My recent conversation with fourth-year NFL veteran Michael “MJ” Johnson left me impressed with this young athlete’s self-driven acumen that has helped him on his way to greatness on and off the field. The Cincinnati Bengals defensive end candidly expressed his desire to share his resources and his wisdom to youth across the country and in his own hometown. He credits his mother and father as the cornerstones of his youth development, and into adulthood. The lessons they taught him have helped shape who he is and what he has and will accomplish in life.
Michael recalls his journey from youth sports to the NFL and credits his diligence and a strong work ethic for enabling him to overcome the challenges he has encountered along the way. The lessons he learned along the way have given birth to an explosive message that infuses youths with motivation to focus on their education first.
Michael’s strong presence on and off the field will surely make an impact on anyone who is fortunate enough to cross his path.
Journey to the NFL
Michelle: How and where did you grow up, and how much was football a part of your upbringing?
Michael: I’m from Selma, Alabama. It’s a small town in south central Alabama… about an hour away from Montgomery and an hour and a half from Meridian, Mississippi in the ‘black belt’. Football is very big in Alabama, as it is across the south. I started playing when I was 10 and fell in love with it from the first game. I broke my arm the first game, but it’s just in me.
Michelle: Who would you say is the most influential person that helped shape you as a man and why?
Michael: My dad, just because of the way he always conducts himself and takes care of business. He’s the type who would play and just have a good time. He’s always very friendly and outgoing (he’s way more outgoing than even me). But when it was time to go to work, he went to work. It was always work first and play second. He was able to balance that and he taught me [that] being a man consists of taking care of yourself, taking care of your family and the people around you by elevating others. He’d give you the shirt off his back.
Michelle: What a great influence. So you got your work ethic primarily from him?
Michael: Yes Ma’am. And my mom as well. She played the mother role. She did the nurturing and caring. She was the same way, always working hard at whatever it was she was doing. She was very service minded, service oriented. She had a little herb shop where she made dolls and sold herbs. Just watching her work, putting in those hours, the detail she put into making those dolls, and the customer service she provided people after hours as well. It was all that little extra stuff that taught me a lot.
Michelle: That’s beautiful. I’m sure you have an idea of what a lucky man you are.
Michael: Very. Very.
Michelle: I really like to hear that. Can you tell me three things you’ve practiced to bring football success into your life?
Michael: Number one, whatever I do I always try to be very detail-oriented in my work ethic and my approach to things. If the coach said, do this or do that, I always tried my best to do everything I was asked to do, whether it was in the weight room, in the classroom, or on the field. I’ve always been a team first kind of guy and put the good of the team first. That’s one thing.
Another thing is that I always tried to be the first one in and the last one out in whatever I was doing. I would try to get there early to get a head start, and if I had to stay there until nobody else was there, I’d do that too. I’d just do little stuff; whether it was making corrections, watching tapes, working out, or whatever.
The last thing is that I always try to take care of my body, eat right, put the right things in. That’s been a learning experience over the years and I’ve got a lot better with it. I always try to educate myself on health and nutrition to get the most out of my body.
Michelle: What tribulations and challenges have you been through that have made you into the person you are today?
Michael: Well, the first one is when I was in the 5th grade, and I was cut from the basketball team and they put me back on just to be on the practice team. That really drove me.
Michelle: You were thinking, “I’m not staying on that practice team.”
Michael: Yeah. It really drove me and by the time I got to 10th grade, I was better than all those guys in basketball. And I was being recruited for basketball, even before football because I was tall. I remember it like it was yesterday. So what do I need to do? I need to go to work. And that’s a message I’ve taken with me. Even to this day, it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. That’s the mentality I’ve taken day-in and day-out. I’m just going to keep my head down and keep working.
I’ve had to fight through injuries and battle back from some pretty tough surgeries in college. And it was tough not knowing if you’re going to come back the same for your teammates; they’re your brothers. I’ve only missed two games in my whole time playing football. But I’ve been very blessed to have that.
Michelle: Tell me about some of your off-field efforts, such as the MJ93 Fund, Gen-1, “Binit2Winit”, and “A Fresh Start from MJ’s Heart.”
Michael: MJ93 Fund is the foundation my mom suggested I start because I was doing so much stuff on my own. And how I am, if I can do it, I’m going to do it.
“Binit2Winit” is a program with Sunny-D up here in Cincinnati that encourages people to recycle and stresses the importance of recycling. There’s been a big push in this area about ‘going green’.
The Gen-1 program is with the University of Cincinnati with first generation college students. Both my parents were first generation college students and they grew up in the rural south—rural Alabama—and they made it. That’s a big, big accomplishment to be the first person in your family to go to college. So I’m a big supporter of that program here at UC, University of Cincinnati.
“A Fresh Start from MJ’s Heart” was something I did in my home town. It was getting shirts for elementary school kids, so when they go on field trips they look uniform and [it] helps teachers and parents to keep up with the kids. The shirts have their school name on it, my logo, and it shows support for the Bengal’s team.
