Family's move key to Johnson's development

DT Travis Johnson's family moved him away from South Central L.A. – before the gangs could successfully recruit him.

Updated: April 13, 2005, 12:12 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Long before he was courted by every major football program in the country, pursued in particular by the Pac-10 schools close to his home, Travis Johnson was being recruited by the gangs that ruled his neighborhood.

The biggest kid on his block, towering over his schoolboy friends even in his early teens, Johnson was a prime target of the Bloods in the once-notorious South Central section of Los Angeles. You think some college coaches can break out the hard sell for a player they covet? Johnson can relate a lot more hair-raising stories about the persuasive techniques of the Bloods hierarchy.

So can his father, Edmund, who comprehended that if his son and his burgeoning talents were to move on to a higher level, the family had to move out of South Central, to get away from the hardscrabble streets and the temptations they provided.

So what are the limits of a father's love, how far will some men go to protect themselves and their loved ones? Well, for Edmund Johnson, about a 90-minute drive.

"One day he just decided he had enough [of South Central]," recalled Travis Johnson, the former Florida State defensive tackle and a prospect some NFL scouts feel is the best at his position in this year's draft. "So he got into his car and just drove as far as he could. Or at least as far as he could to a neighborhood that he figured we could afford. And the next thing you know, we had moved. It meant a 90-minute trip to work for him every day, I'm talking both ways, but it's like that didn't matter to my dad. That move, man, it was huge."

Big enough that, when Johnson recalls in detail (and, trust us, everything comes accompanied with great detail in any discussion with him) the galvanizing moments of his life, that relocation to the modest community of Oak Park ranks right near the top of the list.

Less than two weeks removed from another signature event, with the April 23 draft only three days before his 23rd birthday, Johnson is kind of a Janus-faced portrait of serenity, looking both backward and forward at the same time. And, knowing that he is prepared for the future because of the crucible of the past, approving the view in both directions.

Beyond surviving the South Central urban battle zone, he has overcome other travails as well, many of them recalled in Johnson's various tattoos. The most prominent, showing an angel breaking loose from heavy chains, stretches across his wide back and includes the message "Against All Odds."

Because he has not always been angelic – even a choir boy stumbles every now and then, Johnson noted earlier this week, in reviewing some past tribulations – there is some irony to the tattoo.

Like all of his other body murals, though, it tells a story.

Then again, when it comes to telling stories, Johnson doesn't really need any pictures as visual aids, because the guy is worth a minimum of 1,000 words even when presented the most innocuous query. Take the tale of his latest tattoo, a busy collage that runs along his left arm and includes renderings of a wolf, a lion and a bull.

The nasty-looking bull is a tribute to his Zodiac sign, Taurus. The wolf? Well, he's about as hungry as a ravenous wolf in the wild. And the lion? Uh, for the sake of brevity, here is the abridged version.

"You know, man, king of the jungle," explained Johnson. "I mean, if you were to see me now, with my beard, I call it my mane, you would understand. A lion never cuts his mane and I'm not cutting mine until after the draft. Right now, with all this hair, I'm kind of menacing looking, you know? But that's all right. I want the team that picks me to know they are getting a guy who is ready to do battle in the NFL jungle. I know I'm ready to test myself against the best and to see how I stack up."

It was that same basic curiosity about how he might fare against what he perceived as the best competition at the college level that led Johnson to rebuff scholarship offers from Pac-10 powerhouses and travel cross-country to Tallahassee, Fla., to matriculate. His friends, even his family, urged him to go to Southern California or UCLA.

But he concluded that staying so close to home might make him soft. And Johnson also admired the swagger with which the Seminoles, especially the defensive unit, performed every week. The clincher came when some buddies chided him that he would not survive the rigors of living and playing far away from home. You don't, Johnson acknowledged, dare him to do anything. Every challenge, it seems, is a bright red flag for the man born to the sign of the bull.

He had already overcome playing at a small, private high school, Notre Dame, against lesser competition than he would have encountered had his family remained in South Central. His brilliant high school career aside, he heard whispers it was accomplished, in part, because he was able to dominate at the lower level. And so it was off to Tallahassee, where he was forced to wait his turn behind older tackles such as current Arizona Cardinal Darnell Dockett, but where he attracted NFL scouts even before he moved into the starting lineup as a senior. "Even when he was just part of the [tackle] rotation, you knew he was a player, and then he really stepped it up [as a senior] in 2004," said the college scouting director from one NFC team that clearly has Johnson on its first-round radar screen. "When he's on his game, he is a very disruptive guy. And just talking to him at the combine, he seems a lot hungrier than some of our scouts claimed he might be."

For the loquacious Johnson, who offered a filibuster when asked about motivation, the desire to play and succeed in the NFL extends way beyond hunger.

Beyond surviving the South Central urban battle zone, he has overcome other travails as well, many of them recalled in Johnson's various tattoos. The most prominent, showing an angel breaking loose from heavy chains, stretches across his wide back and includes the message 'Against All Odds.'

"I mean, there's hunger, and there's starving," he explained. "When people say that I am hungry, well, they're underestimating how bad I want it. You take a homeless person, OK? Now some will say to you, 'Can you give me some money.' And others will say, 'Can you please give me some food.' The first person, now, OK, he's hungry. But that second person, let me tell you, he's starving. And that's me."

His appetite will be at least partially sated on April 23, a day he will spend at home with his family, awaiting the announcement of his name in the first round. He hasn't planned a big party, doesn't want to celebrate too much, he said, until he gets into training camp and puts himself to the acid test against the game's best blockers.

One thing Johnson does plan to do, though, on draft day, is thank his parents for giving him the chance for an NFL career. Talk to him about what might have occurred had his father not jumped in the car that day and driven to Oak Park, and Johnson grows quiet. OK, quiet by his standards, at least.

He is reflective, even melancholy, in relating how his folks shuffled shifts to assure there was always at least one parent there to take him to school and pick him up. And he spoke at length about the sacrifices his family made for him. He could have been, he conceded, in jail by now, or worse, had he signed a letter of intent with the Bloods, had his father not realized the importance of getting on with things by getting out of a bad situation.

"All my dad has ever done," Johnson said, "was work. Work hard for his family. Make that long drive every day. I'm hoping now, maybe, he can rest a little bit. I called him last week and said, 'Daddy, what are you doing?' And you know what he said? He said, 'Son, I'm getting ready to take me a nap.' I mean, to me, it was beautiful hearing those words. Just beautiful."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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