- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
BROOKHAVEN, Miss. -- His heart is laid bare inside the well-worn pages of the bright red binder. Written in black and blue, Jimmy Johns unveiled his soul.
Inside the jacket are worksheets and lined pieces of paper, front and back filled with thoughts and goals. There are scores of Bible verses and the birthdays of those he met in jail. Fingering through the notebook is like reliving the year Johns spent behind bars. On one page, there's an assignment: "Write a letter to myself: 'I forgive you.' "
Listening to him speak, it's clear that forgiveness is something he has yet to grasp completely. He has moments of happiness, followed by sharp moments of regret. The wounds are still too fresh.
Johns realized what he did to end up behind bars, and what he threw away in doing so. On one page, he wrote: "On the seventh day, I decided to be a BPD." Originally, it meant "Brookhaven policeman." He wanted to give back to his hometown.
It didn't take long to realize that couldn't happen. Convicted drug dealers don't become policemen.
In his notebook, he revised his goals again and again until they seemed attainable. BPD became "Better Person Daily." He had destroyed one life, and was determined not to let it happen again.
Fast money, fast fall
On June 19, 2008, Johns had everything. With a few grand in his pocket, a gold chain around his neck and a matching watch on his wrist, the University of Alabama linebacker was ready to enjoy his 21st birthday in style.
He headed home to Brookhaven, Miss., where an epic birthday celebration awaited him. Friends and family came out. Drinks flowed and the party wandered into the wee hours of the morning. Johns flashed his money, beamed his brilliant gold teeth, and basked in a life seen only in music videos.
As he left the party, a childhood friend stopped Johns in the hallway and whispered in his ear, "Fast money don't last too long."
At the time, Johns thought his friend was being clever, citing a lyric from a Lil Wayne song. He laughed it off and reached for the door.
Johns left Brookhaven the next morning and drove 3 1/2 hours back to the UA campus. The phone rang when he unloaded his bags in his apartment and a sinking feeling set in when the stranger spoke on the other end of the line.
"Someone called me asking to meet. I didn't know who it was and I said, 'No. No, I can't do it,' " Johns said, the same puzzled look returning to his face years later.
He let the thought pass and hit the gym early the next morning. After a few hours of lifting weights, he drove to a convenience store for something to drink. As he parked, a car wheeled in close behind him so aggressively that he thought he was about to be robbed.
He tried to back out and get away. That's when the blue lights flashed and the car's siren wailed. Johns dropped his head and exhaled. Finally, he thought. Finally, it's over.
"I'm done with drugs. I'm done with football," he remembered thinking in the moments before surrendering to the police. "I was so tired."
At roughly 8 a.m., Johns was formally charged with six drug-related crimes, including the distribution of cocaine. He was immediately kicked off the football team.
Inside the cramped cell at the Tuscaloosa County jail, Johns slept.
"It was a relief getting caught," Johns said frankly. "I could be me again. I would be OK with any sentence they gave me."
"Anything you could do, he could do it better"
Coaches noticed it. Teammates and friends did, too. Johns was a candle that burned brighter than any in the room, but burned out quickly. There was a darkness, an unpredictability to his mood.
Former UA assistant coach Sparky Woods sensed something was off. He marveled at Johns' athleticism and magnetic personality at first, but later he would get an inkling of the depression that haunted the young man.
"He was big and fast," Woods recalled. "He won the state championship in football, track and field in two categories. Honestly, he might have jogged from the last hurdle to the line.
"If there was a crowd of guys, Jimmy had fun playing in the group and would become the center of attention. He was a handsome sucker. Anything you culd do, he'd do it better than you."
Johns, then a top-10 prospect in Mississippi, signed with Alabama in 2005. He was a physical freak: 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, capable of running a 4.7 40-yard dash. His senior year he threw for 2,400 yards, rushed for 1,500 and scored 44 touchdowns. He committed to UA in January and didn't take another visit. He had known where he wanted to go since he saw Alabama beat Miami in the 1992 Sugar Bowl. He was just 5 at the time.
