Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson never celebrated Father’s Day while growing up in Hawkinsville, Ga.
The town of less than 6,000 people was large enough to contain Johnson’s mother, Jacqueline Kearney, and his grandmother, aunts, coaches and friends, all of whom had a hand in raising him.
It was small enough for people to point out to Johnson his father, a man named “Johnny” who worked in a small auto shop a short distance from his home.
Hawkinsville was also small enough for Johnson to see the man often around town, visiting some of his other children – two of whom lived across the street. But Johnny never came to see Johnson.
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“My sisters, they stayed across the street from me. He would come see them all the time, like his truck would be out front. And I would be at my grandma’s house (across the street) and just think that was odd. He never came to see me,” Johnson says.
“We would be walking to the basketball court at the park and we would see him ride by. Sometimes he might stop and say, ‘What’s up?’ And sometimes he would just keep riding. He didn’t really acknowledge the fact that I was his son.”
Johnson says he doesn’t hold any bitterness about it.
“I don’t knock anybody,” he says. “It is what it is. It makes you appreciate your mother, your aunties and your uncles more.”
Johnson became a father himself at 25, just as he was settling into his NFL career.
In the past five years, he has grown to appreciate the depth of what fatherhood means.
And he’s making sure his own son’s life – and their relationship – is different.
Charles Johnson Jr., or “Prince,” is 5. He loves baseball, the ocean, Legos, blue Gatorade and, currently, hockey.
Also, his front tooth is loose.
In the quiet, shaded backyard of Johnson’s elegant home in South Park, Prince pauses between practicing his jumper on a kid-sized hoop to shimmy the tooth around with his thumb. He spins, hand to his mouth, to show his dad, and his almond-brown eyes glow as he giggles.
That melts all 275 burly, bristly, quarterback-crunching pounds of Johnson, like the gooey insides of a candy bar.
“Don’t you pull that tooth out before you show your mother!” Johnson hollers.
Prince runs inside, still holding his mouth – just in case.
Johnson laughs. And for a second, the same look of wonder Prince had on his face when he wiggled his tooth is on Johnson’s.
“It’s amazing to see him every day, just expressing something new, like a new word or new thing,” Johnson says, laughing. “It’s crazy to see him grow and develop. We try to expose him to some of everything, just so he can know and see it firsthand.”
Some of that means traveling. Johnson says he often takes his son and his girlfriend of six years – Prince’s mother, Ebony Johnson – on trips in the offseason. They especially love to go to places with beaches.
But much of what Johnson and Ebony want their son to experience lies in simple “kid stuff” that Johnson went without as he grew up.
Prince is enrolled in just about every league possible in Charlotte: Baseball, golf, basketball, swimming, soccer. Johnson is even trying to find a youth hockey league to satisfy Prince’s latest passion.
“We might be pushing a little harder for baseball,” Johnson says. “That’s where the big bucks are.”
Jokes aside, whatever his son wants to play or learn, Johnson says, he and Ebony support it. When Johnson isn’t on the road, he is in the bleachers at Prince’s games or on the field with his camera – his own new hobby – snapping photos of Prince as he plays golf, kicks, swims or dribbles all over Charlotte.
The photos crowd Johnson’s Instagram page. Prince’s curls bouncing as he plays in water. Johnson guiding Prince’s tiny hands on a golf club. Prince blowing a dandelion into the breeze. Prince standing in the outfield, with his glove over his face.
“Just for him to be able to get out there and expose him to different things is a blessing,” Johnson says. “Because when I was younger I didn’t get to play baseball like that. I didn’t play baseball until middle school, high school, because we couldn’t afford stuff like that.
“Or like swimming. Man, we didn’t have swimming pools when I was growing up. For him to be going to swimming class and learning all of that at an early age, to let him feel his way out when he starts getting older and learning what he wants to get serious at. ...
“I just want to expand his mind and let him know he can do whatever he wants to do.”
A different life for his son
It wasn’t as easy for Johnson’s family to get him into sports and activities.
“All I was exposed to was football and basketball, and I didn’t start playing either until I was 12 or 13,” he says. “A coach had to come get me from the house to sign me up because my mother, she couldn’t afford registration at the time.
“But ever since then, we kind of had people to help us out, to help me play football and basketball. (They) helped get us shoes when we needed shoes, helped me with camp fees and stuff like that.
“I had a lot of help growing up because a lot of people wanted to help me.”
Johnson ultimately thrived at Georgia, and was drafted by the Panthers 83rd overall in 2007. He was 25 when Prince was born, and fresh off the headiness that came with signing his first major contract.
“I didn’t realize the time that I needed to put in, just the process of me having my first kid,” he says. “Balancing out having a new deal, balancing out having a son, balancing out being 25, you know, young and dumb, and being responsible. ...
“There were times when I should have been being a dad, but instead I was being a young, dumb guy with money.”
But now Johnson is 30, and even though he signed a two-year extension with Carolina this spring, he splits his time much more efficiently with his mind on the big picture. He and Ebony have taken it upon themselves to evolve as a team, and as parents.
Part of that came from a mutual love of pursuing the things they are passionate about, and being examples to Prince.
Outside of his NFL schedule, Johnson is involved in several charitable projects through the Charles Johnson Foundation, including his annual free football camp in Hawkinsville, which takes place this weekend.
He builds affordable housing communities in Columbia. He also plans to open a restaurant, CJ’s 4th Ward Fire House, in October. Ebony oversees the Johnsons’ three-store investment of Once Upon a Child franchises, has a line of apparel called LuxuryEgo and is about to launch her own online fashion emporium.
The more Prince has grown up, Johnson said, the more he and Ebony have also grown. He wants Prince to see that.
“We want to put positive things around him all the time, good influences,” Johnson says. “I just want him to see everything, so I can say I did my job as a father.
“I feel like that’s how it’s supposed to be.”