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His mother, Martha Lofton, was a cocaine user who disappeared for days at a time and hardly acknowledged her son's existence. Once his mother borrowed $20 from CJ, promising to pay him back quickly, but instead invested the money in drugs. CJ's three older brothers were already gone, leaving CJ virtually alone with his younger sister, Christine. When CJ got into a fight at school defending Christine, the principal asked him, "How do I get hold of your mother?" Said CJ: "Can't."
Johnson's dad, Charles Stewart, left when CJ was two. The boy had seen him only once since then, at a family funeral when CJ was 14. CJ adopted the surname of Christine's father because he was the adult male CJ knew best.
The boy's living arrangements had been as unstable as his family life. During one four-year period he and Christine, with or without their mother, lived in 15 different places in San Bernardino County, including welfare hotels and the homes of relatives and friends.
At the end of his sophomore year at Cajon, CJ found himself living in his ninth place in just over two years, the home of a woman who had once been taken in by his grandmother. CJ called the woman Auntie but never knew her full name. Seven other relatives, including Christine and Lofton, were crowded into Auntie's small house. CJ had a windowless room that had been built to enclose a water heater and provide storage space. The room had a twin bed, a 13-inch black-and-white television, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. "It was a dump," Johnson says. "Two people couldn't fit into the room at the same time."
For CJ, the struggle to survive finally became too hard to bear. In his tiny room, he took a piece of three-holed notebook paper, folded it in half and wrote, "Bye Mom and Christine. I love you." Then he lay down on his side and opened a light purple bag that belonged to his mother. Inside were pills—codeine, sleeping pills, headache remedies, a cornucopia of prescription drugs and an assortment of other drugs of unknown composition and purpose. CJ grouped the pills by color, then started taking them one at a time. "I tried to take the ones I thought would be most powerful," he says. "I don't know how many I took. I lost count at 42."
Christine found CJ taking the pills and begged him to stop. He yelled at her to go away, and she did. Eventually CJ passed out. When he came to, he was being tended to by Christine. He was violently ill. Instinct told Christine, who was then only 14, that CJ should eat something, so she made rice and gravy. Just then their mother appeared. She paid no attention to CJ and announced, "I'm going to the blood bank." Twice a week, says Johnson, she sold her blood for $15 and used part of the money to buy cocaine.
"By the time I was 15," says Johnson, "my mother forgot all about me. Once I asked her, 'What do you want more, me or your drugs?' She didn't answer. But I forgive her. I love her." Asked if she had ever apologized to him, Johnson says, "I don't think she has to. She did the best she could." Johnson says he doesn't know how to get in touch with her these days; he thinks she is in Texas.
She is. Lofton, 43, lives in a rehab center in Houston and is studying to be a Christian missionary. "Yeah, I got into drugs," she says over the telephone, "but then I got out. I feel that as a mother I did pretty good. I'm not ashamed of anything I did. Look, how we had to live hurt him and me both. But I feel Charles came out O.K."
Charles Johnson came out more than O.K. Now 21, he is a University of Colorado split end with a starry future. Last season he caught 57 passes for a Buffalo-record 1,149 yards. Considering his desperate childhood, it is astonishing that he became a superb athlete and graduated from high school.