Michelle: Wonderful. How has NFL Play 60 helped to stomp out childhood obesity? You’re involved with that too, aren’t you?
Michael: Yes. I’m the player rep for NFL Play 60. What it does is bring awareness to the public eye. We are the most obese country in the world and that’s a problem because as far as technology goes we’re one of the top. But that being said, they need to understand exercise, diet, and things like that at an early age. It will help them understand how they can develop good habits at a young age. And just how bad habits are hard to break, good habits are hard to break [too].
So, if you can get them at an early age, and expose them to healthy nutrition with fun activities and information about how to exercise 60 minutes a day—just do something. There’s 24 hours in the day—that’s 1/24th of the day. So you can do something. You can do something to improve your life. You look better, you feel better, and all that stuff goes hand in hand.
And knowledge is power because you don’t know what you don’t know. You can give someone the information and it helps to put the ball in their hands. You have the information, you have the opportunity, and knowledge is about what type of lifestyle you want. If you want better, with no health issues, then you want to take advantage of all that.
Michelle: Exactly. I think what you’re doing is great because if you can get children to get excited about broccoli, vegetables, and fruit, that’s a big deal.
Development as an NFL Player
What are your Plan B goals for your post-sports career, or if you’re injured? Or do you even think about that?
Michael: First of all, I never think about getting injured. Before I do anything, I pray, and believe that if you pray you shouldn’t worry. If you’re going to worry, you might as well not even pray. That’s how I work that.
After football, I want to go back to my hometown in Selma, Alabama and work with kids in that area. I want to be a leader to teach about the importance of health and nutrition, teach them how to work out. I want to be a strength coach, and train kids and teach them how to take care of themselves, physically/exercise-wise and nutrition-wise as well. I really want to start up a facility where kids can come in and train at no cost.
Michelle: That’s great. I talked to Fred Vinson, retired cornerback for the Packers and he told me a lot of guys don’t know who they are after football. He said something that really stuck with me: “If you don’t know who you are going into the NFL, it will be harder to discover who you are after the NFL.”
Michael: Definitely. I can see where that comes from. I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do for a while. My mom always told me—and I never believed her—that I was going to be a teacher or something working with kids. I really enjoy working with kids in different venues. I’d love to do that. That’s my plan; that’s my goal.
Michelle: What would you tell a youth or a teenager if he or she wants to enter professional sports?
Michael: First and foremost, make sure you take care of your grades. You have to be vigilant about your grades. Always try to make sure you’re doing your best in the classroom because at the end of the day, if all else fails, you’ll have your education. So many people rely solely on the sport and tomorrow is not promised to any of us in whatever we’re doing. Bust your tail in the classroom, bust your tail on the field or the court, and everything else will take care of itself. School first, everything else second, and you’ll be alright. One day at a time. That’s what I did and it worked for me.
I tell them a variety of different things along those lines. And I even tell them the small steps that I did to better myself in the classroom, like asking questions, simple relationship building, treating people like you want to be treated, putting a smile on, and going the extra mile to help you be who you’re trying to be. If you can make everything else in your life easier by doing well in school, you’ll free up extra time to go to practice, extra time to lift weights… you know what I’m saying?
Michelle: That makes total sense. I want to turn the corner a little bit and talk about your NFL player development. When you first entered the NFL, what were some of the toughest aspects of adjusting to the NFL lifestyle?
Michael: Time. In college, you could go to class and maybe take a nap, then go to practice. In the NFL, you come in at six or seven in the morning to work out, have meetings, go to practice, have meetings—and everything is back-to back-to-back. Just not being able to have that midday nap was a little difficult. You have to be able to concentrate for extended periods of time.
Michelle: And you better not fall asleep during the meetings.
Michael: Oh, no no no. Don’t do that.
Michelle: You will not fare well will you?
Michael: We do a good job of trying to keep each other up because everybody deals with it—even coaches. You see them come in with coffee and red eyes.
Michelle: So you lift each other. Do the veterans prop up the rookies? Do they give them a hard time, or do they step up and mentor?
Michael: If you’re a rookie with a good attitude… Everybody’s going to mess with you a little bit. That’s just how it is. But if you have a bad attitude, you’re just going to make it hard on yourself. I had a good attitude and they really took me under their wings and treated me like a younger brother.
Michelle: Nice. Now what advice would you give to this year’s NFL rookies about how to put themselves in the best position to succeed in the NFL?
Michael: Make sure you’re in shape for training camp—physically and mentally. You have to be mentally tough. There’s going to be ups and downs. Halfway through the season, you’re going to think, “Man, we’re only halfway through.” You’re going to look hard at the 10 or 12 games, including preseason. Just be mentally tough and expect a long year. Do well and succeed, and just go for it man, go for it. Do whatever you’ve done to get to this point, keep doing it, and even add more stuff to it. A lot of times people get lazy and slack off, but stay with your routine and listen to the vets. The guys who have been on that team for a long time, there’s a reason they’ve been there a long time. So listen to all the people.
