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"I Know I'm Here for a Reason"

"I Know I'm Here for a Reason"

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The scar runs right down the center of his chest and measures, he would say, about the length of a foot-long ruler.

For Deandre Johnson, it is a constant reminder to never take any day, or any thing, for granted.

For his teammates, it is a curiosity, an occasional conversation starter, a chance to get to know Johnson a little better.

And the redshirt senior defensive end never shies away from their questions, never hides the ugly truth.

Instead, he uses the scar and the story behind it to try and inspire, to prove that no single incident – no matter how terrible – can derail a dream.

“When I tell them my story, you can see it in their eyes. They’re like ‘Man, this guy has been through something and he didn’t stop. He’s still here. He’s still working hard. He’s still dedicated,’” Johnson said. “I just feel like I can give them a piece of hope to keep going, to keep pushing. Things they might feel are hard, or if they’re going through tough times, when I share my story and how I overcame it, I think it gives them some confidence with whatever they’re dealing with.”

That story started on a South Florida spring day like so many others.

Johnson was 15 at the time, a sophomore at Miami’s Killian High School. A budding football star, he’d already received his first scholarship offer despite being sidelined for much of the 2014 season because of a leg injury.

But he’d bounced back, returned to the field in time for the playoffs and that January, had had the opportunity to showcase his skills at the U.S. Army All-American combine in Texas. Every expectation was that with his steady play and impressive GPA, more major college football programs would come calling soon enough.

Then in March everything changed.

Johnson was outside the cafeteria during lunch when he was attacked and stabbed by a fellow student. The two didn’t know each other; there had been nothing to warn Johnson of what was to come, but in an instant, a random act of violence left him fighting for his life.

Another student quickly jumped into help, her steady hands stemming the blood flowing from Johnson’s chest as they waited for help to arrive. To this day, Johnson credits that classmate with helping save him.

As he faded in and out of consciousness, Johnson heard voices telling him to stay calm, to keep breathing.

“I felt like that kept me going,” he said. “It kept me alive.”

Johnson was rushed to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital where he underwent immediate surgery to repair a lung and artery damaged in the attack.

The work of Dr. Redmond Burke, a pediatric cardiovascular surgeon, helped stabilize Johnson, though he would spend two days on a ventilator.

When his breathing tube was removed and he finally felt well enough to speak again, Johnson had one simple question.

“The first thing he asked was whether he could play football again,” said Michelle Williams, Johnson’s mother. “That was the moment I knew he was going to be okay. That was that moment I knew.”

But getting to “okay” took time.

After Johnson was released from the hospital, Williams made the decision to have her son finish the school year at home with her guidance. The normally happy-go-lucky teen often found himself on edge and would double and triple-check his surroundings any time he left the house.

Johnson worked with a therapist to process the incident and its aftermath and he and his family received an outpouring of support from not only friends and the Killian community, but the larger South Florida high school football community too.

All of that, Johnson and Williams say, made a difference.

“I felt the love back from my community and my peers,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of motivation.”

The legal process continued, with Johnson’s attacker eventually pleading guilty to charges of aggravated battery. That summer, doctors cleared the young football player to begin conditioning work and the defensive end rose to the challenge, embracing his time in the weight room.

In August, Burke delivered the news Johnson eagerly awaited: it was time to return to the field.

“That day, when they gave me the clearance and he looked at me, I could see it in his eyes,” Johnson said of his conversation with Burke. “It was a great feeling knowing I could continue my life and resume everything with no complications. Everything was back to normal and that just gave me a sense of gratefulness. I just prayed and was so thankful. It was like a weight off my shoulders. I knew I was back.”

He eventually transferred to Miami Southridge for his senior year and won a state championship. He developed into a three-star prospect and earned interest from the likes of Mississippi State, Tennessee, Illinois, Cal and South Carolina, among others.

He opted for a fresh start away from his home state and in January 2017, Johnson enrolled at Tennessee. During his four years with the Volunteers, Johnson appeared in 41 games, making nine starts and totaling 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

The experience, Johnson said, changed him – on and off the field.

