Top Safety Emerges From Challenging Childhood

Growing up in crime-riddled South Central Los Angeles, Robert Johnson's dad was murdered when he was 6. Rather than follow a life of crime, Johnson vowed to make some legal money. An unlikely recruit to Utah, the big-play safety is a rising draft prospect.

Michael Oher's story turned into a best-selling book and blockbuster movie.

Maybe someday, Robert Johnson's story will be put to ink and film.

Johnson is a big-play safety who picked off 13 passes in his three seasons at Utah, including two in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama following the 2008 season and six during a monster senior season. Johnson put himself firmly on the Packers' radar after a strong pro day workout, a source told Packer Report. With the Packers uneasy about the annual injury problems of starter Atari Bigby, the 6-foot-2 Johnson is a candidate to go to Green Bay in the third or fourth round.

"They like me on film and they love the way that my pro day went," the engaging Johnson told Packer Report when asked about teams' general thoughts. "A lot of them said they couldn't understand why I wasn't invited to the Combine. The Combine doesn't make the person; it's about how you take that."

That's an apt statement, considering where Johnson has come from.

Johnson was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, an area so dangerous that it has its own Wikipedia page. He knows that violence all too well. When he was 6, his father, Wayne, was murdered during a robbery. That left his mom, Wanda, to raise the couple's five boys and two girls.

Given that history, it wouldn't have been a surprise had Johnson followed the path of crime blazed by so many children before him. Instead, helping his family became his mission.

"Once my father was killed, my mom went through the whole big change," Johnson said. "We moved around a lot. I went to three different high schools as well as three different middle schools. It was a real hard adjustment. Seeing all the struggles that my mom was going through, she kept telling us that, ‘No matter what, as long as we have this family, we'll be fine.' I didn't want her to struggle anymore. I wanted to make sure that, no matter what, that I found a way to make some legal money where I don't have to worry about going to jail for it. It started off with me going to school. I was like, if I could go to school and get my degree, I'd be fine. I wound up getting my degree from my junior college and I got my BS degree from the University of Utah in sociology as well as my criminology certificate. That's the proudest moment. My mom was really happy. Playing football was just a little extra."

After high school, Johnson enrolled at L.A. Southwest, a junior college near his home. For the final game of his freshman season in 2006, a Utah assistant coach attended L.A. Southwest's game against Citrus College to scout a cornerback from Citrus.

"I showed up and played the way I normally would play, and he wound up letting me come up there for a visit," Johnson recalled. "That was one of the craziest things that ever happened because it was the last game of the season. Coach (Kalani) Sitake came and talked to me and gave me an opportunity to finally get out of my neighborhood and finally get on an airplane. I had never gone on an airplane or never even left my neighborhood until I went on the visit to Utah."

Johnson made a sudden impact, both on the field and off of it with his volunteer work with children. Making his first start against No. 11 UCLA, Johnson was named the Bronco Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week after intercepting two passes and forcing a fumble to save a touchdown in the Utes' 44-6 romp.


Robert Johnson was huge in the Sugar Bowl.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
He wound up leading the team with five turnover-forcing plays in 2007, but it wasn't until the Sugar Bowl against Alabama the following season when Johnson began earning some acclaim. In the Utes' upset of the Crimson Tide, Johnson recorded two interceptions — one early to set up a touchdown and the second to clinch the upset victory and an undefeated season.

Johnson intercepted six passes as a senior, including three in the final 16 minutes against Colorado State — a performance that trumps the Alabama game on his personal highlight reel. The first interception helped the Utes tie the game, the second helped them take the lead and the third wrapped up the win.

Johnson finished with 13 interceptions in his three seasons, something he chalks up to good instincts.

"I love football," he said. "I do so much film study and try my hardest to try to try to beat the quarterback at some of the things that they do. It's been working out good for me. All of my interceptions came off of some real good quarterbacks and some real good offenses. I go out there and try to beat the quarterback because it's a chess match. The quarterback takes one move; I've got to take a better move."

His 6-foot-2 frame and ballhawking skills have drawn some comparisons to Darren Sharper, though he prefers to think in terms of Troy Polamalu. Johnson ran well at his pro day, with a 40-yard time of 4.58 seconds to peak the interest of scouts — including director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie, according to a source.

"I finally get to travel and see the states," he said of his hectic pre-draft schedule. "It's not like when I was playing for Utah, where it's a business trip. Now, they get to show me around and I get to meet some of these NFL coaches. Meeting Lovie Smith and Pete Carroll, it's been wonderful. All I can say is ‘thank you' to all the people who gave me the chance to do all of this. I appreciate all the time, the effort and them telling that they've seen some stuff from me."

His next thank you will be to his mom. Being drafted means a signing bonus. What will be his first purchase?

A house for his mom. A house that can't be taken away, like an apartment run by an unscrupulous South Central landlord.

"I want to get her a house where she don't have to worry about getting moved out or anything," Johnson said. "She won't have to worry about someone coming to take the house because it's ours."

And where will that be? That will be a surprise.

"We're going to see what happens," he said.

You could practially hear Johnson's smiling through the phone. Sounds like the perfect final chapter or closing scene.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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