Michelle: What are some of the biggest pitfalls you have encountered so far in your career?
Michael: Going 4-12 my second year. That was hard. That’s a lot of games, and I never had a losing season in football until then. And I hate to lose.
Michelle: According to Sports Illustrated, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce by the time they’ve been retired five years from the NFL. Tell me about why you think the numbers are so high and some of the things you do to avoid becoming another statistic.
Michael: That is correct. They tell us about that when we come in. They even tell us that it’s 80 percent, but every year you still see people going through problems. I think it’s because of poor decision-making and reckless spending. Most folks outside of the NFL don’t understand that you only get paid from September through January. So you have January through August to live off your paycheck, for whatever lifestyle you live and to support that lifestyle year-round with pay for only half a year. If you’re not good with numbers, managing money, or even saying no, you will not fare well. I think many times it’s the people around you, like family and friends, who you can end up blowing more money on than even yourself.
I’m a real simple type of person. I don’t spend a whole bunch of money on myself, but I’m willing to say I’ve easily spent more money on other people than I have myself. If you spend a heap of money on other people, and money on yourself, and you’re not saving, yeah, I can see how you can go broke. Once you stop playing, things start crumbling. You still have that big monster house and the bills still coming, but the money isn’t coming. Everybody has their vices: clothes, jewelry, cars, houses, whatever you like… Many times people just go for it without thinking about the long-term.
Michelle: Do you find that people you didn’t know, or weren’t friends with before, are now coming to you with their hands out?
Michael: Oh yeah. Once you sign, you get all kinds of new cousins, all kinds of new homeboys. I’ve never had a big group of people I’ve hung out with. I always keep a very small circle.
Michelle: That makes sense. I can see you have a heart to help people and you have a compassionate heart.
Michael: That’s my biggest thing. I’ve had to learn how to say no. It’s hard at times. But if they really love you, then they understand. It may not seem like much to them, but if you have 30 or 40 people in a year that ask you for a certain amount of money, that’s going to add up quick.
Michelle: Yeah and then all of a sudden…
Michael: You’re looking at your expenditures and you’ve spent double on others than you’ve spent on yourself. You’re like, “Man, this ain’t right. I can’t do this.”
Michelle: What interaction have you had with Eric Ball, the Director of Player Engagement for the Bengals?
Michael: He does a lot. When things are going on in the community, he’ll hit me up or let me know about it. He keeps me abreast of what’s going on and provides me opportunities for serving others. He’s hand -to-hand with all that and I wouldn’t be able to be as involved in the community if it wasn’t for him.
Michelle: So what are some of the ways he’s helped you with your career development?
Michael: For NFL players, Eric handles all types of stuff. The main thing we’ve done is community work. He lets us know about opportunities in the community where we can help, where the need is. He also coaches. He handles going back to school too. If you want to go back to school, he gets you the paperwork. When I went back to school last spring, he was checking how many hours I was taking and all the things that have to do with education.
Michelle: Did you find the Rookie Symposium helpful?
Michael: I did. They tell you things that you learn from coaches, parents, and people all your life. They just show it to you in different ways and different situations. They make it fun. A lot of the players don’t want to do it, but when you get down there, you have fun with the activities.
Michelle: Do you think that rookies go to the Rookie Symposium, then get on the field in a stadium, and forget all that stuff?
Michael: No, they don’t forget. But we’re human and we’re going to do what we want to do. At the end of the day, regardless of what we’re told, we’re just like any other person.
Michelle: What improvements do you think could be made to the NFL Player Engagement program?
Michael: Personally, I don’t think anything. Being a player is not a right; it’s a privilege. There are so many small perks we have, like going back to school and getting it paid for, insurance, it’s all Grade A. We put a lot into it, but we get a lot out of it as well if we really tap into the resources that are there.
Michelle: What do you want people to know about MJ, the person, not the football player?
Michael: Same thing I was telling you about my dad. I really enjoy working with kids and I really enjoy sharing any knowledge that I’ve gained to help someone. I’m not a person who’s going to get something and hide it. I want to help people in whatever way I can because I have this platform and I don’t mind using it. I want to see young kids from my area succeed and do even better than me.
And what I really want them to understand is that if you really look at it, it’s easy to get yourself out of a situation and move up. But can you go back and help somebody else move themselves up? If you have that mindset and get everybody thinking like that, I feel like you can develop whole communities and whole areas. People call it ‘paying it forward’. You may do something for somebody else that you’re not going to benefit from, but they will. Then they’ll do something for somebody else and they won’t benefit from it but the other person will and it’s just a big circle. Who knows, eventually it may come back, or it won’t. But you help other people, so it’s all worth it.
To learn more about Michael "MJ" Johnson, you can visit his official website at www.michaeljohnson93.com.
Michelle Hill is the Strong Copy Quarterback for Winning Proof. Follow her on Twitter. Send Michelle a question or comment.