Johnson, Packers' draft pick from Kentucky, inspired by dad's battle for life

Milwaukee Journal SentinelMay 10, 2013 

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The phone finally rang and Charles Johnson was coy. He hid his elation. With some 40-50 friends and family members packed into this clubhouse in Union, Ky., he turned around and spoke in a low, inaudible tone to the Green Bay Packers.

Johnson hung up, asked someone to turn down the music, turn up the television and ... in the seventh round, with the 216th overall pick, the Packers drafted the Grand Valley State wide receiver. Screams boomed. A palpable roar filled the room. As Johnson was mauled in hugs, Dad sprinted out the door. Without warning, Frank Johnson was gone.

This was a man who had survived four heart attacks.

Spotting this mad dash amid the madness, Charles' older sister, April Kariuki, ran after him into the parking lot.

Hunched over a car, there he was. Kariuki rushed over and couldn't believe her eyes. For the first time ever, she saw her dad cry. The near-fatal night in the hospital. The heart attacks, the timetables from doctors. Cancer. The severe case of scleroderma. None of that brought him to tears.

This did.

This was the moment that drove Frank Johnson to survive it all. Moments after seeing his son drafted, eyes welled up, he thanked God.

"I honestly believe that's the reason my dad has lived this long," his daughter said. "My brother made a promise to him. He said, 'Dad, as long as you fight, I'm going to fight.'"

The vow was made in 2009.

Johnson dropped everything in California — school, football, friends, a future — to fly home to Kentucky. His dad was stricken with scleroderma, a rare disease that was spiraling south. Fast. One night he nearly died of complications from the disease and doctors gave him six months to live. So for an entire year, Charles Johnson put football on hold and Dad's fight became his fight. Johnson promised his father, now 62, that he'd see him get drafted to the NFL. He'd see him play.

He's fast, sure. Johnson runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range. But this vow, more than anything, is why the 6-foot-3, 225-pound wide receiver from Kentucky's Lloyd Memorial High School in Erlanger is in rookie minicamp this weekend. His goal? To give Dad more moments like that one in the parking lot.

"I have to stay strong for him," Johnson said, "and he has to stay strong for me."

To Kariuki's relief, her dad wasn't having a fifth heart attack on draft day. He caught his breath. And as tears streamed down Frank Johnson's face, he made one final plea to God.

"I want to see one game," he repeated, "just one game."

Four years before that phone call, Johnson received a much different phone call. A horrifying phone call. While laying in bed at Antelope Community College, Johnson's phone lit up. In California, it was midnight. Back home in Kentucky, 3 a.m.

It was Dad. Johnson heard crackled, muffled noises. He couldn't make out what his dad was trying to say. Finally, Charles deciphered "I just wanted to call you" and "I have a head cold." Immediately, he reached his sister. Call Dad ASAP, he said. Kariuki hurried over to their father. And bleeding from his mouth, Frank Johnson was rushed to the emergency room.

Several years earlier, Frank had been diagnosed with scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune disorder that hardens the skin and can affect internal organs. At times, he could barely move his limbs. He also has colon cancer, heart disease and, today, may now have brain cancer. This night four years ago, the unbreakable Johnson nearly died. Doctors didn't know exactly what went haywire, but his throat closed in and he could barely breathe. They told Kariuki to call all close family members.

"The doctors told us," she said, "that he could have or could not have made it through the night."

From California, Charles Johnson took the first flight home. His dad was given six months to live, so he returned to Kentucky. He hit the reset button on life.

"It was hard not knowing every day what was going to happen with him," Johnson said. "It was just me wanting to be around him and be around my family. It was tough, but it was something I had to do at that point in my life."

Of course the NFL was a faint hallucination then, too. Johnson had redirected west after a messy exit at Eastern Kentucky University his freshman year. In his home state, his roommate stole a laptop. Johnson insists he had no part of the actual theft. But he also refused to tell anybody about it. Johnson said he "didn't want to snitch on a friend."

So, 18 years old at the time, Johnson sealed his lips and was suspended two years by the school. His roommate was expelled.

Johnson decided to start fresh at the California junior college and caught 24 passes in one season, and that's when Dad called.

