Taking a path from (L to R) Hawkinsville High School where he was “raised,” to UGA, which provided him a stepping stone, to the Carolina Panthers, which made him into a man, CHARLES JOHNSON now impacts the journeys made by many others.
Hailing from small Hawkinsville, Ga., CHARLES JOHNSON arrived at UGA in 2004 as a high-end four-star defensive lineman. For two seasons, he played behind standout Will Thompson at defensive end, but was a major contributor off the bench. Finally, after he reportedly “stole the show” at the 2006 spring game, the quiet and unassuming Johnson became the on-field “Beast” in a starting role. The pass-rushing extraordinaire capped his tenure for the Bulldogs by earning All-SEC honors as a junior. Johnson’s career totals included 73 tackles, 29½ of which were for loss including 14½ sacks, 12 passes broken up, 62 quarterback hurries, 3 fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown (vs. UL-Monroe in 2005), and 5 forced fumbles—eye-popping stats considering he started only 13 games for his career. Johnson’s 62 quarterback hurries ranked third all time at Georgia upon his departure from the school.
A third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers, Johnson’s 63½ sack total his first nine years in the league ranks as the second-most ever by a former Georgia player. After capping the 2015 campaign—his sixth consecutive as a full-time starter for the Panthers—with a trip to the Super Bowl, Johnson could have signed with a new team. However, he agreed to re-sign with Carolina for evidently half the amount he could have received elsewhere.
Perhaps even more so than how he performs on a football field, Johnson has recently been thriving off the gridiron, as well. Besides being an owner or partner in seven different businesses, he established The Charles Johnson Foundation (charlesjohnsonfoundation.org) in 2012. In providing for and giving back to communities, and particularly the youth of Hawkinsville and the Charlotte, N.C. area, among many contributions, Johnson’s foundation awards several college scholarships annually.
I recently caught up with Charles from Charlotte:
PG: Charles, besides yourself, of course, coming out of Hawkinsville the last dozen years or so, I recall a couple of moderately-recruited guys signing with D-I schools: Robert Hall and Kamaron Riley with Georgia Tech. A teammate of yours, Dequan Bembry, was a three-star corner who signed with Marshall. But, that’s all I can really recall. Therefore, what was it like to be probably the most touted football prospect ever to come out of Hawkinsville High School?
CJ: (Chuckling) And, Kamaron Riley is actually my cousin. But, at the time, I really didn’t look at it as being highly recruited, but rather an opportunity to get out of a small town. I had grown up knowing of a lot of people who spent their entire lives in Hawkinsville—and, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that—but, some of these people amounted to little because of poor choices they made. So, I knew, even at a pretty young age that I needed to make good choices, and get out [of Hawkinsville] and explore, pursuing what I liked doing—and, that was playing football.
PG: Besides Georgia, were there any other college programs you considered? And, why did you ultimately decide to become a Bulldog?
CJ: I also made official visits to Auburn and Georgia Tech. And, although I had yet to visit Florida, I was thinking about switching my commitment [from Georgia] to the Gators. But, there were a lot of UGA alumni in my area, and my teachers at school were all Bulldog fans, so I guess Georgia was kind of deep-rooted in me. Because of that, and since I had originally committed to Georgia, in the end, I decided to stick with them.
PG: You actually didn’t start until your third, and final, season at Georgia (2006), but you had already made significant impact as a reserve. I’m guessing it “clicked” for you during your first two seasons (2004-2005) as a backup that you could play big-time college football?
CJ: Actually, because I didn’t have the right mindset, things didn’t “click” until right before my junior season (2006). Leading up to that summer, I was often late to classes, and wasn’t attending study hall like I should have. Coach [Mark] Richt finally had enough, and gave me “morning run” the whole year—my entire last year in college. I had to be up at 5:30 a.m. to start running. However, the running instilled work ethic into me. And, suddenly, my mindset changed to where I just wanted to go to work. That—an attitude where I felt like I was starting to become a man, and that I could do just about anything—continued into my final season.
PG: Personally, what would you say is your most memorable moment as a Georgia player?
CJ: Well, first off, coming from such a small town and being part of a major D-I program like the University of Georgia, it was such a huge difference for me. I was being treated so well by all these people who loved their school—a bunch of people I hadn’t known before. Also, after being a backup for two years, although I was supposed to start the next season, there were some people who didn’t take me seriously as a starter. But then, I had a really good G-Day, and a good spring altogether, and that set the tone for my junior year.
PG: After a standout junior year, you decided to go pro early. And, a lot of people, especially in the media, give their reasons—or, what they think are the reasons—why players enter the NFL Draft early. So, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you enter the draft early?
CJ: First off, I always wonder—I mean, I truly think about it a lot—what if I had stayed [for the 2007 season] because that year was when Georgia won the Sugar Bowl, and really came close to playing for a national championship. I would have played with Marcus Howard (Howard, like Johnson, was a reserve for multiple seasons until finally starting at a defensive end spot his final year in 2007), and I wonder if I would have been able to help the team out further. But, as far as why I left early, let’s just say I wasn’t really a “school guy.” In school, honestly, I tried to just get by. I’m not proud of that now, but that’s just how I was back then. So, when I had my opportunity to pursue what I wanted, and what I loved, I couldn’t pass it up.
