for what he’s accomplished on the field. That will come. But for what it took for him to get here, to this place and this spot in time.
Johnson looked at me last week and said yes, now was the time to tell the story.
“It has just been a long, long road to get here, coming from a place like Baltimore and East Baltimore and just making it,” Johnson said. “There aren't many people that are able to do that and be successful at it and make it to a top-tier program like this or just make it to college in general.”
GROWING UP IN BALTIMORE
Johnson was raised in the Perkins Homes area of East Baltimore. Perkins Homes is a World War II-era housing complex that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City recently received $30 million in federal funding to demolish — making way for a new mixed-use community of replacement public housing and market rate apartments.
Perkins Homes sat right next to the Little Italy section of Baltimore, and on clear, sunny days the sounds of Billie Holliday collided with the velvet tones of Dean Martin. Then development moved the money and the middle class to a different part of the city, and the sounds of music and children laughing were replaced by sirens and gunshots.
Johnson understood his environment and tried to stay away from the people that could get a person in trouble.
“I think in 2015 it was the murder capital of the world. My family life was rough. My dad was in and out of prison, and my mom was addicted to marijuana and alcohol and things like that. It is understanding where you live and the people that live there and continuing to grow while in that type of community and trying to continue to be successful and continue to understand your goals and values,” Johnson said. “I stayed out of trouble just by being busy. Just trying to interact with the different athletic departments and things like that. It just continued and my education has stayed strong in my goals and my passions.”
I asked Johnson when he made the conscious decision to not be a victim of his environment.
“There really wasn't like a specific age. It was just me wanting to grow and reach and go to different places,” he said. “That put me in a situation where I could say, ‘Hey, I am out of that situation and now I can continue to get better and develop my talents and get my education and build my relationships.’”
Johnson wasn’t alone, however. He had support from different members of his family and from others. Johnson moved to a place called Cedar Ridge Group Home in Williamsport, Maryland, in his early teens. Cedar Ridge is for boys aged 12-17 who are at-risk. The home says it “helps boys move past their problems to reach their full potential as productive members of society. Using a holistic approach that encompasses mind, spirit and body, we provide a wide range of services including individual and group therapy, specialized education services, psychiatric services, and full medical care. In addition, our boys enjoy many extra-curricular activities such as art, music and athletics, an extensive summer recreation program and many other recreational activities.”
While he was at Cedar Ridge, Johnson met Dave Swacina, a man who helped reinforce the values Johnson learned from his grandfather.
“My granddad was a big one. He helped instill morals and values in me,” Johnson said. “When I was in a group home, there was a guy named David Swacina, he owned Cedar Ridge Group Home, and he took me took my first football camp up at Ohio St. So it was a long road and there were a lot of people that supported me along the way and were able to help me.”
The camp led to a string of offers and the world of big-time college recruiting. In the meantime, the ever-growing Johnson was being moved from Cedar Ridge to an independent living facility. However, he had other plans and approached the family of one of his friends about living with them. They didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Some might compare it to the hit movie The Blindside in which a young, black athlete is given a home with a white family. Johnson’s situation is different, however. He didn’t need to be pushed into athletics, and he didn’t need someone to show him the way. He just needed a stable home life while he navigated the recruiting process.
“I stayed with an adopted family for the last couple of years. Robert and Karen Green. I met Robert and Karen through their son named RJ - we used to hang out in the group home,” Johnson said. “After a year or two in the group home, I moved into an independent living program and over time with that, I started hanging out with them and developed a relationship. I told them my story and I said, 'Hey, I am about to move out of this situation. Would you care if I stayed and lived with you?' And they said absolutely.
“So, I stayed with them for two years and they have been nothing but supportive and have been there for me, no matter what I've been through. It's been amazing. They were there for me when my mom passed away and going through some stuff with my brother. They have been there for me, through all of that stuff and my recruitment and being a student and an athlete.”
The Green family photos over the last couple of years stand out - there is a smiling Johnson posing with his adopted family, as much a part of the family as anyone else.
Johnson was rated as a 3-star prospect by the scouting services. He had offers from many of the major players and his finalists included Clemson, Alabama, Penn State, Rutgers, UNC, Texas A&M, Virginia and Kentucky. He committed to Clemson in May of 2018 and told TigerNet at the time that Clemson was “too good to be true.”
