Interview with Eric Johnson

by Jeffrey Hillard
Sept 2008


Eric Johnson is a popular educator, football coach, and avid youth advocate who lives in Northern California. A former youth worker at Lighthouse Youth Services and youth director of Project SCOPE in Cincinnati, Ohio, Eric has achieved much in his young career, surviving a life that has often been incredibly challenging, chaotic, and, especially during his adolescence, unruly. Eric Johnson has overcome a great deal of daily adversity – including periods of incarceration as a juvenile – to become the highly respected individual he is today. He’s also considered one of the greatest football players to play at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Eric shares his story in this interview with RED! editor and publisher, Jeffrey Hillard.


Eric, you’re now a successful teacher in California, even though reaching such success hasn’t come easily. Could you share with us some of your struggles and setbacks growing up?

First, thank you for taking the time to interview me. It’s a tremendous chance to share my struggles with those who may or will go through the things that I have. Hence, some of the struggles that I have endured are most common in today’s society, as a result of being raised in a single parent home in the projects of Cincinnati, Ohio, ranging from not having sufficient amounts of food at times to running away from home and staying with various football coaches. From abusing the trust of those who trusted me in their homes and shared their personal inspirations with me, to being a self-absorbed, angry juvenile who had no clue of the ramifications of my actions, and to being placed in juvenile detention on numerous occasions for crimes. Those crimes ranged from disorderly conduct to assault, which resulted in my being placed in group homes (Children’s Home Of Cincinnati, Herne House, Friar’s Club) to being in foster homes, and at times was even homeless.

My life has come full circle, and I won’t be satisfied until I reach, teach and connect to as many youths that God will have me connect to. I’m a proud father to three wonderful kids: my son, Eric James Johnson (age 2), my daughters, Justice Lyn Johnson (age 9) and my newest, Emonee Pearl Johnson (2 months). I have a rock in my wife, Tuesdee Johnson. She has been the best thing for me. She has embraced me throughout my struggles of finding my sense of purpose, my sense of belonging. Moreover, I’m more humbled, more aware of my environment, more aware of the struggle that happens every second, every hour, everyday.

We are all faced with some type of adversity or obstacles, but how we approach or deal with these factors, makes us the individual we are – some for the good, some for the bad. Whatever the circumstances, never give up on hope, never use your adversity or obstacle as a crutch, because once you start letting others or yourself make excuses, then you will depend and lean on those excuses throughout your life. They become so engrained in your daily life that it becomes an essential part of your make-up. Break the cycle of excuses and the attitude that “I can’t, I won’t,” and make a change for yourself, not for anyone else, but for yourself.

Since you were incarcerated as a juvenile off and on and even labeled as seriously at-risk, were there times when you were close to giving up and just living a street life? What was it, at first, that really got you to make a positive move – to think, “I have to turn it around – now?”

Honestly, what really changed me and turned me around was when I got kicked out of my last high school, Withrow High—when my mother had to come up to the school and met with the principal and the counselor, and she found out that I did not have enough credits to graduate high school. That really hurt my mother’s pride, because she did not know the trouble I was causing in school, and she thought that I was on track to getting my diploma.

See, I had been given over to the state around age 13-14, and finally after being kicked out of my last group home, The Friar’s Club at 17, the state allowed me to go back home with my mother. So, when taking on all this pain and suffering that I caused her by being a ward of the state, and now not graduating, it hurt my mother, as did the thoughts of all the group homes, foster homes, juvenile detention centers and running the streets. I was and still am a Mommy’s boy. So, when my mother got the news that I would not be graduating, she turned and asked me if I “even cared about not graduating.” I felt so little, so hurt, because I had disappointed my mother, and I never wanted my mother to feel that pain, that anger towards me again for not fulfilling my obligations in getting an education.  