Johns grew up with an absentee father in Brookhaven, a small town in rural Mississippi that saw the factory and farm work dry up decades ago. It's a town literally split in two: blacks on the west side of the train tracks, whites on the east. The mostly lower-income community west of the tracks is peppered with obliterated shotgun houses and boarded up homes, a haven for drugs and petty crime. The hustlers and drug dealers are as inconspicuous as Johns' eggshell white Cadillac with its license plate that reads "3RDNLONG."
Patricia Johns, a registered nurse, raised her son and his four siblings here in a one-story home on the corner of Chickasaw Street. She worked two to three jobs while the grandparents helped look after the children.
Johns' grandfather, Luther Zach Thomas, was a timber salesman and the young boy's mentor. Johns learned his work ethic from Thomas -- the drive that would earn him the Jerry Duncan "I Like to Practice" Award at Alabama just months before his arrest.
As soon as Johns was big enough to haul wood, Thomas put him to work, picking him up each day at 5 a.m. for the drive into the dense forests of neighboring Franklin County. There, Johns would watch his grandfather cut and haul wood until the point of exhaustion. Sometimes Johns would feign a headache or pretend to pass out to get out of the grueling work. But watching his grandfather, he learned a sense of determination.
"Every day something would break down on that truck," Johns said with a smile. "I thought we would never be able to leave but he'd fix it no matter how long it took. He was going to get that load."
Tears pooled in the recesses of Johns' eyes: "I was watching adversity and perseverance every day.
"I'm just crushed my son didn't get to meet him."
Thomas died in April 2006. Johns has a tattoo on his abdomen, a pair of hands clasped, praying, with a rosary wrapped between the fingers, his grandfather's name in flowing cursive beneath the image.
With Thomas gone there was no one left to catch Johns. Woods, then in his third year as an assistant at UA, became Johns' adviser, but the relationship wasn't the same. Johns' bubbly personality cooled.
"He was high and low at times," Woods said. "I'd have to stay on top of him. If he went home, I had to make sure he got there and back safe."
Then, when coach Mike Shula was fired and his staff let go, Johns was alone again.
In the spring of 2007, Johns let his attention stray from the sport that had kept him away from trouble for so long.
"Football was my scapegoat not to do it," said Johns, who admitted that after Thomas died he had "dabbled" in selling drugs. "It was my excuse."
When Woods left, he took it up full time.
The depression he had battled since his grandfather's death worsened. The university recommended a psychiatrist, and he went twice a week. He took medicine daily: Abilify, Adderall, Xanax.
He began hanging out in Ensley, a crime-ridden portion of metro Birmingham. Before, he said he was scared to set foot in the city, calling it, "The murder capital."
"I started hanging out in Birmingham and that's when I picked up a pack," Johns said. The "pack" was cocaine. "It was an out-of-body experience. I don't even remember my junior season."
Remarkably, no one noticed a change. A quick tour of Johns' apartment would have revealed a king-size bed, a Playstation 3, two motor scooters and an assortment of high-end jewelry. He once spent $3,000 on a purse for his girlfriend and partied in South Beach on weekends.
He would work out in the morning, go to class during the day, practice in the afternoon, and then deal drugs and party all night. Sleep, he said, wasn't much of an option.
"I wanted to be the best at everything, even drugs," Johns said.
The lifestyle was difficult, and addictive.
"You almost forget it's illegal. I was just being young and naïve."
Naïve and stupid. Johns wasn't the world's best criminal -- admitting at one point that he was "a bad drug dealer." Police caught on to him quickly, in part due to the recklessness of his operation -- he had gone so far as to set up a drug exchange in the parking lot of the football practice facility.
Waiting to change
In the binder, on nearly every scrap of paper, there's a countdown. In some places Johns added up the number of days left in each month. In others he drew a calendar. An X through a box meant he was one day closer to getting out and starting over.
