Young Cecil would play football on a raggedy, rock-filled lot near his home. "Cecil loved to dish out punishment," recalls Archie Lankford III, Cecil's boyhood chum. "You were guaranteed a busted lip. We weren't playing like some ragtag team. This was tackle football."
All the kids in the neighborhood called his mother Mama, and Cecil didn't always like that. He'd say, "That ain't none of your mama, that's my mama." It was hard enough fighting for his mother's attention with his 10 brothers and sisters. "I never did want more than four or five," says Charlie, "but hell, they got here." Cecil's not the only success story in his family. One brother, Robert, used to play drums for the disco soul group K.C. & The Sunshine Band and a sister, Albertha, is an assistant principal of a Maryland middle school. However, brother Earl is doing 119 years in prison for the rape-robbery of an elderly widowed storekeeper.
If Cecil learned compassion from his mother, he may have gotten his funny ways from his father. On fishing expeditions Charlie used to tell Cecil to watch out for "scuttlers" (his term for octopuses) lurking under the waves. "They're nine or 10 feet long," he'd say. "And they'll reach up on giant passenger ships, grab three or four people by the neck, pull them off and eat them. And they have all kinds of heads and feets."
When Cecil left his family for the first time, to go to Pittsburgh, he suffered from chronic homesickness. He'd call his mother at least several nights a week, and fly back to Miami nearly every weekend. His mother finally got him to remain in college. She told her 190-pound baby son, "I think you need to grow up and be a big boy. You're not gonna learn nothing coming home and staying with me. But if you want to do the things you promised me, you stay in Pittsburgh."
He had promised to get an education, get his father a car and his parents a big house. And he did. He got his degree in four years, in child psychology, gave his father one of his Caddies (though Charlie disconnected the portable phone because he "didn't care for the beepin' ") and bought his folks a new home with a swimming pool and coconut trees away from the ghetto. There he keeps a big room for himself, in case of a relapse.
"I always lost faith in things people promised me," says Cecil. "That's why I try to keep my promises. I may not get around to them exactly when I said I would, but I always get around to them."
On a recent sunny afternoon, when Johnson arrived at the pediatrics ward at Tampa General Hospital, he generated enough energy to light a small city. He could hardly get to the children because the nurses were lined up eight deep for his autograph.
He plowed through to the room of a 6-year-old with a badly infected foot. A poster of Cecil hung on the wall, and tears ran down the boy's cheeks. Cecil greeted him with a high-five.
"You be frowning up?" asked Cecil.
"No," said the boy, brightening.