After the lessons that I had to learn throughout all the ups and downs, the doubting of my abilities, of not trusting anyone, I came to the realization that I needed to break the cycle of hate that I was carrying around and get my life in order by asking myself those tough questions:

1) Do I want to go to prison;

2) What I’m I going to do without an education (because I did not graduate from high school. I got kicked out of four different high schools: Withrow, Taft, Woodward, and Aiken);

3) What will I have to offer anyone; I’m young, un-educated, mild-mannered, a weed head who likes hanging around uneducated women that already have families started; young men, involved in selling drugs, that have no sense of value for another person’s life; so, I’m there, I don’t fit anywhere, and I’m willing to do anything to prove myself, from robbing someone at gun point to stealing whatever came to my mind, to not caring!

4) Where do I want to be in five years;

5) What are my options; where is my father, and who can I trust?

So, when I think about my struggles and setbacks, they were part of shaping me into the man that I am today, from being a father, husband, son, brother to now working as an educator. I have so much more in me than my struggles and setbacks. They helped me realize that I did not want to go to prison, because I was scared of prison. I needed an education, because without one I would be another black man labeled as being un-educated. I had another strike against me, because I was angry, bitter, with a quick temper, so I made the ideal stat or stereotype that most black men carry when they fall below the expected norms of society, because many black men are seen as being lazy, complainers, murderers, drug dealers, people who don’t take care of their kids. I can go on!

I can’t change the things that I have endured, but I can learn from my mistakes and make it a point to share with those I come into contact with about my struggles and setbacks. My hope is that they will take something away from my downfalls and what I went through in my life and apply it to their lives.

Being in any kind of incarceration facility can be stressful beyond words and ultimately anxiety-inducing. What was incarceration like for you? 

Incarceration, for me, was like being in slavery, because my freedom was taken from me. I had to answer to someone who had the authority and ability to make me ask to use the bathroom, and the ability to make me stop doing what I was doing, and to tell me when to get into the shower, how long I had to be in the shower, what time I had to eat, how much of a portion of food would be provided to me, no seconds. I could not just wake up in the middle of the night and walk to the store or the fridge to get something to drink or eat.

Incarceration was not about being put to work or being reformed and helped, but just stared at as if I was an animal, or as if I had killed somebody. I felt an out-of- body experience whenever I got locked up, because I never wanted to get placed with the older boys, since they were always there for serious infractions. You had your murderers and drug dealers housed in what was known as Unit A. I was always scared to go into this unit, because it seemed very much like prison to me: the older boys ran the unit, and there were some serious crimes going on there, kids getting stabbed, seriously getting hurt. I always wanted to go to Unit B, because it had kids my age, and it suited me more than Unit A. I knew one of the staff members there; he had worked with me when I was at The Children’s Home, so I knew he would talk to me and keep me from going crazy and snapping.

However, after the talking and sitting around all day, there were those nights, when it hit me that I was not going anywhere. When those doors are closed and you’re not able to move around freely and the lights are shut off, and you’re sitting there in the dark, thinking about being free and starting over and not getting in trouble with the same thoughts and same results, each time I thought I was making some progress in changing my behavior and telling myself that I would not be back to the detention center. I would find myself again in that same dark room, going over the same thought process of how I would reform and make good judgment, and not put myself in that same position of getting lock up again.

It’s funny when I think about my decision-making and the things that I did to get myself locked up. It was like a sense of relief that I was getting locked up, because I now know that by my spending those days and nights locked away, away from my family, away from myself it shaped me and awoke me.

At a certain point, I got to the age of knowing that the justice system had particular ways of dealing with those people that took freedom for granted, by locking them up and throwing away the key. It really woke me up and I wanted more for myself than just being locked down and having taken from me the privileges and opportunities I had as a free man. That was the awakening point for me, so I thought.

I wanted to get myself together. I wanted to be much more then what I was becoming. I wanted to regain the trust from my mother and not have her worrying about what direction I was going, what bad decisions I was making, and how much would I be taking away from her again. I owed all that I had to my mother, because she did it by herself, at times in a way most parents nowadays do not seem to embrace. My mother had to deal with my older brother Ronnie running the streets; he was in and out of jail, running from the cops, causing undue stress to my mother, and I did not want to add on to more of the same that he caused.

