After he gets drafted, Lonnie Johnson has no plans to return to Gary, Indiana, a once-thriving Rust Belt city that is now a reminder of a violent past and a lot of pain
By Chase Goodbread | Published April 17, 2019
GARY, Ind. -- Daja Brookshire holds the most real estate on Lonnie Johnson's right arm. A red rose tattoo blooms bright on his right hand, with "Daja" emblazoned across it. He never removes the purple band she gave him from his right wrist. It wraps around tattoos of her birth date (11-24-99) and the date she died (8-2-15), at 15 years old, when she was killed in a drive-by shooting as she stepped out of a car.
The right-arm artwork, Johnson says, represents hope. A set of praying hands adorns the right forearm, and a biblical verse on his right shoulder -- 1 Peter 5-6 -- reminds him to stay humble. It's the arm from which he draws strength, reminders of all that's been good in his life. Yet even those things, like Brookshire, have been fleeting.
Daja and Lonnie were close friends, but she's far from the only one he's lost to the streets of his hometown of Gary. His left-arm tattoos represent knowledge -- the worst of lessons learned -- and not surprisingly they invoke those very streets. Scary Gary reads one inscription, and the corner street sign where he grew up, Durbin & 8th Avenue, stretches across his left shoulder.
He's been to more funerals in Gary than he cares to count; he returned home for three before he'd even finished his first year as a student at the University of Kentucky.
"I've gotten numb to them. I don't cry," he says. "It hurts, but it just becomes another person you knew."
If he's compelled to add more tattoos depicting his pain, he might have to start on his rib cage.
The left-arm canvas is full.
His is a vexing story of tragedy and triumph, of poverty and perseverance, arising from a forgotten Midwestern town in desperate need of a local-kid-made-good inspiration. As one of the top cornerback prospects available in the 2019 NFL Draft, he's just days away from becoming such a beacon for his hometown.
But Lonnie Johnson isn't in this for Gary. He's motivated by family, not city.
South of Gary there are signs of healthy suburbia. National-chain eateries -- an Applebee's, a Cold Stone Creamery -- bank branches and a CVS dot State Road 53, also known as Broadway, like they would anywhere else in America. There's even a public, domed sports complex in Crown Point, where some of the people who've fled Gary now stay.
But as the drive north on Broadway enters the city and closes within a few miles of Lake Michigan, it's obvious something has gone terribly wrong here. Businesses are beyond just shuttered; much of the commercial property is in visible disrepair, marked with graffiti and boarded windows, plainly unfit for occupancy. Those that haven't closed beckon remaining residents with payday loan windows and liquor stores, giving the impression that too much foot traffic likely shuffles from one to the other. From a large sign on an abandoned building, encouraging voters for an upcoming election on May 7, mayoral candidate Jerome Prince asks residents to "Reimagine Gary."
Easier said than done.
Gary endured 17 homicides in the first three months of 2019, a frightening total for a town of just 75,000, and one that finds itself ranked among the worst cities in America for its murder rate. In 2015, the year Brookshire was killed, there was a stretch of eight murders in eight days. The re-make of "Nightmare on Elm Street" was filmed here in 2009, but reality in Gary can be worse than any Hollywood creation.
Broadway dissects the city's West and East, and on either side, various neighborhoods perpetrate much of the violence upon one another. Johnson is from the West Side and named his pit bull "Bronx" after his neighborhood. The Bronx, Tolleston, Glen Park, Miller and other areas form complicated and deadly relationships. Budget cuts have forced public school closures for years, and Johnson said the closings dangerously blur neighborhood lines at the schoolhouse door.
"When (Lew) Wallace (High) got closed down, kids had to go to West Side that didn't belong in that neighborhood. That made school more dangerous, when you had different hoods going to one school," Johnson said. "Now you've got Eastside, Westside, Glen Park all in one school. Of course, there's going to be fighting. Of course, there are going to be riots."
Broadway to the North dead ends at Gary Works, a massive steel mill that once was able to carry this town. Decades ago, it had a fitting name. Today, Gary Doesn't Work might be more apt.
The mill is set to receive a $750 million boost from U.S. Steel, but the cash infusion isn't expected to bring what Gary needs most desperately -- jobs. On street after street, countless abandoned houses have broken or boarded windows, holes in roofs, overgrown yards, even signs of fire damage. Five-year estimates from 2013-2017, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, indicate more than a quarter of Gary's housing units are unoccupied, and more than a third of its residents live below the poverty line.
Johnson's old neighborhood isn't better off than any other.
