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Walk of life


One of the first things Michael Johnson can remember is cruising around Bloch Park bouncing a basketball while trying to keep up with his mother's long strides that broke through history long before he came along to complete the walk.

Then as the years slid by in Selma, Ala., mother and son continued to go to the park and Michael ended up running in the old stadium complex while she kept walking through change before he took off for the Bengals and the NFL.

"It was mom and son time," Thomasene Johnson said Tuesday as she watched her son play with some of the 50 kids in the parking lot of St. Aloysius on the Ohio School.

"He told me when he's done playing he's going to come back home and be a coach or work with kids in some way."

Just like he did Tuesday with a little help from a few of his friends on the Bengals during an NFL PLAY 60 Super School event pushing the lessons of nutrition and health through the message of keeping children active for an hour a day.

It's hands-on deal for about two hours where football cards such as cornerback Leon Hall, guard Nate Livings, and linebacker Thomas Howard come to life and lead various exercise stations with director of player relations Eric Ball also on hand. A nice event where if you listen closely you can hear the unofficial defensive captain, tackle Domata Peko, say to his group about the unofficial offensive captain, "Now listen to Mr. Whitworth."

Mike Johnson, a tall and talented defensive end, led his group through cones and a backpedal, but before they went through that first cone they had to do the dance move known as "The Bernie" that he taught them and broke everyone up as each kid did it.

"Jermaine Gresham showed me that," he said of the Bengals tight end. "I'm living the dream right now and I know all the people that helped me growing up. I want to do the same."

And then there was Thomasene Johnson, who flew in from Montgomery, Ala., to present Leah Ruberg with the P&G Super Parent Award. The owner of Thom's Natural Herbs in Selma, she was a natural to give the speech in a call for parents to monitor the health of their children through exercise and nutrition.

After all, the tellers at her bank knew not to give suckers to Michael because she hardly ever let him eat candy and he remembers at nine years old his mother putting the Billy Blanks tapes into the VCR and together they went through the Tae Bo routine.

"It was PX90 before PX90," Michael Johnson said, and that wasn't half of it.

"I wanted him active," she said. "We'd go to the YMCA together and while I'd be working out, he'd be playing basketball about the time he could walk. And when I was working, (the YMCA) was a place for him to go and that's where he learned to swim and Taekwondo, whatever he could do."

But it was also a natural that Thomasene Johnson would give a speech Tuesday because her son really began living the dream when she began to realize hers with a long-ago walk that went a lot further than Bloch Park. When she was 16 she found herself smack in the middle of the 1960s and the civil rights movement as a sophomore at Selma's predominantly African-American Hudson High School.

"The leaders came to get us every day and we'd leave school and march everywhere, usually downtown," Thomasene Johnson recalled nearly 50 years later. "The parents were working during the day, most of them for whites, and they didn't want to march because they'd lose their jobs. So we did. My mother would tell us, 'Now don't you leave school today,' and we'd say, 'OK,' but we would."

They knew it was more important than skipping school because they knew the dangers. Thomasene Johnson had been arrested a couple of times at the end of a march cut short, and she knew the taste of tear gas and to stay away from the cattle prods.

"You didn't want to get hit by one of them," she said.

She knew the marches, aimed at securing voting rights, meant something, too. She couldn't sit at the drugstore counter downtown with whites and had to order her food at a window, and if she wanted to get a drink of water downtown there were fountains with the signs that said, "Colored." Eye contact was discouraged.

"They didn't have the right to vote," she said of the obstacles her mother and aunts faced to register in 1965. "One time I went to the eye doctor and went in and signed up. A minute or two later a nurse came out and led me into a back room. I guess I didn't know I was supposed to go in a side door. I thought, 'Wow.' "

Her mother made the call on March 7, 1965 when she told Thomasene she couldn't join the march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, a day that turned into "Bloody Sunday" when police attacked the protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a brutal display that hospitalized 17.

Two weeks later the protestors got a favorable court ruling and she was off on the first leg of the march, about 10 miles to the first camp. Since the march had been limited to 300 people, they went in shifts.

"I remember being bussed back to Selma that night and going to the church," she said of the service at Brown Chapel. "Then a couple of days later when everyone made it to Montgomery, we got bussed back there. It's funny. You're making history but you don't realize it's history when you're doing it. I was marching with my friends. So it was fun. You knew it was dangerous, but you didn't really think about it like that."

But she had plenty of time to think about it before she had her only child. Things had changed, of course, by 1987. Hudson High had become integrated and was now Selma High. Joe Smitherman, who was the mayor of Selma on Bloody Sunday, and George Wallace, who was the governor of Alabama when the protestors flooded the capital, were still in office. But marchers like Thomasene Johnson had changed things enough that they had renounced their segregationist views.

Not only was there eye contact, there was contact. George Wallace had two African-Americans in his cabinet. If staying active meant good health, it also meant good self-esteem.

"I think growing up in the movement helped us both. It was an influence on me and him," she said of her husband. "He was not as involved, but he was in Birmingham and saw a lot of it. I wanted to raise Michael with no regard to color or race or anything like it. I wanted him to be able to walk up to you and anybody else and be able to talk to you like anybody else and to have the chance to be as good as anyone else."

This is how Dallas County High School got its greatest football player, the man that had his No. 5 retired on the same field where he gave the valedictorian's address to his graduating class.

"By then Selma High School was almost all black and I wanted him to go to an integrated high school," she said. "I knew he'd get a better education because he would learn to be a man among all different types of people. He didn't like it because most of his friends were going to the other school. But I knew it would be best. And if you look at it, Georgia Tech was like that, too. Very diverse with people from all over."

Michael Johnson, after standing next to her in the Play 60 group photo, had to admit that mother knew best. And she still does because he has put her in charge of his MJ93 Foundation that focuses on Generation One at the University of Cincinnati and youth camps and schools in Selma.

"The idea of being the first one in a family to get a college education is something that he's very passionate about," Thomasene Johnson said. "He's seen that in Selma. A child has children too young and no one gets a chance to get an education. Breaking the cycle is something that really interests him."

The Bengals began their bye two weeks ago on Wednesday, but Thomasene didn't see her son until Thursday because he spoke at three schools on the way home. And the foundation just delivered football uniforms to one of the poorest elementary schools in the Selma area.

"He's in a zone right now; he loves this," Thomasene Johnson said as she watched her son and the kids in the parking lot.

A lot has changed. But maybe not.  The son is still running and the mom is still walking.

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