By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
Jimmy Johns was living the dream.
The Brookhaven High superstar quarterback was named Mississippi’s Mr. Football in 2004, led the Panthers to a state championship and had his pick of the litter when it came to college offers.
Not surprisingly, he ultimately chose Alabama. When he was only 5-years-old, Johns told his mom he would one day play for the Crimson Tide.
And then he made it happen.
“I wasn’t the fastest, smartest or strongest kid at my school,” Johns said during a phone interview with The Times Tuesday. “But I was Mr. Football. That’s what I had. I didn’t let anybody outwork me.”
Just as he predicted, Johns eventually suited up for Bama, changing positions from quarterback to halfback to fullback to linebacker throughout his three seasons (2005-08) with the Tide.
But that’s about the point where Johns’ dream ended and a nightmare began in its place.
In June of 2008, he was arrested on felony drug charges and was immediately kicked off the team. Johns later pleaded guilty to separate counts of delivery and possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) and was sentenced to spend 13 months in a Tuscaloosa jail.
“It was mentally and physically exhausting,” he said. “I didn’t know how many people I had hurt. I was selfish. I didn’t know my actions were going to affect my family, friends, teammates and community like that.”
While locked up, Johns spoke to 12 different groups through the Scared Straight program, sharing his story in an attempt to help troubled youth avoid the same mistakes he’s made in his life.
“I was living the dream, and now I live in reality,” he said. “I don’t see this kid who was a superstar. I see that we all make mistakes and that we have to learn to persevere to find a way to get past it.”
After sleeping on a cot night after night and enduring all that comes with being a prisoner, Johns was released last Sept. 21.
“It was a big day,” he said. “But it was tough. To this day, I think of the hard times. They’re good now, but I remember the tough times. It wasn’t a good feeling, and that’s not the life I wanted to live anymore.”
Johns, now 24, has been busy during his relatively short time as a free man. He’s traveled to nearly 30 different churches, schools and other venues for speaking appearances, relaying the same message everywhere he goes.
“I don’t do it for money,” Johns said. “I do it because I feel it’s my obligation to tell my story because I don’t want kids to follow my path. I hope they can hear my message and learn from my experience.
“It makes me feel so good. Everybody is just excited for what I’ve got going and how I’m trying to change my life around and do something positive now. I don’t have to live that negative life in the dark anymore.”
His latest stop will be made in Cullman today. Johns will speak to Cullman High and West Point High students during the day before making an appearance open to the general public later in the evening.
The night event will be held at the Cullman High auditorium. Doors will open at 6 p.m., and Johns will begin speaking at 7 p.m.
After all the good times early on and the bad ones he’s more recently experienced, there are finally starting to be more occurrences in Johns’ daily life that bring a smile to his face.
Through self discipline and mental toughness, Johns said he has had the power to steer clear of the drugs that railroaded a potential path to the NFL.
“It’s our choice,” he said. “We get to choose what we want to do. I want to choose to do right and live like a champion. That’s how I carry myself now.
“I’m not past my troubles by far, but I’m on the right track. I’m excited for the life I’m building.”
Johns, now a car salesman in his Mississippi hometown, got engaged recently and is set to be married in December.
When he’s not working, speaking or spending time with his family, he said he mentors kids in his neighborhood.
“I tell them, ‘Just because you’re from Brookhaven doesn’t mean you can’t do anything you put your mind to,’” he said. “If it happened for me, it can happen for them, too.
“I can’t save the whole neighborhood, but I can be a better person everyday. If I can help one person be a better person each day, then the world can be a better place.”
The road to redemption has been and will continue to be long and strenuous for Johns, but now that he has a second chance, he’s not going to let it slip.
That starts with his relationship with his 5-year-old son, Jimmy Johns, Jr.
“The biggest thing was being a father and learning how to love someone and show affection,” the elder Johns said. “I was so selfish as a person prior to going in. I didn’t see family and friends the way I do now. I want to teach him how to be a champion.”
According to Johns, his son already has the same character and drive he displayed during his childhood days. And just like his pops, Johns Jr. already declared he’ll one day play football for the Crimson Tide.
“As humans and adults, we’ve got to persevere,” he said. “Not just for us, but for our kids.”
Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.