So, I did a process of elimination: stop using drugs, start refocusing myself to get my education, and renew my sense of belief in myself and those around me, and find the sense of peace within myself, which would enable me to make the necessary changes needed in my life at the time. It was hard and I stumbled quite a bit, but I stopped blaming others, and start blaming myself and started to take responsibility for my actions. 

When it did start to change to the positive for you – when you decided to make good choices – and what are some other things that helped that turnaround? How did someone so down-and-out such as yourself find any hope?

It started to change for me when I got kicked out of high school the last time, when I felt like I had no other options. I packed up my bags and went down south to stay with a friend I met during the summer of my senior year. I needed to get away from all the drama and all the pain that I had caused. I thought a new place – a new start – was what I needed, but when I got down south I found myself in the same traps, the same negative environments that had been in Cincinnati.

I was smoking more weed, having sex with women with no sense of respect for themselves, and found myself going backwards again, with people who did not have my best interests at hand. They contributed to my desire to be someone that I was not – and that was a gangster, a womanizer, a drug user, a thief.

I was a young man with no vision of where I wanted to be, and I was heading for a crash course. I met a young man when I was at one of the women’s houses that I used to stay at. He was going around asking people to join his church. I was very reluctant to accept his invitation, because my mind and my thought process were so dark, so negative that I did not want to be helped. I wanted to live the way I was, with no real future in mind, just living day by day, doing the things that I felt were making me into a man.

After coming around and being straightforward about his intentions – regarding getting me saved in church – he broke into my soul a little bit, and I started to listen. It’s funny, because with having such a positive influence on my life at the time, you would think I would have the dignity of remembering his name! Hence, after unsuccessful attempts in getting me to church, his persistence paid dividends because I finally agreed to go to church, and it was really beneficial for me and my sprit. I felt so loved, so relieved that I was around good-hearted people that I never felt uncomfortable. It was where I belonged and where I needed to be. I was so lost mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I needed that security away from the negativity and finally to be around something positive.

I started to hang around at the church a lot more, and started to embrace the fact that I needed to separate myself from those who did not have the same focus and common goals as me. But it did not last long. I really knew that my spiritual make-up was fragile when I got invited to attend a Sunday mass at the church, and when services began the pastor stated that they “would be doing baptism that day, and all were invited to come and cleanse their soul.” I did not have any intention of getting baptized that day, but was somehow convinced to do so. I remember standing there in the bathroom looking at the mirror, telling myself that I was not ready to get baptized, to me that was a bigger step then I was committed to taking at the time. I really enjoyed coming to the church, but I knew mentally I was not ready to confront the issues associated with myself, and cleaning and renewing my soul.

I was just not ready, but I forced myself to do something even though I knew emotionally and mentally I was not prepared. As I entered back in the church, the people from church were around the baptism area. I walked over and the pastor was already in the water waiting for me. He asked me “to step into the water.” The congregation started to sing, and the pastor went into speaking about “accepting the lord as my savior, and by accepting the lord as your savior, your now taking an important step to getting close to him, I baptize you in the name of the Holy Father.” As he went to place my head under water, my body resisted, and would not go under. He tried again to place my head under water, and again my body would not let him place me under water. I knew at that point that I was not spiritually ready to make that step, because I was not living a life to be saved, and when you’re not mentally committed to accepting Jesus Christ, physically your body will not embrace the love and compassion that is in place for you.

I really believed that I had so much hate and evil in me that my body resisted the attempt at being placed in the water to save my spiritual being. I honestly felt that my body and my mind were so polluted from negative things that I would have to fight against my body urges of not wanting to get placed under the water.

