Hard work propelled Johnson from tough past

By By Liz Frome

By Liz Frome

On the streets of South Central Los Angeles, it’s not uncommon to see teenagers in handcuffs, as many get wrapped up in gang crime early in their lives. For a young kid just trying to find a way through it all, getting out unharmed doesn’t always seem like a realistic possibility.

Robert Johnson knows all about life in South Central. The 22-year-old senior was born and raised in Los Angeles and has experienced a life many people only see on TV and in movies. Johnson said his childhood was tough, but normal for the area he was raised in.
“It was kinda rough,” Johnson said. “Growing up in South Central, (it was) normal. Well, normal to me. It might be different for a lot of people, but normal for me. You see a lot of police officers, hear a lot of helicopters, you know. That’s the normal thing.”

Very early in his life, Johnson became familiar with the devastating tragedies that flood the area. When he was just 4 years old, Johnson and his six siblings lost their father, Wayne Johnson, when he was shot and killed in Los Angeles. Johnson’s mother, Wanda Johnson, became a single parent and was left to raise the children by herself.

“The most difficult part was just…seeing my mom kinda go through the hard times,” Johnson said. “We moved around a lot, and that was hard…but she always just told us that everything would be OK.”

The constant moves forced Johnson to attend three different middle schools and three different high schools.

With so many things unsteady in his surroundings, Johnson said that his mother and sports are the reasons he and his siblings have been able to accomplish everything they have. He and his three older brothers have degrees from junior colleges and his 21-year-old sister is working on hers as well. His youngest sister and brother are still in school in Los Angeles.

Johnson and his older brother Elijah both played football at Los Angeles Southwest College, and Johnson’s ability and dedication earned him a scholarship to play football at the U as the starting free safety.

“(My mom) made sure that we stayed out of trouble (and) kept us involved with sports,” Johnson said. “She made sure we continued to go to school, and kept telling us that no matter what, everything would be ok. She made sure we was all together, no matter what.”
Growing up in a troubled neighborhood such as South Central, Johnson’s brother Elijah said they relied on their family and sports to get by.

“Growing up in South Central, it was hectic because we didn’t have anything,” Elijah Johnson said. “We knew the only way to get what we want is to work hard and be determined.”

As best friends, Robert and Elijah Johnson pushed each other to be better, motivating the other to work harder to achieve their goals. Elijah Johnson said the two were inseparable until Robert Johnson moved to Utah.

“When you saw Robert, you saw me,” Elijah Johnson said. “For a while there, it was like if Robert was gone, I didn’t know what to do. And if I was gone, Robert didn’t know what to do.”

Because he and his siblings have always been so close, Robert Johnson said it was difficult to leave his family and come to Utah. When he first started talking to defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake about joining the Utes, Johnson said it was hard to think about leaving California because he knew he’d be coming alone. Having never been on an airplane or away from his family for a long period of time, Johnson knew the move would be life-changing.

“I wouldn’t even have been here if it wasn’t for (Sitake),” Johnson said. “I just kept talking to him and he kept talking to me, and he cared for me as a person, not just

Johnson said his relationship with the coaching staff and his teammates has made being away from his family a little easier. His first year with the Utes, he lived in the Residence Halls and was roommates with former Utah running back Darrell Mack. Johnson said the two became very close and are still good friends to this day.

“Me and (Mack) connected and you know, he was just helping me out with a whole lot of different things,” Johnson said.

Elijah Johnson said that though it’s been hard not having his brother around, he couldn’t be happier about what Robert Johnson is doing.

n he makes an interception or he makes a big hit or something, and I see that crowd go crazy…I see all that hard work and all the sacrifices we’ve made all these years,” Elijah Johnson said. “I’m real proud of my little brother.”

Robert Johnson will graduate from the U at the end of Fall Semester with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. With his focus on school and football supported by his family and everyone around him, Johnson said his time in Utah has been a happy experience.

“I’m always happy just to be out here,” he said. “Just to kinda walk around and not worry about too much, I’m proud of that. Being out here, meeting all the people that I’ve met…that’s a gift.”

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Tyler Cobb

From hard times growing up in Los Angeles, Robert Johnson, starting free safety on the football team, has seen much success on the field.