Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson learned a lot growing up in Hawkinsville, Ga.
A typical south-central Georgia town about 130 miles south of Atlanta, Hawkinsville has a population of less than 6,000 and a median household income of around $30,000. As Johnson puts it, it’s the kind of town “where you’ve got a lot of kinfolk.”
Johnson was born there in 1986 and raised by his mother and grandmother. And he saw the struggle, even if he didn’t completely recognize it.
His mother, Jacqueline Kearney, worked primarily in a nursing home. His grandmother, Minnie Lee Denins, performed custodial services for years at Lumpkin Street School, one of 500 equalization schools in Georgia built for African-Americans before schools became integrated.
Growing up watching his mother and grandmother serving others made an impression on Johnson.
“I didn’t really have to struggle,” Johnson said. “They always made sure I had clothes on my back. They were always around. They were always there anytime I needed them. It made me more humble just seeing what they had to go through and that put me through where I am today.”
Where is Johnson today? A six-year, $76 million contract extension from the Carolina Panthers, signed in 2011, earned him the nickname “Big Money.” But it also gave him the means to fulfill a big responsibility: to make life easier for those who share his working-class roots.
“I mean it’s just how I am,” Johnson, 29, said. “Once I earned a little bit more I knew I could do more things. So it was just a matter of me getting myself settled before I could do what I really wanted to do.”
And that, Johnson said, is making sure he’s contributing more to society than just quarterback sacks. What he has done goes beyond youth football camps and charitable contributions – although he does those things, too.
He wants to help youths and single parents in Hawkinsville – and in the Carolinas – deal with the same struggles he faced with his mother and grandmother.
It is his approach that makes him different.
Of the 390 kids at Hawkinsville High, 60 play football for the Red Devils. That’s about one-third of the male student body.
Johnson was a four-star defensive end at Hawkinsville High in 2004, with offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida and Tennessee. He decided to stay close to his family and attend the University of Georgia.
When he left school a year early, entering the 2007 NFL draft to start making money to help his family, he was drafted in the third round by the Carolina Panthers.
Johnson played sparingly in his first three years, but in 2010, his fourth NFL season, he had 11 1/2 sacks. The Panthers rewarded him with the six-year, $76 million contract that gave him the means to help more than just his family.
He started with Hawkinsville. And of course, whatever the football team needs, it gets.
“It’s very small here and we don’t have a lot of funds,” Hawkinsville football coach David Daniell said. “He’s helped with our field house, weight room and scoreboard. He didn’t ask any questions. We needed a new scoreboard, and he said sure.”
After the Red Devils won the state championship last year, Johnson provided transportation and tickets to the Panthers’ 34-3 victory over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, which sealed a playoff berth for Carolina. Many of Daniell’s players were attending their first professional football game.
But Johnson has also held a sports academy and community weekend in Hawkinsville each of the past four years.
The highlight is a football camp coached by several of Johnson’s Panthers and Georgia teammates, including former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short and former Bulldog and current Kansas City Chiefs pass rusher Justin Houston, to name a few. There are also basketball, tennis, cheerleading and dance clinics – and a college fair.
After more than 1,200 children and their parents gathered for the June event, by far the biggest in the town each summer, Johnson was awarded the key to the city.
Johnson also issued a challenge to local churches: If they could raise $25,000 to help renovate Lumpkin Street School – where his grandmother worked – he would match it. The funds were raised in a matter of months, and renovations to turn the historic school into a community center began in April.
“I just do it because I want to do it,” Johnson said of helping Hawkinsville. “I don’t want them to expect it. I want to do it because that’s what I want to do.”
But Hawkinsville is only the beginning. Johnson wants to help not for a day or for a weekend, but for a lifetime.
And that means helping with among the most basic of needs: affordable housing.
Johnson worked with Jen Dobossy to start the Charles Johnson Foundation in 2011.
The foundation runs the event in Hawkinsville, but that’s not nearly all. Johnson’s foundation has also helped put eight young adults through college, sent high schoolers to college expos, and sent young black women to conferences on how to be more active in their community.
But to meet Johnson’s affordable housing goal, one of the first he expressed to Dobossy, he’d need more expertise.
Enter Reggie Barner, the uncle of the mother of Johnson’s child.