From across the country, Johnson's sister knew he was on the brink of anonymity, of wasting his speed, his talent, his future.

"He could have been one of those people who chose the bad road," she said. "I think that situation put him on a path he knew he needed to follow. ... He had a few questionable friends and the incident in college. It could have gone either way. It was pretty close."

Making his father priorities No. 1, 2 and 3, Charles Johnson had a child with his girlfriend. He wanted to supply Dad a day, a moment to look forward to. Maybe, he thought, the joy of having another grandchild could push "six months" to nine months. Together, they savored each day. Frank and Charles Johnson surfed through the flea market regularly, they went fishing on the lake, they paddle-boated.

And with his son home, Frank's health miraculously improved. Six months? It's been four years. He can't work at his construction job anymore — a real sore spot for him — but he does ride his bike daily. He's still the life of every party, cracking jokes and juggling.

The yearlong respite "woke Charles up to reality," his sister said. The receiver continued training and doing one-on-one work with a cousin who was also taking a year off before transferring to Louisville.

Above all, he was refocused.

"It made me realize some things can be taken away," Johnson said. "Some things may not be like you want them, but it's life and it's what you have to do. As a player, you just don't take anything for granted. Nothing's given to you. You really have to work for it. I've seen my dad work for everything he's had.

"Each and every second is a new opportunity. You have to make sure you take the full opportunity."

The year off had another consequence. Due to the NCAA's five-year clock rule, Johnson had only one year of Division I eligibility left. He could, however, play for two years at Division II.

So Johnson punched "top D-II schools in the nation" into a Google search and "Grand Valley State," in Township, Mich., popped up. Johnson emailed the school. He enrolled. And rejuvenated, awakened, driven by his dad, Johnson was a new player.

He sat out one year as a redshirt and then snagged 128 passes for 2,229 yards and 31 touchdowns in two seasons. The raw speed that would later hypnotize scouts at his pro day toasted defenders weekly. As a senior, despite playing with four quarterbacks, Johnson remained uncoverable.

Grand Valley State Coach Matt Mitchell said Johnson learned how to diversify his game. With the starter, the quarterback he had as a junior, Johnson went deep. With the others, he learned how to do damage underneath coverage.

"At our level, I've never seen a player go up and compete like he does," Mitchell said. "He's got top-level ball skills in terms of snatching the ball out of the air. He's big, physical and will compete for the football."

Mitchell saw Johnson's motivation, too. Johnson, he said, "had a high sense of urgency" and "his approach was fantastic."

The family is convinced. A force beyond science or medicine is keeping Frank Johnson alive. Since they nearly lost him that night in the hospital, setbacks have been minimal. There's been one serious scare, one more heart attack. On cue, Charles rushed to the hospital with his girlfriend and older daughter at his side.

But so far, so good. Sunglasses on, it's impossible to tell anything's wrong with Frank Johnson. Sunglasses off, you see eyes turning blue due to cataracts. To his son, he veils all pain. He never reveals a tremor of weakness. He can't. They made the pact to fight. There are times Frank tells Charles' mother, "I'm weak" or "I can't go much longer," but never uses such language to Charles.

Both have reached this point by ignoring the odds.

"It's about taking it day by day," Charles Johnson said. "Tomorrow is not promised so we live day by day."

D-II competition be damned. Armed with 4.3 speed, Charles Johnson doesn't care who lines up across from him in the NFL.

"I'm really not too worried about other DBs," Johnson said. "I don't care about the other DBs. If I do what I do, I trust my own game. I'm confident in myself."

Yes, Johnson has a very real shot at finding a role in Green Bay's offense. Not long after Laptopgate, after nearly losing his father, after starting over, he could become a deep-threat complement to Jordy Nelson, James Jones and former University of Kentucky star Randall Cobb.

Now, the goal is simple.

He had one daughter, two daughters. He got drafted. Now, it's about Dad seeing son play at Lambeau Field.

Stuttering and taking a deep breath, Charles "can't even explain" what that'd feel like. For him, for his father.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I'm out there Game 1," he said. "I'm going to make sure he's able to see me play. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I'm in the mix so he can see me run into the field."

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