Finally, after many attempts, I went under water and got saved, but it was not a renewing of my spiritual being; it was more like a temporary relief away from myself, away from the drugs, the women, just the overall negative environment I was surrounding myself in. I felt newness and freshness about myself. I found myself staying away from smoking weed, partying with friends, and, I tell you this, it had to be the hardest thing for me, because I was staying with a friend and his family. It was a long way from home, and I did not have that solid foundation that was needed into my developmental stage. I was like a lamb thrown back out in the midst of the wolves, and the wolves were taking swipes at me in each and every way, until one day I stopped going to church and started associating with the same crowd of people, and found myself back at the same environment that I was originally: smoking weed, having sex, falling victim to my weaknesses. I needed to get back home and find myself, and find what I was going to do with my life, because at the rate I was going. I was digging a deeper ditch for myself, and it was not rescuing me.

I needed to get back home and be around my family. Moreover, when I got home a lot had changed. Both my little brothers had moved back into the apartment. My youngest, Paris, had been placed in a foster home, and my second youngest, Raymond, had been staying with my father, but he had some issues with him, so he was kicked out. So, I was now coming back home to a full house; my personal things had been placed inside in a box, and I was now giving a option of finishing school, or going out and getting a job.

Since I had no idea how I was going to get my education, I settled for working. There was a temp service building up the street from my mother’s apartment, and I used to wake up early in the morning to go sit and wait for these people to send me out on a job. Those who had a car would get first choice on a job, and those who did not have car would be placed alongside with those who did have a vehicle. It was a real eye-opener for me, because I got to see firsthand what my life was going to be without an education: working hard jobs, and getting paid nothing; working side by side with people with no ambition, with no goals, working to support their drug habits, working jobs that had no security, no benefits, and no resolution.

This went on every day – the same routine involved waiting outside in the cold hoping to get a job, hoping to get a check for 20-25 dollars, for a hard day’s work. I had no sense of purpose, no sense of belief in getting a secure job. I knew that I needed my education, or this was what I was going to be doing with my life. I was still young enough at eighteen where I could develop a plan and stick with it. I knew that I did not like getting up and fighting to get a number to be sent out on a job.

It came to me while working at a hotel in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio in the cold winter, moving glass windows in the building. One of the guys that worked for the hotel looked over at me, and said, “Man you’re a big kid. Do you play football?” I stated yes, and I’m going to college. He looked me up and down and said, “You’re going to college working down here, huh? Well we will see about that.”

At that exact moment I felt he had challenged my ambition. He had placed a challenge on my manhood, and I left the hotel telling myself that I needed to get my education, or this is going to be the typical response from people that felt I belonged where I was, working back-breaking jobs, not making any type of money, and dealing with the stereotypical attitude of people, especially of white men.

After getting into an altercation with my stepfather, I was kicked out and I went to live with my defensive coach from high school, Troy Everhart. He and his wife Mo embraced me and took me in with love. They introduced me to an environment I was not accustomed to, and that was one of stability, security, love and passion for each other. I stayed away from smoking weed; I started to get my mind and body right. Mo was tutoring me to take the General Education test, and I was lifting weights and running to get prepared to go to college and play football.

I was accepted by a junior college in Iowa to come to school after taking my General Education test, and not knowing the results. I accepted an offer to attend the college. I had contacted my father and asked him to help me get up to the college, because I could not ask the Everharts. They had done so much for me already. I felt it was my parents’ responsibility to helping me get sent off to college. My father said that he “would help me.”

The day before I was suppose to leave I had not heard anything from my father, so I spent the entire day trying to contact him, because I was supposed to be leaving the next morning to catch the Greyhound with another young man from Cincinnati. When I finally reached my father he said that he “could not help me.” I was hurt. Here I am trying to do something positive for myself by going off to college and I didn’t have the support of my father. I wanted to give up at that point. Coach Everhart said, “You’re going to college, even if we have to help.” So, we loaded the car and went to his ATM machine, where he took out two hundred dollars, and gave it to me, and said, “This is to help you get started on your way. I know you will do good.”

