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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."

When the subject of the house at 323 King Street comes up, Johnson refers to a right-arm tattoo that reminds him to keep faith.

While he attended West Side High, hard times forced 17 members of Johnson's extended family to share the two-bedroom, one-bath home for nearly a year. Online public records indicate the structure offered them just 750 square feet of space. Located in the Northwest corner of Gary, just south of the Grand Calumet River, the home was owned at the time by his grandmother, Diane Austin. She was already accommodating most of them when room had to be made for Johnson's immediate family.

Five miles to the south, on Orchard Drive, Lonnie Johnson Sr. came home one day to find a for-sale sign planted in his front yard. His family of four was living in a home owned by his brother, who put the house on the market without prior notice.

"He didn't even call. He just put the sign in the ground. I called him and said, 'I have a family, dude -- tell me something'," said Johnson Sr., who didn't speak to his brother for years, but eventually reconciled. "He fell into hard times and had to do what he had to do, but I was pretty mad. He just did it the wrong way."

The house sold quickly, forcing Johnson Sr., Nora, Lonnie and younger brother Darion into Austin's already-crowded home. Both parents had jobs but weren't in position to find their own place on such short notice. Austin slept on the couch, giving up her bedroom. Some slept on the floor. There were arguments over priority on the home's lone shower.

"I'd look to the left, got a cousin laying right beside me, look to the right, another cousin laying right there," Lonnie Jr. said. "That was probably the hardest thing I've ever been through."

The phrase that identifies the region of America where Johnson is from means nothing to him. In fact, he was introduced to it for the first time just a few weeks ago.

"I've never heard the term Rust Belt before," he said.

Who can blame him?

The phrase refers to an industrial decline, in cities mostly near the Great Lakes, that he's too young to have witnessed. The only Gary, Indiana, he's ever known finished its decline and settled into utter despair before he was even born, so forgive him for being a bit history-blind.

Why should he care that his hometown was named after Elbert Henry Gary, the founder of U.S. Steel? Why should he care that Gary once boasted the biggest steel mill on Planet Earth?

Gary Works, U.S. Steel's flagship plant, opened in 1908 on the city's North end, perfectly situated for major commerce on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Raw materials for steel-making, such as iron ore, could arrive on lake freighters, and steel products could then be made and distributed any number of ways, including railroads that offered direct lines to nearby Chicago. The town was originally built with U.S. Steel funding for the expressed purpose of housing its labor force. For decades, it fed America's appetite for steel -- its military through both world wars, its thriving car manufacturers -- and attracted a burgeoning population with well-paying jobs that required trade skills, not college degrees. Gary kids of a long-gone era could walk straight out of high school and become more than just self-sufficient with a mill job; they could build a livelihood.

"It was the proper thing for a man to do -- have a great job at the steel mill and support a family," Nora said.

By the end of the 1920s, more than 100,000 people lived in Gary, and it peaked in the mid-1960s at around 180,000. Just one of multiple steel mills in the area, Gary Works employed 30,000 as late as the 1970s, just before the industrial bubble burst.

The mill's ability to carry the town was eventually ravaged by international competition, among other factors, and currently employs fewer than 4,000. China is now the world's largest steel producer by a vast margin. Since Lonnie was born in 1995, Gary has lost 30 percent of its population. Since the days when steel was truly king here, more than 50 percent have fled to suburbia and beyond.

Gary, in turn, has a ghost-town reputation.

Even Lonnie's parents are too young to remember when it was a great place to live. Both his grandfathers and his paternal grandmother were laid off at steel mills. His father, Lonnie Sr., had to go to Chicago to find a steel mill job, where he loaded trucks with steel beams until he was laid off. In discussing the quality of life in Gary with multiple members of the Johnson family, the first ray of sunshine comes from Lonnie's former football coach, his uncle Jason, who was born in 1965 around the time Gary's population was peaking. He remembers vibrant youth programs and well-kept public parks. Across town The Jackson 5, founded in Gary, was becoming a pop music sensation.

