Charles (CJ) Johnson was a 16-year-old sophomore at Cajon High School in San Bernardino, Calif., when he took inventory of his life and decided he had everything to die for.
His mother, Martha Lofton, was a cocaine user who disappeared for days at a time and hardly acknowledged her son's existence. Once his mother borrowed $20 from CJ, promising to pay him back quickly, but instead invested the money in drugs. CJ's three older brothers were already gone, leaving CJ virtually alone with his younger sister, Christine. When CJ got into a fight at school defending Christine, the principal asked him, "How do I get hold of your mother?" Said CJ: "Can't."
Johnson's dad, Charles Stewart, left when CJ was two. The boy had seen him only once since then, at a family funeral when CJ was 14. CJ adopted the surname of Christine's father because he was the adult male CJ knew best.
The boy's living arrangements had been as unstable as his family life. During one four-year period he and Christine, with or without their mother, lived in 15 different places in San Bernardino County, including welfare hotels and the homes of relatives and friends.
August 29, 1993
At the end of his sophomore year at Cajon, CJ found himself living in his ninth place in just over two years, the home of a woman who had once been taken in by his grandmother. CJ called the woman Auntie but never knew her full name. Seven other relatives, including Christine and Lofton, were crowded into Auntie's small house. CJ had a windowless room that had been built to enclose a water heater and provide storage space. The room had a twin bed, a 13-inch black-and-white television, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. "It was a dump," Johnson says. "Two people couldn't fit into the room at the same time."
For CJ, the struggle to survive finally became too hard to bear. In his tiny room, he took a piece of three-holed notebook paper, folded it in half and wrote, "Bye Mom and Christine. I love you." Then he lay down on his side and opened a light purple bag that belonged to his mother. Inside were pills—codeine, sleeping pills, headache remedies, a cornucopia of prescription drugs and an assortment of other drugs of unknown composition and purpose. CJ grouped the pills by color, then started taking them one at a time. "I tried to take the ones I thought would be most powerful," he says. "I don't know how many I took. I lost count at 42."
Christine found CJ taking the pills and begged him to stop. He yelled at her to go away, and she did. Eventually CJ passed out. When he came to, he was being tended to by Christine. He was violently ill. Instinct told Christine, who was then only 14, that CJ should eat something, so she made rice and gravy. Just then their mother appeared. She paid no attention to CJ and announced, "I'm going to the blood bank." Twice a week, says Johnson, she sold her blood for $15 and used part of the money to buy cocaine.
"By the time I was 15," says Johnson, "my mother forgot all about me. Once I asked her, 'What do you want more, me or your drugs?' She didn't answer. But I forgive her. I love her." Asked if she had ever apologized to him, Johnson says, "I don't think she has to. She did the best she could." Johnson says he doesn't know how to get in touch with her these days; he thinks she is in Texas.
She is. Lofton, 43, lives in a rehab center in Houston and is studying to be a Christian missionary. "Yeah, I got into drugs," she says over the telephone, "but then I got out. I feel that as a mother I did pretty good. I'm not ashamed of anything I did. Look, how we had to live hurt him and me both. But I feel Charles came out O.K."
Charles Johnson came out more than O.K. Now 21, he is a University of Colorado split end with a starry future. Last season he caught 57 passes for a Buffalo-record 1,149 yards. Considering his desperate childhood, it is astonishing that he became a superb athlete and graduated from high school.
"Aw, it wasn't so bad," he says. "I could be dead. Growing up the way I did taught me a lot about responsibility. I became street smart. I learned how to survive. There's people out there with worse childhoods than mine." Asked if he was homeless at times, Johnson shrugs and says, "Yeah, I guess I was." One night during his junior year in high school, he found a hospitable tree outside the San Bernardino library and slept there, using his Algebra II book for a pillow. A typical day's diet in those times: no breakfast, no lunch, a dinner of a Snickers bar, a couple of cookies and a strawberry soda—with ice cream for dessert.
Ice cream. It was a symbol for him of how good things could be. "It's sooooooo good," he says, shutting his eyes to savor the memory. He loves cookies-'n'-cream. When asked once for suggestions to help the Colorado football team, Johnson recommended serving ice cream at halftime. At training-table meals Johnson makes milk shakes for himself and for fellow receivers Michael Westbrook and Eric Mitchell.
The only lawbreaking Johnson ever did, he says, was "stealing to eat." But not often. "I learned to go without eating," he says. "It's mental. Everything in life is mental. You always can convince yourself to do things and not to do things. So all I did was convince myself I wasn't hungry."
Jerry Buckner, the mother of CJ's high school friend Doneka Buckner, invited CJ to live at her house in Rialto for the year and a half before he went to Colorado. On biographical forms Johnson lists Buckner as his mother. "Charles is strong," says Buckner. "He always knew what he didn't want to be."
What he did want to be was a football player. The sport became his mainstay during his dauntingly difficult youth; in fact, the only football practices Johnson ever missed were when he went searching for his AWOL mom. But in the second game of his senior year at Cajon he was hit while running a reverse and ripped the lateral ligament away from the bone in his right knee. That ended his season. Happily for Johnson, his abilities were known to college recruiters; SuperPrep magazine rated him the 26th-best player in the nation in the spring of 1990.
His coach at Cajon, Chuck Pettersen, recognized CJ's talent when he was in ninth grade. Says Pettersen, now coach at Pacific High in San Bernardino, "I told him, 'Two years from now, you'll be listening to college recruiters offer you choices you never imagined. Then you can make it in the pros. Football is what will get you out of this environment.' "
"I listened carefully," says Johnson. "Of course, I didn't believe any of it."
Believe it or not, Johnson was recruited by Nebraska, Washington, Arizona and USC, among other Division I-A powers. He chose Colorado because, he says, "I loved the team unity. I didn't care where I went, what the weather was or what the offense was."
Says Colorado coach Bill McCartney, "You can coach a lifetime and not get someone like Charles. He is an extraordinary youngster and a sweet kid."
With the benefit of regular food and a permanent address in Boulder, Johnson promptly set about accelerating his graduation from college. Earlier this month, after only three years, he earned his undergraduate degree in marketing. This fall he'll take more undergraduate courses to keep his eligibility. Johnson was on the Academic All-Big Eight Honor Roll in 1991. "Education matters more than football," he says. But a year from now he may be catching balls for big bucks. He's a likely first-round NFL pick.
Last season Johnson averaged 20.2 yards per catch, and against Oklahoma he caught a 92-yard pass, the longest in Buff history. He and Westbrook became just the fourth pair of receivers on the same college team ever to get more than 1,000 yards apiece in one season. (Westbrook had 1,060.) Each also caught a school-record 11 passes in a single game, Johnson against Missouri and Westbrook against Baylor.
Eating an ice-cream cone in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Johnson reflects: "Growing up, I thought what I was going through was ordinary. I thought everybody went to sleep at night listening to gunfire. I guess I made it because I just kept telling myself, I don't have any problems. When I tried to commit suicide, it just didn't seem like I had any future. So I thought, Forget it. That was the first time I ever attempted something, failed and was happy about it. But now...."
He smiles and thinks about his good fortune. "What I am," he says, "is an all-right football player who was given a chance by the people here to show my ability. I have no worries. I'm happy every day. I'd rather have happiness than $1 million." He should soon have both.