College football: Jeron Johnson has found second chance with Bulldogs

Most football players on Minnesota Duluth's roster come from Minnesota and Wisconsin. They've lived relatively easy lives, in the suburbs and small towns, with loving parents who come to most of their games. Jeron Johnson never had it that way. R...

Jeron Johnson
Minnesota Duluth running back Jeron Johnson is surrounded by his biggest fans (from left): longtime girlfriend, Dionna Lee; sons Jeionn, 3, and Jeron Johnson II, 5; and aunt, Ruth Gosey. Photo courtesy of Cathy Roth

Most football players on Minnesota Duluth's roster come from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

They've lived relatively easy lives, in the suburbs and small towns, with loving parents who come to most of their games.

Jeron Johnson never had it that way. Raised in the notorious L.A. suburb of Compton, Johnson was on his own from the time he was 15.

"I was my own responsibility," Johnson said.

Johnson bounced in and out of trouble, but years later, was finally ready to get his life back together. He knew football and an education was his way out. All he needed was a second chance, but most people wouldn't listen. UMD did.


Johnson, 27, is about to finish his senior year with the Bulldogs. The senior running back will graduate in May with a business degree. He has a 3.8 grade-point average.

"I couldn't be happier for Jeron," said Tom Caines, one of his coaches at Cerritos College, a community college in Norwalk, Calif. "Jeron was with us, then got away, but then came back and really wanted to get his life squared away. We just started trying to find somebody who was the right fit for him. It had to be somebody who was willing to give him a second chance based on his past history. I just put it into play. Jeron is the one who made it work."

Caines remembers going to recruit Johnson at Western High School in Anaheim and not being able to find him because Johnson was bouncing around from one hotel to another.

"The 'Blind Side' is a famous movie about (NFL offensive lineman) Michael Oher, but Jeron's life probably wasn't a whole lot different than that," Caines said. "You could erase the names and put his name into the script and it's pretty close to the same story, just the California version. Jeron is a bright person but had no guidance or structure. His favorite part of the day was from 8:30 to 3 o'clock during school because he knew he was in a safe environment and that there were people there who were going to help him and take care of him."

Compton is known for its heavy concentration of gangs and violence. Where the median age in the U.S. is 35, in Compton, it's 25.

Caines gave a sort of laugh, only it was sad, when being asked, "How rough is Compton?"

"People aren't moving into Compton. They're moving out," he said.

Johnson didn't play football his senior year of high school and completed his General Educational Development tests after high school.


He enrolled at Cerritos in 2004 and rushed for 900 yards in 2005 en route to being named Falcons' most valuable player.

Johnson earned his associate's degree but wasn't able to parlay that into a home with a four-year program, however, because his academic paperwork wasn't in order.

"I had a few looks from some colleges, but I kind of opted out," Johnson said. "I didn't return calls and wasn't going through the proper procedures to make sure I got cleared by the college clearing house. Everything just kind of withered away."

Johnson was out of football for another five years. In the meantime, he and his girlfriend of 13 years, Dionna Lee, had their first child, Jeron Johnson II, now 5 (they have a second boy, Jeionn, age 3).

"I had a lot going on, with my family and my living situation," Johnson said. "Our financial situation wasn't the best, and I also had issues with my sisters and my brothers and my nephews. I didn't feel comfortable leaving them at that time, so I just focused on getting a job, staying home and providing for them."

Johnson worked a construction job for a home remodeling company in California but missed football.

"I couldn't watch football," Johnson said. "Every time football would come on, I'd just walk right by the TV. I'd turn the channel, I'd turn it off. I just couldn't watch it. It was an unclosed chapter of my life. I knew I had a promising career initially, but then I had so much hardship I couldn't embark on it the way I wanted to. I was forced to jump into the real world way too early, so it was hard for me to watch it. I finally said to hell with it. I'm getting too old, so if I don't try now, I'll never get another shot again."

Johnson started working out every day and got reunited with his old high school and community college coaches.


He did his homework, looking at schools across the nation, in particular ones that needed a running back. Together with Coach Caines, they eventually reached out to former UMD coach Bob Nielson. Johnson was honest about his past, and Nielson was honest about what was expected playing for the small-college power.

"I kind of pinpointed Duluth as the place to try first," said Johnson, who said he probably will move back home after graduating because Minnesota is too cold for him. "It's worked out well. I kind of thought I'd adjust a little better. I've done no skiing, no snowmobiling, no ice fishing, but I'm learning."

Johnson was accepted into UMD, and his family moved to Duluth.

After redshirting his first year for the Bulldogs in 2011, Johnson rushed 34 times for 183 yards and two touchdowns last fall in a backup role. This year, he has been even better, rushing 20 times for 176 yards in just six games before getting sidetracked by an ankle injury. His 8.8 yards per carry is the best of any UMD regular.

It wasn't long before Johnson and his story endeared themselves to his Bulldog teammates, who have jokingly referred to him as "Grandpa Jeron."

Johnson is close with his teammates, in particular, the running backs, who call themselves, "The Stable."

"It's a brotherhood," UMD senior running back Chaz Thomas said. "Jeron is like an older brother to me, with his experience and wisdom. He's a guy who has seen it all. He helps guide the younger guys. It's not just a bunch of talk with him. He does it all by example, from his hard work in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom. Those are the people you respect."

With his bum ankle, Johnson didn't make the trip to Aberdeen for today's game with Northern State, but you can bet he will be there in spirit. He has been a model of perseverance and an inspiration for anyone who has had a rough upbringing. To borrow a line from Stephen Crane, it's as if he blossomed in a mud puddle.


The UMD football team has a pretty simple policy when it comes to second chances. If you're sincere and willing to work for it, like Jeron Johnson, you'll get one with the Bulldogs.

"Jeron has a lot to be proud with his career at UMD, and we are fortunate to have him," UMD coach Curt Wiese said. "I don't know if I've ever coached another player who I was more excited to watch graduate. To come to our team, not knowing anybody, and to build the relationships he has, on our football team, our campus and our community, is a tribute to the type of character he has. He's a special situation, he's a special young man and we're all better for having Jeron Johnson part of our football team."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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