This story originally ran on Bengals.com on Nov. 28, 2012
Michael Johnson hosts a group of students at Paul Brown Stadium.
Michael Johnson has two thick manila envelopes he hands over before he works out on Tuesday.
It's his day off, but Johnson didn't get to be one of the NFL's best young emerging defensive ends and one of the most influential Bengals in the community by taking a day off.
The weight has stayed on and the sacks have kept coming. A career-high eight now after he realized last Sunday that old friend Carson Palmer wasn't throwing a screen and chased him up Elm Street before planting him.
"I'm 272, 271," Johnson says, admitting to all comers this is the best season of football he's ever played in his life. "Last year at this time? I was probably 260, 261. I've actually gotten stronger during the season for the first time. I've learned what it takes. It's a process."
One struggle I overcame was people picking on me and (kids) calling me names. The (kids) would always tell my business. This made me realize my insecurities about myself. I never felt so ashamed in my whole life.
People began to make fun of me on Facebook. When I saw it, I cried for hours until I fell asleep. I felt sadder than I had ever felt. … How I overcame this was to realize that the other (kids) who bully me are just insecure and not very bright and the best way to deal with them is just ignore them."
In one envelope are the essays Johnson asks the kids he visits to write. He wants them to write about obstacles in their lives and how they overcame them. If he likes it, they get to come to a Bengals game for free.
"Not in the nosebleeds," he tells them. "We'll get you close so you can see."
Johnson can write his own essay about coming into the NFL out of Georgia Tech three years ago, a venture that turned out to be fraught with inexplicable innuendo. But he knows that's nothing compared to what he reads from kids half his age.
One time me and my mom got into an argument. So I chose to leave the house. I stayed gone for at least three days. It was real tragic to me because it never happened before. So when I came back I had to go to the lighthouse. I was there at least a month. Then my mom almost made the decision to give up her rights. I was hurt and crushed. My mom is my everything. I don't want to do anything to hurt her. But after we calmed down I went back home and we made things better now. Our mother daughter relationship is better than ever.
Johnson is at Rockdale Academy later on his off day, making the drive down Reading Road, near the Cincinnati Zoo and Children's Hospital. The kids that are getting the chance to go to the Cowboys game at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 9 are part of the Cincinnati Police's CITI Boot Camp program.
About a dozen gather in the music room after school, another day in the eight-week program for "Children in Trauma Intervention" that involves students, parents and the police.
Johnson, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, is at ease gazing at the mix of boys and girls dressed in the camp's uniform of blue polo shirts and khaki pants. He tells them he's Mike Johnson, wears nine-three for the Bengals and plays defensive end, and he tells them how growing up in Selma. Ala., he was both a smart kid and an athlete. No. 1 in the Class of '05 at Dallas County High.
They're 12, 13 and 14 years old. They get it. He's 25. He gets it, too. He knows they want to know. How do you still be cool and be smart?
"Don't pay attention to your environment; that's not who you are," he says. "You don't have control of your circumstances. Don't let it affect you. Focus on what you want to get out of life and work and grind every day to get it. You can start right now. Getting good grades, obeying teachers and people trying to help you."
Then he makes the offer. First, probably next Tuesday, Johnson will take the group to PBS for a tour. "You can see what I see every day. The weight room, the locker room. Go up into the boxes."
But then he also wants an essay so he can pick the ones to go to the game that Sunday.
"You have to write an essay for me," Johnson says with a knowing smile and he exaggerates, "Ain't have to be long."
But he quickly gets serious.
"A paragraph or two about an obstacle you had in your life that you overcame," he says. "I want you guys to understand. It's why I love football. It's like life. You have ups and downs. It's like a roller coaster. Y'all been on a roller coaster? Once you get on, it doesn't stop. You can't get off. You've got to ride it out.
"There are going to be obstacles. But you shouldn't be afraid. If you can meet them, you can beat them. Simple as that. Tough times don't last, tough people do. That's what our defensive coordinator says. Mike Zimmer. He's a tough guy."
Johnson is a tough guy, too. He always plays more snaps than anybody else on the Bengals defensive front. It's always at least 80 percent. On Sunday he played 50 of 61 plays.
But that's not what people said about him coming out of Georgia Tech. There were more rumors about Johnson than a military scandal. He can still list them on those graceful, 6-7 hands and he'll do it before he goes to talk to the kids.
"I try not to think about it, but I'll never forget it," Johnson says. "There were a lot of things so far from the truth. I was wondering, 'Is there something else that is underlying here? What's the real issue here?'