Brunswick Elementary on West 7th Avenue where Johnson attended, as did his mother, Nora, before him, was closed in 2014. Closed, that is, in the sense that it's no longer serving the community.
Physically, however, it couldn't be more open.
It's been ransacked for anything of value; doors hang off the hinges, inviting whatever criminal activity might care to congregate. Surprisingly, after five years, some schoolbooks remain on the shelves. Graffiti covers the interior of the classrooms, easy to see from the street because the walls, where large windows once were, have been completely ripped out.
"I don't know what happened to the windows. They must be able to sell them," Nora says. "They've cleaned that school dry."
Jason Johnson, Lonnie's uncle who coached his nephew at West Side High, grew up in Gary and had a brief pro career as a wide receiver. In 1988, he returned 14 kickoffs for the Denver Broncos and caught the only pass of his NFL career before going to NFL Europe for two years. Post-football, he became an administrator for a school district in Illinois before returning to Gary as a coach to help the youth of his hometown navigate a cultural crisis. He recalls the early 1990s as something of a breaking point.
"It started to turn around the time people started robbing people for the Air Jordan shoes," Jason Johnson said. "That's when you started seeing neighborhood rivalries, you started seeing more of a drug problem. That Nike boom, the Starter jacket boom, that's when it started going bad."
Lonnie, for his part, says he has great respect for his uncle's willingness to return to Gary and help kids find a way out. But it's not a path he sees for himself.
"It's a different era now," he says. "Look at (late rapper) Nipsey Hussle. He just got killed in his own neighborhood, by his own people."
Johnson picks a seat against a wall, finding comfort on his back at a popular restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, where he's spent the last two years securing the NFL as a one-way ticket out of Gary. Eventually, he knocks on the wood behind his head with a few knuckles.
"This is cool for me, right here," he says. "I hate having my back turned around people. I like my back against the wall where I can see everyone and everything going on, so nobody can come at me from behind."
That instinct comes from Brookshire, who was shot in the back. And from another of his friends, who was sitting in the front seat of a car when he was shot in the head by someone in the backseat. That friend, Johnson said, had been spending time in a different area of Gary -- Glen Park -- and Johnson had warned him weeks earlier about the dangers of roaming the wrong neighborhood.
Fortunately, Johnson has never been shot. He held a protected status in the Bronx, he says, for a couple of reasons. Primarily, he was a star athlete who was recognized as someone with the potential to rise above and play football at the college or pro level. And two, he stayed in his neighborhood and never looked for trouble.
"I was untouchable," he said. "I never went out creating problems, but I didn't run from any. I tried to keep my head low and I never got into it with anyone from Glen Park. That's how bodies drop, when you go in the wrong neighborhood. I never did anything wrong to anyone, so if something happened to me, it would start a war."
Protected status, however, doesn't mean danger never found him.
Nine years ago, he was at the World of Skates skating rink near Fifth Avenue and Clark Road, when gunfire erupted following a concert headlined by rapper Waka Flocka Flame. A hype man opened the show, reportedly, by stirring up the crowd with comments that pitted East Side versus West Side. Eight teenagers, some as young as 14, were shot in their legs, wrists, stomachs and backs, but amazingly all survived. Johnson wasn't a target, but he could easily have been struck. Another time, he says, he was in his own neighborhood in the Bronx, playing basketball with a group of people in Brunswick Park, when a car drove by and its passengers opened fire on the court.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Gary can be as deadly as being targeted. Brookshire was the youngest victim of Gary's 50 homicides in 2015, but it was her boyfriend who was thought to be the target of the shooting.
"Everybody was mad at him, but you can't be mad at him because he loved her. And she loved him," Johnson said. "She was (in the) wrong place, wrong time."
Daja's mother, Kisha Davis, and Johnson's mother were close friends growing up on Gary's West Side, and Lonnie would look out for Daja, who was five years younger than him, much like a big brother. She loved Lonnie's protective nature and would hug him on sight at school. The two bonded as track athletes as well; Daja was a standout hurdler and Lonnie won an Indiana state long jump title in 2014. And although she competed at the middle school level while Lonnie was in high school, they supported each other at competitions.
When Daja was shot, Lonnie Jr. was at home, asleep, when Nora woke him to break the tragic news. He was inconsolable, going straight to the hospital to join other well-wishers but returned home just before she was pronounced dead, at 11:37 p.m., because he had to drive the following morning to Garden City (Kansas) Community College to report for fall practice. He shed tears throughout the drive.
"I think that was the turning point for Lonnie as far as him not wanting to go back to Gary," said Jon'Vea Johnson, his cousin. "I think after that, he felt like he was done with Gary."