I was off to college; things were looking good for me. I was in a new city, a new environment, and with new people socially, and I liked it. I was doing really well in football. I was getting ready for the start of the semester when I was I brought down into the athletic office. The coach and the athletic director were sitting in the room. The coach said that I “did not pass the General Education test.” I could not be accepted into the college. I needed to go pack my things and go home.

I was floored by the news. My life had flashed before my eyes. I had not planned on this happening, and now I was forced to go back home on my nineteenth birthday. The coach said, “We have to make it like you were never here, so we’ve purchased you a bus ticket back home, and you have to leave the campus today.” I had so many emotions going through me; I kept asking myself what I was going to do now. I wanted to be in college. I wanted to get an education. I needed this, and now it was taken away from me. How would I go home and face the fact that I have no education, no self esteem? I was feeling sorry for myself, and I did not have a place to go.

Driving from Iowa back to Cincinnati, Ohio on my nineteenth birthday, I was placed in a serious reflection mode. I knew I had to call the Everharts and tell them the news. How would they react to me? Would they still embrace me in their home? I kept asking myself this question the entire trip back to Cincinnati. When I finally got home, I called the Everharts and told them the news. Coach said, “We will get through this together, and we will get you to pass the General Education test.” I felt a sense of relief, a sense of pride, a feeling of belonging.

I got a job at Graeter’s Ice- Cream while I was studying for the test. It was a good move for me, because I was working and getting things in place to pass the test. While working at Graeter’s, a young man I was placed within the Friar’s Club named Greg came walking in and asked me how I had been doing since leaving the group home. I told him, “Fine, working my way to college and just staying focused.” He said, “We should hang out sometime. Call me when you get a chance.” I saw no harm in this.

Greg was always one of the most successful kids in the Friar’s Club. He had his own car, always dressed nice, and was just a cool guy to know. I started to hang out with Greg more and more, and found myself marveled by the things he had. He had his own apartment, nice clothes, nice cars, and I wanted these things now, not later. So, one day I went to the Everharts’ house. There was no one there. Mo had left her purse on the counter. I went through her purse and found a credit card, and took it and ran down to the mall, where I went on a shopping spree, using her credit card on all the things that I had seen Greg with: Nautica clothes, shoes, everything I could buy. I don’t know how much I spent, but I knew I could not go back to the Everharts. How would I explain this to them?

So, I went and stayed with Greg. I told him what I had done, and he asked if he could “use the card to get some gas.” I said, “Yeah, what the hell. You came and got me. That’s the least I could do for you.” I gave Greg the card, and he went on a shopping spree as well, using the card to buy shoes for himself, and some of friends. I was sitting there in Greg’s house waiting for him to get back, when he came running in the house with bags full of shoes, excited about the things he had purchased. He said that he had used the card to get him and his friends some shoe’s, and that when he went to another mall to use the card, the employee behind the counter said that the card had been stolen, so they just ran out of the mall.”

I was scared now because Mo realized her card had been stolen. She reported it and I knew that they would know it was me. I laid low at Greg house for a couple of days. I was still going back and forth to work, so I had that stable job, but I needed some more clothes. So I went back to the Everharts.

When I walked in coach was just sitting there with a paper in his hand, face red, and he looked at me and said, “I can’t believe you would steal from us. How could you do this to us?” I responded by saying, “I did not steal from you, coach. I had a friend in the house. Maybe he stole the card, but it was not me.” Coach said, “It was you. They have you on camera. How could you do that to us, to me? We loved and took you in when no one else would, and this how you repay us. Your things are packed. You need to leave our house.”

The paper that coach had been holding was my check. He said, “I will be keeping your check as well, until you pay us back the money you stole.” I got really defensive and said, “You will not keep my check. That’s my money, not yours.” Coach said, “Either I keep the check, or I will be calling the police.”  I got really scared, so I took my things and left the house.