On one page he scribbled, "We must rebuild this city." Blue stars bracket the statement in the center of the page. Johns wasn't referring to a place, but rather to himself. The Biblical reference to the city of Jericho touched him, willed him to rebuild his own life from the ground up.
"Go look at that picture. I was so dull," Johns said, referring to the mug shot taken of him after his arrest. His stark brown eyes were flat, his beard wiry and unkempt, the bags under his eyes heavy and gray.
"You lose yourself. It's ridiculous."
On Sept. 21, 2011, Johns was released from prison. After two months holed up in his mother's house, he got a job at a local car dealership.
By all accounts, he has been a model citizen. He has maintained a job and moved in with his fiancée. The beard is gone, the gold teeth removed. The only jewelry he wears is a watch and two rings – one, his state championship ring from high school, and the other from the 2006 Cotton Bowl. The bags under his eyes are now just outlines, a sign of age and a commitment to fatherhood.
He pulls up a picture of Jimmy Johns Jr. and himself on his son's first day of school. "My dad wasn't there for that," Johns said, smiling.
In Brookhaven, he has returned to iconic status, but there's a distance to him, a needed separation. Driving the streets, there's not a single crowded corner that doesn't wave down his sleek two-door Cadillac. He double-taps his horn and waves back. Winding through the projects, he points out the house of a friend who was just convicted of murder and will spend the rest of his life in jail.
"I'm scared to hang out," Johns says, passing a neighborhood ballpark where two games are being played on adjacent fields. A handful of people come up to his car and ask how he's doing.
He's still the people's champ, but he's no longer of the people.
"I can't put myself in a position to lose," he says.
A life renewed
On a hot, dank summer afternoon, Johns laced up his cleats. The humidity pulled the sweat from his pores, soaking his headband. He warmed up at quarterback and zipped a few passes to receivers in the middle of the field. Some sailed high and others fell flat. The anxiousness revealed itself every time he dropped back to throw.
Phil Campbell was sweating, too. The part-time trainer and chief operating officer of King's Daughter Medical Center was taking a chance on Johns. Not only did Campbell agree to become the head coach of the newly formed semi-pro team at Johns' insistence, his employer was also bankrolling the organization.
Last fall, Johns had pitched the idea to Campbell as a way to reach out to the community and give children something to do other than hang out on street corners. Maybe it would keep him out of trouble, too.
"What struck me was his honesty. He owned up to what he did and didn't make excuses," Campbell said. "I was taken with the way he wanted to give back."
The hospital's CEO signed off and agreed to become the team's lead sponsor. Johns began recruiting players and formed the Tri-County Heroes, replete with dazzling red, white and blue uniforms.
The anxiousness Johns and Campbell felt on June 2 was the culmination of their hard work. Joining the Gridiron Development League, they'd built something from the ground up.
Despite plans to play both ways at quarterback and linebacker, Johns went out on special teams for kickoff. He shot off like a cannon, sprinting 5 yards in front of the coverage and hurling himself toward the ball carrier. Paramedics held their breath, bracing for the collision. Instead, Johns whiffed, got up and readied himself for the next play.
On first-and-10, he got it right, reading a sweep off left tackle and dragging down the running back for a 3-yard loss. Two plays later, he sacked the quarterback. On the next play he read the screen pass perfectly and went full tilt at the running back, drilling him in the numbers, drawing "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd.
"He's hungry," noted the team's trainer.
"He didn't play much defense in high school. I guess he should have," said a local photographer on the sidelines.
On the Heroes' first series, Johns settled under center, took the snap and dropped back. He glanced off the safety and sent the ball flying down the right sideline. The 44-yard pass connected and got the crowd on its feet. Johns bounced all the way to the line of scrimmage.
Through his face mask, his smile was obvious.
This wasn't part of his plan, but that didn't mean he wouldn't enjoy it. Football was a means to an end, a way to be a Better Person Daily.
Jimmy Johns was a star at Alabama before a drug charge and jail time changed his life. Now he's trying to lead a positive life.