“I can say that it felt like I was playing league ball, playing against some way bigger guys than I was used to in Miami,” Johnson said. “I learned how tough I am, how mentally strong I am. There were a lot of guys that were rated higher than me that didn’t even finish or graduate or get on the field…I went up there when I was 17 and being on my own taught me how to be my own man. I learned a lot of things about life. How to manage money, how to manage living on my own. Sometimes, there were things I was going through and I’d get down on myself, but I learned how to motivate myself, how to be more independent.”

Deandre Johnson and his mother, Michelle Williams (Photo courtesy Michelle Williams)

After graduating from UT with a degree in communications last year, Johnson had a decision to make: was it time to start his professional career or would he benefit from another year of honing his craft in college?

He opted to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted to student-athletes because of the COVID-19 pandemic and chose to finish his college career where he fell in love with the game: his hometown of Miami.

“It was a no-brainer,” Johnson said of joining the Hurricanes. “I knew I could go back home for a year, be back around my two little sisters that have been missing me…I could catch up on time and everything outside of football that I’ve been missing. And it’s an honor to play at Miami, just knowing all the guys that have come before me and laid the great expectations and tradition to play at such a prestigious university. It’s a name that holds weight.”

The Hurricanes, needless to say, were happy to welcome Johnson into the fold.

His experience and leadership quickly made an impact on a group working to adjust after the departures of veteran ends Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche.

And it didn’t take long for Johnson to make an impression on both his coaches and new teammates.

“He’s got that spirit about him, whether he’s in the building or he’s on the field,” head coach Manny Diaz said. “He really enjoys playing football. He’s got a lot of passion for the game, Now what you want to see is for him to get out there and make plays and contribute to the Miami Hurricanes winning games. That’s why he’s here.”

Added striker Gilbert Frierson, “He’s a great ball player, but also, he’s a great guy…He works hard and that’s all we ask of him. Him, Jahfari [Harvey] and [Zach] McCloud are pushing each other and they’re getting better each and every day…It’s amazing having Dre around with those guys…He’s a strong kid. A lot of people might not come back from what happened to him, but for him to make that comeback, I’m just really happy he’s here with us now. He’s a good guy, a very positive dude and the guys around here love him. He carries himself with pride and it’s a great thing.”

Johnson’s family, too, is happy the defensive end is back in Miami.

Since his return to South Florida, Johnson has made it a point to spend as much time as possible with his mother, his father Andre and his two younger sisters, 15-year-old Tazhanae and 4-year-old Ava.

There are shopping trips. Dinners at home with mom. Visits to the local park to catch up with some of the youngsters in his Goulds neighborhood.

Williams was a constant presence at every preseason practice that was open to players’ families and already, everyone is counting down to the moment they can see Johnson suit up in orange and green.

They’ll have their first chance next week when Johnson and the Hurricanes take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Miami’s opener against defending national champion Alabama. After that, there will be a month’s worth of home games, a month’s worth of simply driving north to Hard Rock Stadium to see Johnson at work.

“I was never able to just jump in my car and do that,” Williams laughed. “It’s been really great having him home. He’s my only son, so it’s always good when he’s close by. It’s less worrying for me. I’m able to see him more, talk to him more and just be able to check in more…I liked the fact he was able to see another part of the world [at Tennessee], but now that he’s home and I’m able to go to more of the games and I’m able to see the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day things that happen and how he reacts, I’m happy to be around for that.”

For his part, Johnson is eager to see what his time at Miami will bring.

He’s reconnected with his family and now finds himself in a locker room with countless familiar faces, including former high school teammates Dee Wiggins, DJ Scaife and  Mark Pope.

Some of his new teammates – particularly those from South Florida, like Frierson – know his story. Others don’t.

But if any of them see the scar and ask what happened, Johnson can’t help but smile a bit.

“Any problems people have, anything, all the bad days, all the bad scenarios they go through, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “You can do anything you put your mind to. It’s never the end. I know sometimes in life we feel like we’ve gotten to that end point where you think nothing good is going to come out of the bad scenarios we’re in, but it can. So I just try to use my story as inspiration when I talk to my peers…I know I’m here for a reason.”