I continued to stay with Greg and work at Graeter’s. I was really in a bad place now, because I was been corrupted by Greg, and used in the process. I worked the cashier’s register at Graeter’s, and I started to take money out the cash register – small amounts at first. Then I started to get greedy and took large amounts, using the money to buy food for Greg’s house, give him rent, and so forth. I was just going downhill again, and fast. I went to work one day. When the manager asked if he could “talk to me outside,” he said that money had been coming up missing from the cash register, and that they had me on camera turning the camera out of range of the register. He said that he did not have proof it was me who took the money, but he had a clue it was me. He said that he had to fire me for tampering with the camera.

My world was crashing around me. I had no job, no support system, and no positive figures that I could associate with. After losing my job, I was old enough to register myself at my old high school. I figured I might as well go back to school and try to get an education. I was doing well in school and staying clean of any trouble. I ran into one of my foster brothers, David. He asked what I had been up to and how I was doing. I broke down; everything was starting to hit me, with the whole situation with the Everharts and staying with Greg. I needed a platform to stand on. I asked David if I could stay with him and his mother, Gerene Johnson. David said he would ask her, but to not get into trouble before then.

David and his mother, Gerene, were my second foster family. I had stayed with them the longest; they treated me well, got me involved in church and sports activities. I was happy there until one day when I did not get my way, and ran away and did not want to go back. So that set me off to various group homes (Lighthouse Youth Shelter, Lighthouse Runaway Center, The Children’s Home, Herne House, the Friar’s club). My welcome was being worn out at Greg’s house. He was in the midst of moving out one day and told me that I had to go stay somewhere else. Greg was funny like that; he used you when he needed something, and then kicked you to curb when he was done with you.

Now I had nowhere to go, so I slept in the storage area in Greg’s apartment complex, went to school in the morning, and did the same routine every day. I finally had seen David again, and he told me that it was ok to come stay with them, but he needed to know if I was cool from getting into trouble, and that I would not pull the same stunt I had before.” I reassured David that I was not going to cause any more trouble; that I needed this more than he knew; and that I was at a breaking point in my life, where I was feeling the guilt of causing so much hurt on the Everharts.

I was having what I call now a “Spiritual Beating”. When you do wrong or cause or inflict any kind of hurt or pain to others, God has a way of bringing it back on you tenfold. I was dealing with a lot of self doubt and pressure from my conscience to make amends for the mistakes I made. Moving back in with David and his mother gave me that sense of relief, a sense of making amends of all the wrong I had done. I was getting my life in order, and the first move in doing this was asking God for forgiveness, and the second was forgiving myself. It was hard for me to forgive myself when I knew I was wrong and that my actions and outbursts were reasons I was involved in the situation in the first place. It takes self discipline and self awareness to come to this point in your life, because without them, you will routinely make the same mistakes over and over again in your life. 

As you became more and more focused, you found good mentors and surrounded yourself with positive people. Who were some of those individuals that influenced you and paved the way for you to make good choices?

I have been truly blessed with unique individuals that have had, in some shape or fashion, a profound mark on my life. The first would be Coach Steve McCollum; he was my first real mentor who took me into his home at the age of twelve. He was an educator who lead by his actions, and I will always be appreciative of him for involving me and getting me reintroduced to the sport of football, and by showing me that there was more out there in life than just sports. With the same discipline needed to play sports, I needed it in life off the field.

Secondly, it would be Coach Kermit Smith. I met him when I played for him at age twelve; we had a lasting first impression on each other. He taught me discipline and the respect for adults, and I had to learn it the hard way with Coach Kermit Smith. Coach Steve retired after the season I was 11-years old. His replacements were Coach Kermit Smith, who was our offensive coordinator, and Pete Black, our head coach. They brought a more in-your-face type of an approach. It took me awhile to get use to this because Coach Steve had earned my respect and love, because he believed in me and my abilities not only as a football player, but as a human being.

Coach Kermit and Coach Black had not yet earned my respect, because I did not know them, and they were new people to me. I did not easily embrace their presence on the football field. At a particular practice, I was doing my own thing. When I messed up badly on a call for the offense, Coach Kermit, who had a quiet demeanor about himself, approached me in the huddle, and asked me why I was screwing up the plays. I said because our quarterback did not know what he was doing, and he needed to get out of my face with all that talk and get on him.