Jason can remember, as a kid, being able to ride his bike from one area of town to another without fear of violent crime. Now, he peers out the front window of his 19th Avenue home, at any number of abandoned houses in visible disrepair, and immediately recognizes the difference.

"Riding a bike from here to Glen Park? Today, kids in Gary would never even think of doing that," he said.

No, for recollections of true occupational prosperity in Gary, you've got to dig back yet another generation. Back to Merrillville, just south of Gary, where two gunshots are heard as a visitor approaches Diane Austin's small Edgewood Court apartment. The grandmother who took in 17 loved ones eight years ago is still taking care of children; she and Nora have shared the task of raising her granddaughter, 4-year-old Sierra, since Sierra's mother died of a brain tumor. As Sierra circles Diane with toys and stuffed animals and boundless energy, Diane jogs her 64-year-old memory to a time when jobs in Gary were so plentiful, steel workers could quit a mill job not to their liking and instantly find another.

"It was booming," she said. "There were more jobs than people, and there were people everywhere."

She remembers 40 years ago having to accept a Roosevelt High School diploma on behalf of her brother, Richard Lomax -- Lonnie Jr.'s great uncle -- because the kid she called "the best welder in Indiana" had too lucrative of a job at the mill to take a day off for his own high school graduation. Lonnie's uncle Jason said his father, Jimmy, was the second black foreman ever hired at U.S. Steel. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore, not for the reasons the children of Gary do today, but because steel-mill money was just too damned good for high school.

"He was making $2,000 a paycheck, and in the 1960s, that was big-time," Jason adds. "As a foreman, he was on call 24/7, so he was gone all the time. Him being gone is how I learned a man is supposed to work. This neighborhood, Tolleston, used to be a great place for middle-class blacks to live."

Just a few feet to Lonnie Johnson's left, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari shakes hands at the longest table at Tony's of Lexington, celebrating a new lifetime contract at UK that had just been reported hours earlier. Just across the street from the upscale restaurant stands the building -- fabled Rupp Arena -- where Calipari secures his millions. Johnson spots the legendary coach but is not the least bit excited by his presence. He shakes his head when asked how often he caught a Wildcats home basketball game in his two years at Kentucky.

"Only time I ever walked into Rupp was when they took me in there during my recruiting visit. I wasn't here for that," he says, with a tinge of disdain for his school's lopsided passion for basketball over football. "You know, the football team balled out this year, too."

It's little wonder Johnson took such a business-like approach to his brief taste of Division I college football. His toughness comes hard-learned.

As a child, he was the smallest kid on Durbin Street and frequently was a target for bullying. Tired of seeing her child run home crying, his parents put a stop to it in a way that Johnson never forgot. When a bigger boy tried to beat him up one day, Johnson made a break for his house like he always had before.

His mother, seeing what was happening from the window, rushed to the screen door … and locked it.

As Lonnie tugged on a door handle that wouldn't give, he realized it wasn't locked by accident. Nora told him through the screen that the time had come to defend himself. He turned to face Marvin, his assailant, and summoned the courage his mother demanded. As comfortable as Lonnie is now with his back against a wall, this time, the wall was that of his own house, and it was decidedly uncomfortable.

It was no storybook ending; Lonnie took a beating, and Nora knew what the outcome would be the moment she locked the door. But she also knew that running from fights was no way for a kid to survive in Gary, Indiana. Her only hope was that Lonnie could teach a lesson while learning one at the same time, and that's exactly what he did. He landed a few punches -- just enough to serve neighborhood notice that, even though he lost the fight, his days as an easy target were over.

"We weren't going to let him get killed, but he had to get that fear out," Nora said. "… Lonnie handled his (business)."

Nora and Lonnie Sr. said their parents had taught them the same lesson, at the same age, by doing the same thing.

