A&M's Johnson best player you don't know (cont.)
The children did everything with Jerrod and Marquis, a former Prairie View A&M end now coaching strength and conditioning at Eastern Michigan. The boys treated the kids like family, playing with them, kidding them, shooting hoops, teaching them dance moves or songs, helping with homework.
"Some people told me that by taking on all these kids, some with [behavioral] problems, that it would rub off on my kids and they would be problems," Pam said. "The opposite happened. It taught our boys to value family."
Some foster children stayed with the Johnsons for years. One such child, Joey, suffered from DiGeorge Syndrome, a degenerative neuromuscular organ and growth condition. Joey loved to dance and became very close with Jerrod, who has a deep love for music and dancing. Not long after Jerrod left for College Station as a freshman, Joey suffered heart failure as Pam was leaving for work and died in her arms.
Another boy, Joe, was part of the family for nine years, longer than any other, and was like a brother to Jerrod and Marquis. Joe was diagnosed with developmental issues, but Pam didn't buy it. She gradually reduced the amount of medication Joe took, while Marquis and Jerrod taught him how to play basketball. Joe made the varsity basketball team at Smiley High in Houston, where Pam taught, graduated high school and lives in a group home in the Houston area.
With deeds as much as words, Larry and Pam taught their sons to accept everything and everyone. And to take nothing for granted.
Larry took on extra jobs to help pay for all the expenses of raising his boys and foster kids. A former Texas A&M safety and wide receiver, Johnson became one of the Humble area's most beloved coaches and administrators.
When Jerrod played elite summer-league basketball from 2002 to 2005, helping a Houston hoops team reach the AAU Elite Eight three consecutive years and the Final Four once, Larry Johnson was a volunteer assistant coach. The travel team featured such future Division I players as Johnson, Arizona point guard Nic Wise, Nevada-Las Vegas forward Darris Santee, TCU guard Jason Ebie, Texas Tech forward Mike Singletary, Bucknell wing Stephen Tyree and Rice footballer Pierre Beasley. Yet while all that front-line talent scrimmaged during practices, Larry Johnson often took bench players to the other end of the gym to work on rebounding, shooting, footwork. Everyone mattered.
The lessons stuck with Jerrod. When he woke before dawn to work out and organize meetings and scrimmages in the summer, he made sure every player on the Aggies depth chart and walk-ons got calls. At his 21st birthday in July, Johnson and his friends organized a party at a College Station nightclub. College kids acted like college kids all night. And Jerrod sang, danced and partied, but he drank only sports drinks and juice. He has, however, promised Aggies teammates that if they make it to the Big 12 title game, he will, "take a sip" of some wine or champagne.
The college football world is about to become impressed with what Jerrod Johnson has become. The one person he most wishes could be at Cowboys Stadium to watch the next step in this marvelous season, however, will not be there.
In December 2007 while the Aggies were preparing for the Alamo Bowl and just months before starting his first game at quarterback, Jerrod received a call from his brother. He said he needed to come home because Larry was in the hospital. It was only after Jerrod arrived that he realized his father had suffered a massive stroke.
Even until his final few breaths, Larry Johnson was trying to help kids do things the right way. A former Humble High student called "Mr. Johnson" asking for advice on transferring to another college on that Saturday afternoon. Jerrod clicked in to talk with his father. Then, Pam's mother clicked in.
As Larry Johnson handed the phone to Pam, he mumbled something. He then collapsed to the floor. Two days later, Larry died with his sons and wife by his side.
At Larry's funeral, Jerrod spoke in detail of the lessons his father taught him. Marquis did an impeccable, humorous impersonation of how his boisterous, affable father would implore kids to always do the right thing. On the front row of the church sitting next to Pam was Joe, the Foster child who spent nine years with the family.
After the service, hundreds of former players and students greeted the family and shared stories of how "Mr. Johnson" affected their lives. A year later, the basketball court at Humble High was renamed Larry Johnson Court.
On a recent Saturday evening in College Station, Pam Johnson walked into Kyle Field with her mother and two young children -- a 3-year-old Hispanic boy named Anthony and a 2-year-old black child named Trey. Both of their mothers are drug addicts. The babies were in awe of the game-day surroundings and all the people. They never had seen anything like it.
Larry Johnson never got to see his son start a college football game. But whenever Pam does, and every time someone else does, what they see is exactly what Larry Johnson wanted: a kid who treats everyone around him the same, no matter where they're from, what they look like or what's happened in the past.
It's how he became one of the best college football stories you never knew.
Award-winning Houston columnist John P. Lopez hosts a morning sports talk show and writes a blog for Sportsradio 610 AM in Houston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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