Coach Kermit, not being tolerant on kid talking back, told me to get off the field. I said, hell no, I’m not going anywhere. Coach Kermit picked me up off the field and threw me off and told me, “Whenever you’re ready to be a team player, and show respect, then you’re more than welcome. Until that time you’re not a part of this team.” Moreover, Coach Kermit Smith set the tone that first day we had an encounter, and I respected him more for placing me accountable for my actions than he knew. From that point on, Coach Kermit has been a huge figure in my life, and still to this day is a big part in my development.

Thirdly, it would have to be Mr. Jim Thompson(deceased) whom I met at church. He helped me pass my General Education test. He showed me anything is possible, if you use sound judgment and treat everyone with respect. Getting a education was a big deal to him, and he spent his life helping those who could not help themselves. It is a privilege to have known such a warm, giving man such as Mr. Thompson. He embodied every quality that a mentor/father should have, and that’s giving tough love and expecting the absolute best from you. I will miss him, and I thank him for developing me and reassuring me that I can do anything if I put God first and add hard work on top of that!

Fourthly, it would be Dick and Donna Hamilton. I met them when I first went off to college here in California, and they stood by me and mentored me, counseled me on everything that they could. They have been involved in my life since 1998, and they still play a huge role in getting me in a position of success. They have been there for the rough and good times. Never have they judged me for poor decision-making, but they do what most people that care do, and that’s give good advice and counsel and support when I need it the most. They are huge part of why I stayed in college. They are also a huge part of why I’m finishing my credential to be a Special Education teacher. Words are not overstated when talking about the Hamiltons’ good deeds toward myself and my family. I love them dearly and thank them.

Lastly, it would be people like the Everharts who had forgiven me long before I had forgiven myself. They were there at my college graduation. Coach Everhart was down on the field, when I signed professionally with the Cincinnati Bengals. Never once did they bring up the incident with me stealing their money. They had invested time and energy in me, and it paid off with me.

I got back on my feet and graduated from college. There are so many people to mention, but if I have forgotten anyone, please excuse me, because there has been a huge abundance of support thrown my way from various people: Coach Hillvert, Coach Huber, and the entire College of Mount. St. Joseph for giving me a second chance. Dr. Ron White – for developing me into a student and helping to bring out the best in me, for always writing kind things for me, and never giving up on me, but giving me hope and inspiration throughout my college years at the Mount. For being one of my best professors and for being a close friend. Valerie Ehrlich, for pushing me to develop into a writer and man. Cynthia Johnson – for being a person I could talk to about anything. Coach Irv Pankey – for being a positive black male role model I could look up to, and for giving life-changing advice; and to Felix Moore, Cedric Williams, Jonathan Williams – all these people have helped transformed me in their own ways, and I’m forever grateful. I would like to also thank those who did not believe in me, who wrote me off as a person, and expected I would not achieve anything significant in my life. Thanks for doubting me and giving me the backbone to face my fears and to prove you wrong.

What has it been like working at places like the Lighthouse Youth Shelter and Boy Scouts of America?

It’s been a great honor working at such great institutions such as the ones mentioned above. It has given me a hope and desire to reach and teach as well, a chance to develop a young man’s character. I’m very fortunate to have been able to work for a place where I once stayed and that’s the Lighthouse. I was an avid visitor to their runaway shelter and was placed in their group home for a short period of time. So, going back to work with some of the staff that had observed me coming through their programs was not only a testament to my development as a man, but to their credit as well. They had laid the foundation for other organizations to work with me as well. Hence, I was able to use my experiences as a tool to connecting with the various youths at the Lighthouse. I had been where they were, and I could explain how I stumbled so many times, only to get back on my feet, and that was a huge plus for me. The kids could look at me as an example of what hard work and determination could do, especially if you stop feeling sorry for yourself and go and make something positive out of your life.

