Lonnie Johnson only spent two years with the University of Kentucky, but he made a huge impact on the Wildcats, both on the field and in the locker room. Now, thanks to an excellent feature titled “Ain’t No Sunshine” by NFL.com, we have a greater appreciation for why he’s worked so hard.
Johnson comes from a small town – Gary, Indiana – but his story is one far different from the close-knit communities depicted in the movies. Although the town’s population is just 75,000, they saw 17 homicides in the first three months of 2019. Gary is ranked among the worst cities in America for its murder rate. Although Johnson was never shot during his time there, he knows far too many people who were. According to the article, he returned home for three funerals before he’d even finished his first year as a student at the University of Kentucky.
“I’ve gotten numb to them. I don’t cry,” he said. “It hurts, but it just becomes another person you knew.”
Gary is overwhelmed with street gangs and gun violence. Now, it’s to the point where Johnson says you can’t leave your own neighborhood. School redistricting has brought “different hoods,” as Johnson calls them, together, inciting fighting and riots, even in classrooms. His own elementary school has been shut down, and it’s now abandoned, covered in graffiti and devoid of anything that could be sold on the streets – including doors and windows.
Despite the dangers of everyday life in Gary, Johnson was considered untouchable in the community, saying he “never did anything wrong to anyone, so if something happened to me, it would start a war.”
Part of this is thanks to the fact his athletic abilities were on display from a young age and he “never looked for trouble.” His parents also instilled a tough mentality in him early on, at one point locking their door and forcing him to confront his school-yard bullies. Now, he brings that same grit to the football field.
“That taught me never to back down from anyone,” Johnson said. “That’s why to this day I’m not afraid of anybody. I play ball with that same edge.”
But times were almost always tough in Gary, Indiana. At one point, Johnson lived alongside 16 of his relatives in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom home of just 750 square feet. The house has now been bordered and abandoned.
Getting from Gary to Lexington proved to be difficult for Johnson, who struggled to maintain the GPA requirement necessary to compete for a Division I program. But he persisted, and his time at Kentucky has prepared him for life in the NFL. His own hard work, combined with the coaching staff’s understanding of his struggles, brought him to the top of his game.
“The coaches knew how to deal with me,” Johnson said. “They knew being soft with me wasn’t going to get the best out of me. I don’t need a coach that I can walk over. I demand respect, and they demand respect, so it worked out.”
He’s going back to his hometown for a celebration of the Draft. The whole town is invited, and Johnson says he hopes everyone will get along, just for one day. But when he heard two police officers had been hired for security, he doubled it to four. After the Draft, he doesn’t plan on returning. He also has no intentions of answering phone calls from people who have never cared about him, at least until reports began surfacing he could be the best cornerback on the market for this year’s NFL Draft.
“I’ve got my own family to look out for,” he said. “I’ve got a daughter on the way, and a trust fund will be set up for her. I can’t be taking care of all these other people.”
The article really is wonderful. Check it out for free by clicking here.