PG: Rightfully, you couldn’t pass it up, and here you’ll be playing in 2016 for the Carolina Panthers for the 10th season. Can you believe you’ve been with Carolina, and Carolina only, for almost a decade?
CJ: Man, I got this thing I say in regards to the journey I’ve taken playing football: Hawkinsville High School raised me; Georgia provided me with a stepping stone as I tried to discover the world; and the Carolina Panthers made me into a man. When I was drafted by the Panthers, I was just 20 years old, so since I’m 29 now, Carolina kind of made me into what I am today. In the 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen so much and have experienced so much. I’ve seen people come and go, while I’ve been on both ends: hardly playing to starting every game. But, it’s a blessing that I experienced the things I needed to go through, so I can be the person I am today. It’s said, you have to go through things—some of those things don’t seem all that good at the time—to be exactly where you want to be. I totally agree with that; I’m living testimony to that.
PG: So, tell me about your Super Bowl experience this past year, specifically how unique is the lead-up to the game, and the game itself?
CJ: The difference is all the media coverage, and the pregame “talk”—it’s the max. But, when you put all the hype aside, the Super Bowl is just a game. I knew the experience was going to go by so quick, and knew of players who had not cherished their Super Bowl “moments,” realizing later they would probably never experience those moments again. So, I tried to max those moments out because I knew those moments might never come back. Also, there a lot of perks—you get a lot of free stuff (laughing). Other than that, it’s just a game.
PG: In a nutshell, tell me about The Charles Johnson Foundation.
CJ: Probably the best way to describe it is the impact it’s made, especially on my hometown of Hawkinsville. And, now, it’s starting to impact Charlotte and its surrounding areas, as well. The foundation awards several annual scholarships, and this year will be the first scholarship class to graduate college. To award kids college scholarships, and then see them graduate, definitely makes you want to keep doing what you’re doing. I guess I’ve accomplished a lot of great things, but what I’m probably the proudest of is putting kids through college. And, furthermore, we’ve had kids graduate, and then voluntarily do things afterwards, like go on missions, and do community work—that’s really special. (The Charles Johnson Foundation will have two graduating scholarship recipients in May 2016 and will have four college freshman, two sophomores, two juniors and two seniors during the 2016-17 academic year.)
PG: You are especially passionate for African-American single mothers, right? And, your foundation also contributes via athletic funding?
CJ: Yes, African-American single mothers are a passion of mine. My mother and all my aunties grew up without a father raising them. Athletically, we try to provide certain students sources they don’t have: reliable transportation, adequate shoes, youth football grants… I think a problem in our society today is there are students who don’t have the resources to do certain things and, in turn, maybe excuses are made why some of them are not getting an education. So, I want to provide these resources—stuff that might seem simple to you and I—and help out all I can.
PG: How is it that you’re not even 30, and you already own or partner in seven different businesses?
CJ: So, I’m going to tell you a true story that I don’t tell everybody (chuckle)… When I started my pro career, like I said I was just 20. I was young, had no clue how to save money, and my first four years in the NFL were spent just “living life,” running through money. I was going out all the time, and was kind of living check to check. My fifth year, I was blessed to suddenly get this big contract, but instead of going out and spending even more money, I became aware of all the NFL players going broke, and I realized I didn’t want to be that guy.
It was weird because I wanted help business wise, but didn’t know how to seek it out. And, my current business partner, Reggie Barner, kind of just fell into my lap. He came to me with an opportunity to open my first company, the JAN-PRO commercial cleaning company. I then got a new financial planner, based out of Minnesota, who helped me diversify my portfolio. I am very grateful for these two individuals because I was heading down the wrong path financially, and they set me straight, especially with investing.
PG: I heard you have a young son. Like his daddy, do you see him one day suiting up “between the hedges”?
CJ: You never know… Yes, my son’s name is C.J., Jr., or Charles Johnson, Jr. He’s at the wild age of four, and he’s very active, but I love him more than anything. For anyone that follows me on Twitter (@randywattson), they see that I have him playing just about everything. I try to expose him to a little bit of all sports now so, when he gets older, he can choose what exactly he wants to play.
PG: I know your schedule is demanding, especially since you’re still active in the NFL, but do you ever get a chance to return to Athens for a gameday?
CJ: There’s generally that opening weekend of college football a week before the NFL starts its regular schedule—that’s when I’ve been able to make it back. This year, I definitely want to try to make it to the North Carolina game in the Georgia Dome. Up here with all these North Carolina fans, there’s a lot riding on that game. As soon as that game was scheduled, people up here started talking about it. I got a lot of friends who are Tar Heels fans, including some guys that played on UNC teams, and we’ve been going back and forth for what seems like a long time.
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