It was a realistic situation for me, because I was a real life person the kids could rely on and use for informative information with regard to how I overcame so much. They could see how I committed to being a productive person – not only for myself, but for those who had come before me and risked their lives and values for me to be in a position where I could give some hope and desire. I did not reach all the kids that I came in contact with. But, I hoped that those I did not reach took some of what I was planting in them and are now using it to help themselves through rough times in their lives.

The Boy Scouts of America was a very new job for me. I had never heard about their organization, but it was a great learning experience for me to learn something different, to get more organized in my work, and to meet new people in the process. Working for the Boy Scouts helped me understand the value of volunteering my time and effort to a more worthy cause than mine. It has paid dividends, because I had the pleasure of meeting some great people who I otherwise would have not met. I was able to start programs for kids living in at-risk areas, able to get money donated for starting new programs across a county line. It was a great for me to learn how others dedicate their lives to improving others’ lives, and I will always be able to take my experiences, both good and bad, and apply them to my daily way of living and to my attitude toward other people.              

You are deeply concerned about reaching out to youths, hoping to prevent many of them from making similar choices that once negatively affected you. What kind of success have you had?  Do you have any good stories?

I have had some good success with working with all the youths that I have come into contact with. Each experience has broadened my outlook on dealing and treating youth to the betterment of themselves. This ranges from taking the brightest students in Cincinnati Public schools and getting them off to college to working with the most at-risk and troubled kids, finding them a place to stand. Each opportunity of working with kids is a story in itself, from starting off my coaching career at a college and being able to help assist young men in making wise choices, and seeing them graduate to a university, to watching many of the young men that I have coached play on national television.

I take no credit for helping direct someone who might have had direction all along. So, to tell one particular story would not be fair to the ones already developed, or to those that I’m developing right now. I’m humbled and blessed to be in this position where I can share and teach what I have learned and encountered from tremendous young men and women who have each taught me valuable lessons in my life in different ways. I love what I do. I don’t take it for granted, because once you start taking working and developing youths’ lives for granted, you lose face on why you’re into educating youth in the first place. So, excuse me, it’s not that one particular story is something that I cannot share, but that all my experiences are stories. 

Let’s say right now there is a young person reading this discussion. The youth may even be incarcerated; even so, the young person is considered at-risk, a problem, and in many cases, some people have written off him or her. What would you say to this person?

First, I would tell the youth who is reading this: “You’re not at-risk. The environment or situation is at-risk. So, stop letting people label you at-risk. Take what you have learned so far in your life and use it as a guide to helping you make better decisions.”

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s the person that learns from his or her mistakes, that overcomes those many hurdles. Life is not easy. Television makes it look that way. Stop listening to people who do not have your best interests in hand. Be approachable, be able to learn from past mistakes, and develop better habits so that when you’re faced with a difficult circumstance, you can come out on top.

Realize that everyone is not out to get you. You’re getting yourself by making poor choices and doing things that are jeopardizing your future. Stop blaming others for your circumstances and start facing reality. It’s a cold world out here. People do not want to hear excuses, and they want to hear solutions.

Take one day at a time. Things will not turn around just because you want them to, but when God sees fit to make those negatives into a positive. God alone can bring you out of whatever predicament you’re in. He knows what we are going through and what our needs are. All we have to do is start trusting him and keep him first, because that dark tunnel that does not have any light. Soon, you’ll have light because you will dig and claw your way into finding that light and that better destination.

Always remember that there are people placed in your lives for a reason, and those reasons I myself still do not understand. But, I take it all in stride and thank God for making me into a better person. I’m not perfect. No one is. Know that even the strongest, richest man falls, but they all find a way to stand back up and make amends. Start forgiving yourself and always stay humble. If you do that, then there should be no shortfalls, no adversity, no obstacles, no weapons that will stand in your way. I believe in you and many others do as well. Keep the faith, stay prayerful, and stay mindful. God bless! 

Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson



Eric Johnson and Ron White

Eric Johnson and Dr. Ron White