I asked him last week if part of the reason he chose Clemson was because it was a different environment, and he said no. Clemson offered the support Johnson has lacked at times in his life.
“Clemson itself was attractive to me because of all the morals and values that Clemson has and the type of coaches that Clemson has and the support system that Clemson has,” Johnson said. “There is stability there that I didn't always have growing up, and Clemson has supported. We have a head coach that is going to be here for a long time and is very good at his job and a great person and a great father and a great man. And he devotes his faith into the program which is an awesome thing to have.”
I told Johnson that he sounds and acts like a grown man, and he said he had to grow up in a hurry.
“Most people don't understand that there are kids in this world, and athletes who play sports, that have gone through a situation. They have home problems,” he said. “They just think we are on the field because of our talent. They think we are on the field because this is what we have to do in order to get better. You can see people from Baltimore, from Detroit, from the streets in any city, they have gone through something. Look at Louisiana, with Hurricane Katrina.
“Look at Baltimore with the riots. It's all for us to grow and grow up. And then you look at other athletes, and they've had a chance to be a kid. Where there are those of us that didn't learn how to be a kid, we had to learn how to pay bills and stuff like that. So when you say it sounds like I am a grown man, it's because I've gone through a lot of life experiences to get to this point.”
Clemson has continued the support that Johnson’s high school coach at Williamsport provided.
“It has been amazing to have these coaches. I can go to them and tell them the stuff that I have going on in my life,” Johnson said. “They can give me advice when I haven't really had someone to give me advice when I was growing up. My head coach in high school, Tim Small, was somebody that always pushed me to be better. I may have had a 3.3 GPA and he kept pushing me to get a higher GPA, or if I was on the football field, he would continue to push me as an athlete to get better and learn more technique and watch videos and work out and get that experience to get ready for the next level.”
He then said that he wants to make the most of his chance and live the type of life that means something.
“It wasn't that 'I am not trying to screw this up' because that is negative thinking. It was more that I am going to enjoy this experience and I am going to live the best of it,” Johnson said. “Yes, this is something big and I am going to do everything I can while I am here. But my mindset was that even if I redshirt or if I am a starter or a backup, I am going to play my role. If my role is to be a scout team player to make my offense better, then that is going to be a great day for me. It has been a great experience for me.”
His coach on the defensive line, Todd Bates, praised Johnson’s outlook on life.
“He came out of all that, and he still has a great perspective. It's really easy for someone who went through that to have a glass-half-empty point of view of everything,” Bates said. “That is not him. He is so positive and he's always worried about making everybody else's day better and always trying to be the best version of him. He is a very special kid. They say the Lord won't put more on you than you can bear, and He tested Tayquon. He maxed him out.”
Bates then said that Johnson is proof that any kids – all kids – just need love and support from those around them.
“He overcame a lot and he had a lot of different people in his life and a lot of different support systems. That tells you a lot about kids - as long as they have someone there to love them and care about them, even if it's not the people that brought them into this world, they can accomplish anything,” Bates said. “They just need love. He has accomplished a lot. He still has that infectious personality and he doesn't need to change that. He would be robbing us of that if he changed that. I have also seen him trusting more and more people. When you're in 9th grade and you're bouncing here and there and not knowing where you are going to sleep or where your next meal will come from, you develop some trust issues. He knows he is in a safe environment and he can trust the people around him. I think we will see the very best version of him because of that. For the first time in his life, he is going to have that for four years in a row.”
Johnson didn’t mind redshirting this season and used the year to get bigger and better while continuing to be a good teammate.
“I just want to learn my playbook and get better and help the guys around me to get better. It isn't necessarily about me, it's about what I can do to help my teammates,” he said. “That is what we focus on. What can we do to better us and the team? We work on the team. It just me playing my role and I like that, I like having a role on the team. I like being able to develop my talents as a player and better myself.”
Johnson wasn’t the first young man to come up with difficult circumstances and he won’t be the last, so I asked him what he would tell someone who is fighting for their life.
“I would tell them to keep fighting. It's not about how much you go through, it's about what you do to overcome adversity,” he said. “I continue to push myself to get better and chase my dreams. I understand that life is gonna be hard and you will go through a lot of situations with your parents and your mom and your dad. Whether you live with your parents or your grandparents or someone else, you are going to go through life situations and it's up to you to make your choice whether you are going to be a number in society or you are going to make a difference in society.”