"They said I was soft. They said I wasn't tough. They said I didn't work hard. An announcer called me 'The Tin Man.' I used to tell Mom to stop watching that stuff. I stayed away from it and focused on what I had to do. I knew what type of man I was, what type of player."
Now Cincinnati does, too. On Tuesday he is doing work for Most Valuable Kids, the organization that uncovers opportunities for disadvantaged children through event tickets or other avenues. But there is also his MJ93 Foundation that works with inner-city kids in Cincy and rural kids in Selma, or just flat out just does good deeds, like last Tuesday's shopping spree at the Hyde Park Kroger that fed about 25 families for Thanksgiving.
All my life (so far) I've been going from parent to parent. I had so many responsibilities. Going to school was embarrassing sometimes, being pulled from class to talk with total strangers I'm supposed to trust. I just wish my parents' divorce wouldn't have happened. But I've become a better person. ... The good thing about this is I can help others who were or are in the same situation as me. I just want those kids to know they are not alone.
Johnson shakes his head. That is an essay from an 11-year-old from a group he had earlier in the season. He expects more of the same from the Rockdale group next week.
"Hard to choose, man," Johnson says.
Sherri Friedman, the exec for MVK, says sometimes he can't, and invites everyone who writes. But the kids have to write. It is the kids with the broken homes for whom Johnson hurts because he had the total opposite.
"Two great parents," Johnson says before the workout. "I didn't have any obstacles like that growing up. When I got to college and had to have four surgeries in eight months, that was really my first one."
Johnson's father, a wounded Marine from Vietnam, and his mother, a teenager who participated in a holy day of the Civil Rights Movement when she walked in one of the marches on Selma, have given him enough discipline and passion to see him through.
"Can you talk about the discipline you needed?" asks one of the officers.
"Wouldn't be here without it," Johnson says.
And when he didn't have his parents around, Johnson had guys like John Thornton, the former Bengals defensive lineman who retired the year before Johnson got drafted. Thornton took Johnson under his wing like he has with other linemen like Pat Sims and introduced him to the community. He also advised him how to take care of his body, how to adjust to the NFL pounding.
It is Thornton who introduces Johnson to the Rockdale group Tuesday and it was Thornton who helped him get set up in the grueling offseason regimen this past winter and spring that Johnson believes has allowed him to play the best football of his life after splitting time in Arizona and with the Jim Riggs Power 3 program in Cincinnati.
"He's worked hard," Thornton says. "It gives you that body shield at this point in the season. There were some years I didn't want to go into the weight room because my body was so beat up. But this is the time of the year when you can see the veterans coming out of the weight room when everybody else is getting to the stadium. When you can stay strong with everybody getting weak, that's when you can take your game to the next level.
"He's starting to feel it. He's starting to feel the success. He can play better. They've got three or four guys on that line that are very good players and still trying to reach their potential."
Zimmer says that Johnson had the best game of anybody against Kansas City 10 days ago. Steady and consistent. Thornton says it's the best game he's ever seen Johnson play against the run. With all the other lineman banged up, the Chiefs tried to run Jamaal Charles behind their best lineman, left tackle Branden Albert working on Johnson, and they got nothing. In fact, Albert ended up getting hurt during the game.
"This is the most he's played. He split time with Frostee (Rucker) last year; he had played some linebacker, so it's taken time for him to learn the technique the Bengals want you to play with," Thornton says. "With the extra weight, he can take on the tight end and keep the tackles off him. I think there are times he can cut it loose more, but he's doing what he's taught. On second down he's playing the draw and screen. They don't want you running upfield. But the exciting thing about Mike is how far he's come to be a top player and he's only 25 and still learning."
Like Johnson tells the kids Tuesday, he looks back on his injuries in college and it just doesn't seem like that big of a deal.
"But when it was happening it was," he says. "The thing is, you get through it. You're better for it."
Thank you guys for letting us go on the trip!!! It was really fun to go to a stadium. I have never been there so thanks for the opportunity.
Thank you Michael for the Bengals tour. My favorite part is when we got to go on the field.
Thank you for helping our family have a wonderful Thanksgiving. This is the first holiday in three years that my children and I are together … I have eight children and a single mother's words cannot express how much this has touched all of us.
It turns out the second manila envelope Johnson has is stuffed with thank you notes and cards.
But he's waiting on the essays.
"I'm going to read them at home at night," he tells the kids. "I'll put my glasses on."