Connecting


Michael Johnson

The Navy corpsman had been to Iraq four times and Afghanistan once piecing together the Marines he calls "The Grunts," those invaluable men in the line of the invisible explosives. And he knew all about Michael Johnson, the young Bengals right end blessed with height, talent and conscience.

"Defensive end. Third-round pick. Georgia Tech," the corpsman said. "I was yelling for them to take you and I'm glad they did."

The Navy corpsman is going to be home for Christmas. Friday, actually, and for an ever-so-brief moment he was able to replace PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), with TFLs (tackles for loss). Sitting up from sipping his coffee. Continually tapping his foot. Looking at the Bengals that had suddenly sprouted around him during a group session.

"I know the Bengals inside and out," he said. "Leon Hall. We won't hold it against him that he went to Michigan."

Johnson looked in the corpsman's eyes and knew him, too. Johnson grew up with the look back in Selma, Ala.

"You can tell. You can look in his face," said Johnson of the man's service. "He sees it."

The Bengals looked in the faces Tuesday.

Safety Roy Williams and his "Pros 4 Vets" group led a platoon of about 10 to the Cincinnati Veterans Administration Medical Center to offer some holiday cheer and a word of thanks to patients and personnel.

There was the 4-11 nurse who wanted a picture with the 6-7 Johnson for her Facebook page. There was the Korean veteran wrapped in tubes that never gets visitors who lifted his head long enough to chat with the towering Chase Coffman and telling him about kicking a field goal in elementary school. There was the man who just had surgery and couldn't hear and the soft-spoken Johnson waking up the place with an uncharacteristic bellow of "How you doing? Mike Johnson."

And there was the Marine who waved to Mike Johnson when Johnson wondered if there were any Marines in the room. Johnson always asks for the Marines. "Semper Fi," he says because his father, Samuel Johnson, was a corporal a couple of wars ago.

"Navy," piped up the Navy corpsman.

"But," the Marine said, "we always say that's as good as being a Marine."

Indeed, Mike Johnson is here with the help of a Navy corpsman.

A good 20 years before Johnson was born, Sam Johnson was on patrol in the Khe Sanh Valley in South Vietnam.

"Search and destroy; we were looking for Viet Cong," he said Tuesday from Selma, Ala. "We were between villages. Let me describe it. It wasn't a rice paddy. It wasn't the jungle. It was swampy and there was brush."

There was also a land mine and Sam Johnson figures he tripped it about noon on May 7, 1967.

"For the next 30 seconds," he said, "I waited to die."

If he hadn't been moving so quickly, he wouldn't have had a long wait. Instead, he felt Hendricks, the kid from California, at his side. There was blood everywhere. It was pouring from his head and he couldn't feel his legs. He thinks Hendricks shot a flare into the sky and the Navy corpsman showed up in about 10 minutes. Hendricks, who would get killed two months later, looked him over and told him his legs were OK.

But his feet were a mess. Sam Johnson had to stay in a Naval hospital in Pensacola, Fla., for 15 months and a handful of surgeries. There were shattered bones and missing toes. He rarely describes it, except to say that he gets around better in the summer than the winter and he still doesn't want to rely on a cane.

He was discharged the day after he got out of the hospital. Sept. 1, 1968. He was 21. The son who grew up to be his high school class's valedictorian, a graduate of one of the nation's top colleges, and an NFL player is two months shy of 24.

"I did a paper on PTSD when I was a freshman or sophomore in college," Michael Johnson said. "When I did my research, it explained a lot to me about my dad. He wanted to announce myself when I came home at night. He didn't want me to walk by him too closely if he was sleeping. Things like that. I just did them because he told me to. But as I got older I began to understand him better as a war vet and I have so much respect for him and for them.

"These guys served to give me my freedoms."

Michael Johnson heard a lot about the V.A. growing up. His dad still goes every six months for a checkup for his feet as well as for Diabetes Type 2 that he was diagnosed with 14 years ago, presumably stemming from his exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange during the war.

"Never fool with the Pledge of Allegiance. Be quiet and respectful around the flag. Take your hat off for the national anthem," he said. "Those were things I grew up with."

But Johnson never visited a V.A. until Tuesday. He's been involved with plenty of other stuff. The motto for his MJ93 Foundation is "See it first. Vision for success," as he attempts to raise money in an effort to expose disadvantaged youth to sports and education. Last spring he held a first of its kind youth football camp in Selma and last month he ran a fundraiser in Cincinnati to reach out to both communities.

He's devoted to keeping open Selma's financially-strapped McRae Learning Center, where they call him "our guardian angel." And after he left the V.A. Tuesday, Johnson planned to go across the street to check out a possible foundation partner, the University of Cincinnati program that supports and mentors students who are the first members of their families to go to college.

But he decided to add the V.A. to his Tuesday when Roy Williams recruited him a few days ago.

"Roy said he had a relative in a hospital like this and whenever he went to visit, he'd end up there for three or four hours because everybody had a story to tell him," Johnson said. "Some of them had nobody come visit them. No one in their families. That's what we talked about. It just takes a few minutes and you can make somebody's day just walking into a room.

"That's what I was thinking about when we saw the man with no family. It makes you wonder how that happens. Life is full of so many twists and turns. It could be anybody."

On Tuesday, Mike Johnson twisted his big body down and the Navy corpsman turned in his chair and they shook hands. The corpsman was 18 when he first signed up and went to Iraq.

"Because of 9/11," The corpsman said. "Yeah, I've been all over there. Been out there with the snipers and the guys who are dealing with the bombs. Oh yeah, I've seen a lot. One time I went 57 days without a shower."

Mike Johnson has seen those eyes before.

"It was cool he knew so much about me; obviously a big fan," he said. "That's what I mean about twists and turns. We had never met. Now today we made a connection."

A connection that stretched back four decades and a flare in the Khe Sahn Valley.

"I'm so glad he got over to see those guys," Sam Johnson said. "Good kid."

The Navy corpsman already knew that.

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