"That taught me never to back down from anyone," Lonnie Jr. said. "That's why to this day I'm not afraid of anybody. I play ball with that same edge."

Johnson's toughness is plain enough for NFL personnel evaluators to see on film, but scouts are tasked with chronicling his personal journey from Gary's West Side High to the draft, not just his football journey. That means sorting through a vexing web of details across three colleges in five years, including a full season off from playing the game. From academic struggles to a night in jail, from a fortuitous position switch to a fabulous showing at the Reese's Senior Bowl, Johnson's college road began with the worst year of his football career and ended with the best.

Nora Johnson remembers her son sobbing on her front porch when the realization struck him that a sub-2.0 grade-point average had broken his dream of playing Division I college football. He'd shared that dream with his best friend and cousin, Jon'Vea Johnson, while the two starred at West Side High. Jon'Vea made his grades and signed with Toledo -- he's now a 2019 draft prospect himself -- but Lonnie's academics forced a detour. He had been committed to Ohio State, but failed to qualify.

"JV was making a right, and Lonnie had to go left," Nora said.

The JUCO path began at San Bernardino (Calif.) Valley College, a non-scholarship program where Johnson struggled in the classroom, dealt with the breakup of his parents, saw limited playing time as a wide receiver and had little to no financial support.

"I had a guy telling me he was going to look out for me when I was in California, because my family didn't have much to support me there," Johnson said. "He was a guy I knew growing up, and he told me he would help with bills and food just to get me to go out there. Then when I got out there, he wouldn't even answer his phone. He didn't do anything." Johnson despised the place.

On the field, his performance suffered -- he called it the worst season he's ever played -- and off the field he lashed out. He got into a fight that bought him one night in jail, although he was never formally charged and has nothing on his record. It served as an eye-opener in more ways than one.

"I wasn't telling people what I was going through, so that built up inside and anything someone would say to me that made me mad, it would set me off," Johnson said. "I was going through so much at the time and I didn't know how to handle it.

"I grew up seeing my dad go to jail, seeing other people in my life go to jail, so when I went, it just felt like my turn. It was cold as hell in there. I saw crack heads. I knew I didn't want to ever go back."

That night was the only time he's ever removed the purple wristband he got from Brookshire -- when he had to remove all his jewelry while being processed for his night in jail. When it was returned to him upon his release the following day, he vowed the wristband wouldn't come off his wrist ever again, for that reason or any other.

As a former recruiting coordinator at Indiana University, Jeff Sims was well aware of the potential Johnson flashed at the high school level. The Garden City Community College coach offered Johnson a scholarship as a transfer, and Johnson was so glad to be finished with San Bernardino Valley College, he didn't even return to California to retrieve his belongings. A TV, a game system and some shoes were small prices to pay, he felt, to never have to see the place again.

At Garden City, Johnson's luck began to turn on what Sims calls "opposite day."

Each year during spring drills, the coach holds one practice in which players work at the opposite position. Linemen switch sides of the ball, linebackers play running back and vice versa, and receivers and defensive backs swap roles, as well. The intention is two-fold: breaking up the monotony of spring practice for players, while giving Sims and his staff a look at potential position changes.

"I took one look at what Lonnie could do at corner, and we never played him at receiver again," Sims said. "We moved him that day, and he had no problem with it at all."

That fall, in 2015, was the first season Johnson had ever spent as a full-time cornerback.

Nora was able to travel to see him play just once that season, spending her rent money for October to make the trip for GCCC's game against Iowa Western Community College. Johnson recorded his first interception that day and went on to intercept five passes over Garden City's final six games. It was good enough for major colleges to come calling once again, and Johnson committed to Iowa State.

Once again, however, he failed to qualify academically. His frustration mounted.

"In a 10-day period, his attitude would be fantastic for eight days, then he'd stub his toe and it would be horrible for a couple days and we'd have to snap him out of it," Sims said.

