"Aw, it wasn't so bad," he says. "I could be dead. Growing up the way I did taught me a lot about responsibility. I became street smart. I learned how to survive. There's people out there with worse childhoods than mine." Asked if he was homeless at times, Johnson shrugs and says, "Yeah, I guess I was." One night during his junior year in high school, he found a hospitable tree outside the San Bernardino library and slept there, using his Algebra II book for a pillow. A typical day's diet in those times: no breakfast, no lunch, a dinner of a Snickers bar, a couple of cookies and a strawberry soda—with ice cream for dessert.
Ice cream. It was a symbol for him of how good things could be. "It's sooooooo good," he says, shutting his eyes to savor the memory. He loves cookies-'n'-cream. When asked once for suggestions to help the Colorado football team, Johnson recommended serving ice cream at halftime. At training-table meals Johnson makes milk shakes for himself and for fellow receivers Michael Westbrook and Eric Mitchell.
The only lawbreaking Johnson ever did, he says, was "stealing to eat." But not often. "I learned to go without eating," he says. "It's mental. Everything in life is mental. You always can convince yourself to do things and not to do things. So all I did was convince myself I wasn't hungry."
Jerry Buckner, the mother of CJ's high school friend Doneka Buckner, invited CJ to live at her house in Rialto for the year and a half before he went to Colorado. On biographical forms Johnson lists Buckner as his mother. "Charles is strong," says Buckner. "He always knew what he didn't want to be."
What he did want to be was a football player. The sport became his mainstay during his dauntingly difficult youth; in fact, the only football practices Johnson ever missed were when he went searching for his AWOL mom. But in the second game of his senior year at Cajon he was hit while running a reverse and ripped the lateral ligament away from the bone in his right knee. That ended his season. Happily for Johnson, his abilities were known to college recruiters; SuperPrep magazine rated him the 26th-best player in the nation in the spring of 1990.
His coach at Cajon, Chuck Pettersen, recognized CJ's talent when he was in ninth grade. Says Pettersen, now coach at Pacific High in San Bernardino, "I told him, 'Two years from now, you'll be listening to college recruiters offer you choices you never imagined. Then you can make it in the pros. Football is what will get you out of this environment.' "
"I listened carefully," says Johnson. "Of course, I didn't believe any of it."
Believe it or not, Johnson was recruited by Nebraska, Washington, Arizona and USC, among other Division I-A powers. He chose Colorado because, he says, "I loved the team unity. I didn't care where I went, what the weather was or what the offense was."
Says Colorado coach Bill McCartney, "You can coach a lifetime and not get someone like Charles. He is an extraordinary youngster and a sweet kid."
With the benefit of regular food and a permanent address in Boulder, Johnson promptly set about accelerating his graduation from college. Earlier this month, after only three years, he earned his undergraduate degree in marketing. This fall he'll take more undergraduate courses to keep his eligibility. Johnson was on the Academic All-Big Eight Honor Roll in 1991. "Education matters more than football," he says. But a year from now he may be catching balls for big bucks. He's a likely first-round NFL pick.