Barner has been involved in the housing business for nearly 30 years in and around the Columbia area, and Johnson told him he wanted to help single mothers by building affordable housing.
Barner told him to slow down.
Housing developments take time, Barner told him. Johnson had the money to do it, but working with someone who’s family sometimes doesn’t turn out well. Barner wanted Johnson to understand business and wealth-building – and with businesses that fit the mission.
They started businesses that focused on creating job opportunities for people from similar backgrounds. Johnson put up $45,000 for an investment in the janitorial business JanPro, and in two years it became the master franchise in the Columbia area.
Along with the janitorial service, Johnson also owns Once Upon a Child franchises in Charlotte, and a Supercuts hair salon. All the businesses offer affordable products, and also place workers in jobs that do not require a four-year college degree.
“It’s a service-related industry. That’s what we focus on,” Barner said. “Those things that are consistent within our market and consistent within the community, and that will create residual opportunities for us. But also it’s those things that can really create a good way for families to stabilize themselves and develop good careers.”
The success of JanPro gave Johnson the money to pursue his affordable housing goal.
Barner took his housing development acumen and, along with Johnson, began a $20 million project in Columbia that will be 124 units, with most of them being single-family heads of household. They’ll house the first group of families – about 20 units – by the first of January, and the entire project should be done by the end of 2016. The target rent will be between $650-800 a month, Barner said.
There will also be a 48-unit senior housing development in Columbia. And they’re in the review process for a 72-unit apartment complex in Rock Hill.
These works are partly why Johnson laughed off the criticism two weeks ago of his plan to open a restaurant in Charlotte.
Johnson bought the historic Charlotte Fire Station No. 4 for $1.6 million and plans to make it a restaurant serving American cuisine with a rooftop bar.
Sure, there’s a lot of overhead involved. And many professional athletes have opened since-failed sports bars. But Johnson chuckled at the jeers.
“The restaurant is my little project, you know? People don’t know about all the other stuff I got going on,” Johnson said. “I don’t really put that out there because that’s not their business, really. I’m just trying to be a good guy.
“The restaurant is a perfect location and I want to do something I’ve never done before. I just decided to do it.
“I don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t take a chance to do something you want to do, especially when you’ve got the opportunity to do it.”
That, certainly, is not Johnson.
The NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award recognizes off-the-field service along with excellent play on the field.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis won the award in January because of his foundation’s work providing for underprivileged children in Charlotte and his hometown of Shellman, Ga.
Davis said his teammate “absolutely” should be considered for the award.
“Charles Johnson grew up in a similar situation that I did and in a small, tight-knit community,” Davis said. “With him being in that situation, he understood that there are a lot of people that need help in his hometown.
“When he made it to the NFL he wanted to do the exact same thing that I did. He wanted to help people out that have helped him out for so long.”
When the idea is brought up to Johnson, who is out until November with a hamstring injury, he repeats the award’s name as if it’s the first time he’s thought about potentially winning it. He says he probably won’t because most of what he does takes place outside of where the Carolina Panthers play.
Johnson ultimately said he’s not doing any of this for accolades.
“The results I get are seeing kids being happy who have gone through what I went through. Or seeing how parents react to you doing stuff for their kids and telling you that you changed their life,” Johnson said. “And especially having that ability to put kids through school because I’m financially able to do that.
“That’s really all the results I need.”
Hunter Bowen-Pollock’s life was among the first Johnson truly changed.
Bowen-Pollock was the first female recipient of a $20,000 scholarship from the Charles Johnson Foundation. She originally went to Middle Georgia State, a public school, but has since transferred to LaGrange College, an all-female school where she’s in her senior year.
“The scholarships I have really do help me out, but if it wasn’t for the Charles Johnson Scholarship I honestly don’t think LaGrange could have been an option,” said Bowen-Pollock, who said tuition is close to $40,000 a year at LaGrange. “It’s pretty pricey, but the quality of the school is amazing and I really learned so much here.”
Bowen-Pollock came to LaGrange as an exercise science major, hoping to eventually become a physical or occupational therapist.
Over time, she realized she doesn’t have to go into the medical field to help people. So she changed her major.
Now it’s nonprofit leadership.