Johnson considered signing with a Division II school, where academic requirements are less stringent. He considered quitting football altogether and returning to Gary with NFL potential unfulfilled. With two seasons of JUCO eligibility exhausted, he'd left himself nothing but undesirable options. Sims convinced him to return to Garden City in 2016 as a redshirt, ineligible to play, so he could focus strictly on his schoolwork. That meant Sims had to give up a valued roster spot to a player he knew couldn't step on the field, and Johnson's scholarship had to be secured through fundraising.

Sims didn't care. Despite countless arguments with Johnson about his future, he continued to nurture the potential he saw. The turning point for Johnson's attitude was a conversation with his mother, Nora. Sims had called to warn her that Johnson was teetering on his last chance at Garden City, and she sat her son down and revealed to him that she'd been working two jobs so that she and her younger son, Darion, could survive.

Johnson then returned to GCCC with a renewed academic purpose.

In 2016, Garden City won the National Junior College Athletic Association national title, finishing 11-0, as Johnson watched from the sideline. He spent that season earning the prize that mattered far more than a championship trophy: qualifying grades.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and several members of his staff know plenty about the Rust Belt. He, tight ends coach Vince Marrow and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale are all from Youngstown, Ohio, where industrial decline wrought the same economic and societal damage that befell Gary. Recruiting Johnson on a personal level made it easy to build a relationship.

"I knew what it was like to be in a house where a cousin has to come live, a niece has to come in, and you make room and do the best you can," said Marrow, who had also recruited Johnson out of high school. "Steel is like a folk hero now. It's what grandparents talk about, not parents."

At UK, Johnson finally flourished. He broke into the starting lineup in his first season, drew the attention of NFL scouts with his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, and even performed in the classroom like he never had before. Having taken the previous season off at Garden City, he was hungry to play, eager to learn more about the cornerback position, and took well to coaching.

"The coaches knew how to deal with me," Johnson said. "They knew being soft with me wasn't going to get the best out of me. I don't need a coach that I can walk over. I demand respect, and they demand respect, so it worked out."

Clinkscale recalls a spring practice in 2017 after which Stoops admonished his players about class attendance. Johnson stood up with some words of leadership, even though he'd just arrived on campus weeks earlier, and told his new teammates they "didn't want to end up eating cereal for dinner at a junior college like I did."

"He could've come here and just relied on his physical tools, but he didn't," said Clinkscale. "His attitude was, 'I'm here to shake it up. Somebody's going to lose a job, and I'm going to get my family the lifestyle they deserve.' "

Over two seasons at UK, Johnson grew into one of the most talented cornerbacks available in the upcoming NFL draft. Yet according to the coaching staff, his limited career experience at the position foretells much more development and improvement at the pro level. NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks' scouting sources have told him they believe Johnson, in time, could be the best cornerback of the draft class -- better than LSU's highly touted Greedy Williams, Washington's Byron Murphy and Georgia's Deandre Baker.

Former NFL scout Jim Nagy, now the executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl, selected Johnson for the game and believes he could be drafted within the top 40 picks.

"He can bend, he's got good short-area reactiveness for a big guy, and he's such a physical specimen," Nagy said. "He plays with a lot of physicality, and with his hips and transition skills, he's as good as any 6-2 corner I've scouted in a long time."

Johnson is already hearing from people he hasn't spoken to in years, if ever, and they've all got an angle. He says the man who was supposed to help him pay bills at San Bernardino Valley College, only to hang him out to dry, suddenly wants to reconnect. As he discusses how he'll deal with hangers-on as an NFL rookie, his phone rings.

"No, thanks, I've already got a financial adviser," he tells the caller, only to hang up and grin at the speak-of-the-devil moment.

"Fake love, man," he says.

When NFL clubs evaluate draft prospects from high-crime areas and the kind of abject poverty that Johnson was surrounded by, their concerns extend beyond the character of the player alone. Who else will try to ride along, clinging to a freshly-drafted player who suddenly has cash to spare? What is their character? Will the player be saddled by a hometown crew of bad influences? And how hard will it be for the player to, if necessary, cut ties with lifelong friends, or even certain family members, who might disguise self-serving interests with concern for the player?

