Prep Football

West Side works hard to keep the Cougars at home

2013-08-23T00:00:00Z 2013-09-12T22:53:25Z West Side works hard to keep the Cougars at homeSteve Hanlon steve.hanlon@nwi.com, (219) 933-4198 nwitimes.com
August 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

GARY | This is a story Hollywood could be interested in: a young, aspiring teenage football player in a broken, urban environment decides to stay home to play high school football instead of fleeing to the bright lights and pep bands of the suburbs.

In the shadow of nothingness, the kid blows up in front of mostly empty bleachers and receives an offer from one of America's best college football programs. He accepts.

The critics of West Side senior Lonnie Johnson could be heard chirping when the 6-foot-3, 190-pound wide receiver stayed home. When he verbally committed to Ohio State and coach Urban Meyer this summer, Johnson was the one with the smile on his face.

"I thought about going to Merrillville," Johnson said, "but my mom told me to work hard, do my thing and I would bring the scouts to Gary. And I did."

But this is where the storybook turns. Two of Johnson's best friends were shot and killed in July.

"One got it in the heart, the other in the head," Johnson said in the middle of July. "I've been to two funerals this week. I can't wait to get out of here."

This is what football coaches in Gary face. A cold, staunch reality that blows through northern Lake County every autumn.

Great individual talent walking on troubled streets. Broken homes and thin wallets are other issues that slow program development in an age where prep football is no longer blue collar.

And then there is also the other issue, which is a myth. The one that says Gary, Indiana is a basketball town.

According to databasefootball.com, 39 men from the Steel City have played football in the NFL. According to basketball-reference.com, 14 Garyites have played basketball in the NBA.

West Side coach Jason Johnson is one of the 39. In 1988 he played for Denver as a wide receiver and in 1989 he played for Pittsburgh.

The '84 West Side grad led the Cougars to a 6-5 record last fall, only the second winning season in the last decade. The Cougars have never won a sectional championship.

Jason Johnson is Lonnie's uncle and father of standout wide receiver JonVea' Johnson.

Skill is not the issue in Gary. The games against the suburban schools are lost in the trenches. Johnson said with Gary's Pop Warner having a weight limit, most big kids never play.

"Until they get here as freshmen," Jason Johnson said. "We get 14-year-olds out here slaving in 90 degree heat and they quit. They've never played anything. Once they get here I have to lock the doors.

"That's what we've got to do to keep kids here."

JonVea' Johnson played two years at Lake Central before returning to Gary with his dad. Junior quarterback Ramone Atkins was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. He didn't return home until seventh grade.

With both Johnsons catching passes, Atkins threw for 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns as a sophomore. He is being recruited by Illinois and Ohio State, among others.

After decades of losing standout talent to suburban programs, West Side has found a way to keep its best in the neighborhood.

"I was taught when I was young very well in Ohio," Atkins said. "If we needed help there were coaches there to show me the way. My mom (Michelle Atkins) wanted to come home. So I got here, found new friends and kept my football dream alive."

The nephew of former West Side hoops star Mark Atkins, his mother played basketball for the Cougars. Still, she put a football in her son's hands when he was born.

Regan Atkins, a 2012 grad, played QB and is now playing college ball in Brooklyn. There is another signal caller in middle school. All the Atkins boys are honor students.

A devout Christian family teaches them how to stay out of the potholes and police blotters.

"I've told all my boys to listen to what God tells them," Michelle said. "If someone wants you to do something you're not sure about, ask God what to do and walk away.

"If it don't sound right then it probably isn't."

This should be an exciting season at West Side. Points will be scored and points will be given up. Wins should come like never before.

But the city issues are always hanging over their heads. Jason Johnson said he has 67 players signed up, including several first-year basketball players. There will likely be more college scouts in the stands than students.

That is the yin and the yang of trying to build a prep program where hearts and bottles are often broken on the same asphalt.

"Things were more organized, more disciplined, at Lake Central," JonVea' Johnson said, "but we're trying to make a change. We're moving in the right direction. We're getting better every day."

"I think we can get to Indianapolis," Atkins said. "I think we can win state."

Within this hope is the sadness that has yet to be fixed.

"I tried my best not to cry but I couldn't," Lonnie Johnson said of his two friends. "One day I saw them in school and then I saw them in a casket. Every touchdown I score is for them. Every touchdown I score I'm going to get on my knee and pray to God."

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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