STEVE HANLON: Johnson family put West Side back on map

2013-05-24T19:00:00Z 2013-09-16T19:03:15Z STEVE HANLON: Johnson family put West Side back on mapSteve Hanlon Prep Beat nwitimes.com
May 24, 2013 7:00 pm  • 

Lonnie Johnson had a tough decision in middle school. He felt like his future hung in the balance. His choice could determine it all.

Lonnie was thinking of leaving West Side and attending Merrillville. His cousin, Jonvea Johnson, had planned to stay home in Gary.

But he went to Lake Central instead.

Lonnie felt lost. Alone.

So his mother, Nora Johnson, told her son one thing.

“Work hard, do your thing and people will come to West Side to see you.”

Is it any wonder that Lonnie Johnson verbally committed to play football at Ohio State on Mother's Day?

“A lot of people have been coming to West Side, it's been blowing up,” Lonnie said. “When my cousin went to Lake Central I didn't want to go. If the scouts weren't here I had to bring them to me.”

Johnson's football career started strangely auspiciously. Former Cougar Antonio Ellis gathered a bunch of neighborhood boys to play a little football. This block party needed a Band-Aid.

“I caught my first pass with my face,” Lonnie laughed on Thursday night.

Despite running track as a youth and Gary's first love, basketball, this football thing somehow stuck with Lonnie.

“Like a lot of kids in Gary I had basketball dreams, college and the NBA,” Lonnie said. “I didn't get serious about football until my freshmen year. Then I saw all the coaches coming to West Side and I thought, 'Hey, this is for real.'”

He did not play offense as a freshman. But when his uncle, Jason Johnson, was named head coach, Lonnie and the returning Jonvea soon started to make some noise.

And it echoed all around the nation.

Lonnie got offers from Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, Ohio, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Purdue and Indiana.

Jonvea's offers have come from Ball State, Eastern Michigan and Cincinnati. And his phone hasn't stopped ringing, as many track fans surely saw Friday night at the Valparaiso Regional.

Lonnie's roots are for real. His father, Lionel, played football in the Steel City. His mother, Nora (Jeter) Johnson, made it to state three times in track at West Side and was on the Cougars' 1993 semistate girls basketball team.

His parents raised him right.

"We kept him in sports because it changes your atmosphere, your life," Nora said. "It keeps him on the right path and on top of his academics. Lonnie's a good kid.

"I can drop him off at school and not worry about him skipping."

This strong home life led him to Ohio State. Johnson went to the Buckeyes' last home game last fall against a team Lonnie said he won't ever mention again.

"It's that team up north," Johnson said. "When I went to that game every 'M' had a red line through it on every sign."

So he saw boys go into the en's restroom, or eating acaroni and cheese. He probably saw some tailgaters drinking a ai Tai.

"I'll never say that word again," Lonnie said. "I thought Bowling Green was nice, and it was.

Ohio State, Oh my God. Are you serious? Do I really have an offer from here? The fans are so crazy. They saw my recruiting pass and they started taking pictures with me. Amazing. The facilities are great, The coaches are awesome.

"Ohio State has some big plans coming. They want to do it big there. It's like I'm leaving my home and going to another one."

You do not have to leave your home to have your dreams come true.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

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

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