The entourage subject is one NFL clubs have asked Johnson about. He flops his left arm onto the table, palm up, and points to a tattoo on the underside of his forearm that answers all those questions. A serpent, sinking its fangs into an open hand, with the words Trust No One.

"I see right through people," he said. "Guys who never called once to see how I was doing stuck in junior college for three years are all the sudden saying bro this, bro that, cuz this, cuz that. Everyone wants to know what Lonnie needs now."

He credits his mother's keen eye for judging others with his own inherent ability to do the same.

"I've got my own family to look out for," he said. "I've got a daughter on the way, and a trust fund will be set up for her. I can't be taking care of all these other people."

As for his own character, signs of maturity and motivation are everywhere for NFL clubs doing background checks. He had no disciplinary problems at UK, where he earned a communications degree in December. He'll turn 24 during his rookie NFL season, making him one of the oldest players available in the draft, and in terms of life experience, he's even older.

"Lonnie never failed one drug test at Garden City," said Sims. "And he didn't put himself around guys who failed them, either."

Last summer, Johnson changed his Twitter handle to "4/7," prompting questions from friends about what that meant. He told them he'd reveal when the time was right, and with the draft finally approaching, and projections in the area of Round 2, the time is now.

"Coming out of my junior year, I was projected to be picked on the last day of the draft, rounds 4-7," Johnson said. "So, it was motivation to show I was better than that."

Where there have been issues, Johnson has been proactively forthright with the NFL about them. The Texans, Saints, Panthers, Lions, Bucs, Chiefs and Falcons are among the teams who've reportedly met with him privately since the combine.

The night he spent in jail for fighting in San Bernardino, for instance, would have been a tempting detail to hide. After all, with no formal charge or criminal record arising from it, NFL teams might never have known.

Johnson volunteered it anyway.

He came to Marrow's office and disclosed the story so that Marrow could pass it along to NFL teams in his role as UK's liaison to league scouts.

"He came in like a man and told me about this fight," Marrow said. "A lot of (scouts) who'd already been in (for a visit to the Lexington campus), I called them and let them know. I had told him if a team is investing all this money in you, they want to know if you ever took a pack of Now and Laters out of the store. But it makes a big difference for the scouts to hear it from us. You're saving them homework and it says a lot that Lonnie manned up and said, 'This is what happened.' "

Johnson's draft party is set for Friday, April 26, at West Side High. Nora is working to secure a building in the school, perhaps the auditorium, to celebrate her son's entry into the NFL. But West Side students won't be the only ones on hand. The plan is to invite students from all over Gary, bringing kids from Miller, where Johnson's father grew up; Tolleston, where his uncle Jason lives today; Glen Park, and every other corner of town together with kids from the Bronx. To get there, they'll cross neighborhood lines that, in another circumstance, might not be safe to cross.

When Johnson learned that two police officers would be hired for security, he doubled it to four.

But he wants to see all of Gary, for one day, get along. He will tell his story, hoping to inspire the children to aim high and believe that they can achieve great things, too. He could've gone anywhere and kept the event as small as he wanted, but he considers opening the door to the local public as a gift to his hometown.

But it will be a parting gift.

"I'm not coming back to Gary much after the draft," he said. "What is there for me? I might come back and do a camp for kids, but you won't catch me there often."

On Johnson's left arm, a tattoo of a human figure -- Lonnie himself -- stands at the bottom of a staircase. It rises toward his upper arm, to a depiction of an I-65 interstate sign -- the fastest road out of Gary -- drawn right over a scar he received in elementary school when he was stabbed with a pair of scissors. The staircase ascends to his shoulder, topped with a ticking clock.

"That's me," he says. "Trying to get to the top before the clock runs out."

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