Published: April 26, 2010
From starring on the college gridiron, to drug addiction and homelessness, to redemption, Chris Johnson has come a long way.
Now he spends his time working to keep other young men from repeating his mistakes.
"I've been through some stuff," Johnson said. "I believe I was going through a training program for the plan God had for me."
Johnson was born in Detroit. When he was 11 years old, he moved in with his grandmother in North Carolina to escape the city's crime ridden streets. He became a standout on Kings Mountain High School's football, basketball and baseball teams.
Football was his passion and following a tryout, Gardner-Webb offered the 5-foot 11-inch Johnson a partial scholarship to play defensive back for the team. He jumped at the chance.
For the first five games, Johnson watched from the sidelines until two players were injured and the coach was forced to let the freshman take the field.
"I got in the game and I got two interceptions and the next game I got two more," he said.
From that point he was a starter and well on his way to setting the school's interception record with 25 picks – a record he still holds.
The Seattle Seahawks were interested in the interception specialist and scouted him until a knee injury in the seventh game of his senior year ended his playing career.
Johnson majored in physical education in college. After his injury he overcame his depression and disappointment by focusing on coaching.
He accepted a role as a graduate assistant on the football team and earned his teaching degree.
Following college, Johnson worked and taught at a series of schools until a personal tragedy changed his life.
His 14-year-old son was killed.
"He and some guys were playing Russian Roulette and he was shot and killed," Johnson said.
He became deeply depressed and started drinking heavily and dabbling in drugs. Johnson said the first time he smoked crack cocaine was two days after his son's death.
The next year, Johnson landed his dream job – teaching and coaching at the high school he'd at-tended.
It didn't last. He filled a couple bags with his belongings and left his wife, his children and his home.
He got a job teaching in Charlotte while living out of his truck as his addictions worsened.
"I would get to school at 6 a..m. and wash up and change my clothes before the other teachers ar-rived," Johnson said.
Eventually he couldn't keep his homelessness and addiction a secret anymore, and he resigned his teaching post in 2000.
Johnson moved into a halfway house in Charlotte and spent the next three years in and out of recovery programs and treatment centers.
When he decided to commit suicide and called 911 to let the dispatcher know where to find his body, she dispatched an officer and Johnson was involuntary committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Three hospitals and two months later, he was released. He went to a church to ask for help – a one-way ticket to Hickory.
He'd heard about Exodus Homes and decided its program could change his life.
He went to Exodus, promptly failed the drug test and was denied admission.
"That was the wake-up call for me because that was my last resort," Johnson said.
For the next 11 days he slept at the Salvation Army and went to Exodus every morning. He spent his days doing chores like picking up trash and cleaning the facilities.
On the 11th day of his vigil, Johnson was admitted to the Exodus Homes program.
Johnson said he took the program seriously, but he was too ashamed to tell anyone he'd been a teacher.
He revealed his past about six months into the program during a church family day when people noticed his skills in arranging sports stations for the children, Johnson admitted he'd been a coach.
He was immediately asked to speak to children about the dangers of drugs.
"They gave me a chance to teach in the school system when no one else would," Johnson said.
Unable to get a job in any school in Catawba County because of his past, he landed a job with Cognitive Connection and got certified as a substance abuse counselor.
In March of 2006, Johnson founded Young Men of Integrity.
The organization provides mentors to at-risk boys referred to the program by the Department of Social Services, the court system and community leaders.
The program is designed to help boys from 11 to 19 years old and to help them become "productive and successful men."
The program hosts drug and gang prevention events and meetings. It also partners young men with a mentor to help guide them to make positive choices and live lives they can be proud of.
He partnered with Exodus and started with six Young Men of Integrity. Now he has 28.
Johnson also works with the area's homeless population and continues to work with Cognitive Connection.
His goal is to continue to increase the number of participants in Young Men of Integrity and to head the organization full-time.