Iowa Football

Former Hawkeye Jovon Johnson: 'I could have been George Floyd'

The 2005 first-team All-Big Ten cornerback speaks about some of his American experiences

Iowa's Jovon Johnson (26) celebrates after after his interception against Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on S
Iowa's Jovon Johnson (26) celebrates after after his interception against Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005. At left is Antwan Allen (20) and Marcus Paschal (25) right. (The Gazette)
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Jovon Johnson was a really good football player at Iowa, and was the sharpest dresser on his team.

He was from Erie, Pa., preceded from there to Iowa by fellow defensive back Bob Sanders. He always looked good after games. Once he wore a fire engine-red suit and matching red shoes to an interview session.

And, he played well in those games. He led or shared Iowa’s lead in interceptions each year from 2002 to 2005, and his 17 picks were one behind Nile Kinnick’s school record. As a senior, he had a 90-yard punt return for a touchdown after fielding a Ball State pooch kick that took a backward bounce.

He was a first-team All-Big Ten player in 2005, and signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played in two games for the Steelers before getting waived and going to the Canadian Football League. He playing 11 seasons there, intercepting 34 passes. In 2011, he was the first defensive back to be named the league’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

That’s Jovon Johnson, football player. But we didn’t really know him when he was a Hawkeye, didn’t know what he had experienced in America as a child and a young adult.

A few days ago, Johnson — now the defensive coordinator for the football team at Defiance College in northwest Ohio after an 11-year CFL career — made some posts on Twitter that talked about three occasions he was wrongfully accused of a crime or needlessly pulled over by police in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He called me Monday night and expanded on what he had written.

George Floyd’s death, caused by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed on the ground, got Johnson remembering unhappy moments from his experiences as an African American in the United States.

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“I was 12 or 13,” Johnson said. “A group of us kids had gone to a local pizza joint in Erie we all used to go to. We’re sitting there, having pizza balls, kind of hanging out. One kid at a different table kept going to where they kept the sodas and juices, kept getting drinks and coming back to the table and drinking them and going back and getting more.

“At the time we were getting ready to leave, one of the workers or maybe the owner wouldn’t let us leave the establishment because he said we were stealing and that he was going to call the police. Not having anything to do with it, I quickly got on the defense. ‘I didn’t steal anything from this establishment so you don’t have a right to keep me here with no proof or evidence, so you can let me leave.’ He wouldn’t let us leave so I just kind of moved him out of the way and went out the door. A couple other kids followed suit.

“As we walked away, one of the kids that weren’t even with us — he was one of the kids at that other table — he kicked a window in the pizza joint and it shattered. We all got blamed for it.

“I had to do 100 hours of community service, wasted Saturdays and Sundays of my life as a 13-year-old kid.”

Johnson said “it made me realize (the importance of) company that you keep, that you’ve got to be aware of everybody around you, how easily you could be accused of doing something and wrongfully convicted.

“As I got older, I started to get more mature, started to surround myself with like-minded people who had the same goals as me, people that were positive in doing all the right things.”

Before his junior year of high school, Johnson transferred from what he called a predominantly black school to Mercyhurst Prep in Erie, where “I was one of four or five black kids in the whole school. They held me accountable for everything I did. I wasn’t just an athlete. I was a student.”

Off he went to Iowa, a 5-foot-9, unheralded recruit who became a starter in his freshman season when Iowa went unbeaten in the Big Ten and played in the Orange Bowl.

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His Iowa experiences were good, and he encouraged current Hawkeye defensive back Terry Roberts of Erie to become a Hawkeye.

“I don’t think many guys ran into any situations that were race-related,” he said. “People know who you are. You stand out like a sore thumb in Iowa City. A lot of people know a group of black guys means you’re more than likely football players.

“When I really kind of got an eye-opener regarding abuse of power was when I was a senior at Iowa and I was getting ready for the NFL draft. I was on my way home to Pennsylvania with (teammates) Marcus Paschal and Richey Williams. My parents were driving a car behind us. Once we crossed into Ohio and got through a toll booth, we pulled off on the side of the road and waited for them to come through the toll booth. A police car pulled up behind us.

“I was thinking maybe he was telling us we couldn’t park there and we needed to get back on the road and keep going. The guy pulls up, and we’ve got five or six police officers behind our car. The officer comes up to the car. We told him we were going to my hometown in Pennsylvania, why we’re going there and where we’re coming from.

“The guy said ‘Do you have any drugs in the car?’ I’m like ‘What are you talking about?’ He was like ‘We suspect drugs in this vehicle, would you mind stepping out of the car?’ I said ‘I’ll step out, but I’m a college student, not a drug dealer. I don’t know what you’re trying to accuse me of, but that’s not who I am.’

“So we all get out of the car. They bring a police dog. They’re walking the dog around my car three or four times and the dog’s not hitting on anything. The guy’s trying to force the dog to the car. They opened the trunk and pulled all my stuff out.

“My parents pulled up in front of me. They see what’s going on and get out of their car. The officers told them to get back in the car. At this point I’m scared.

“Eventually, the officer lets us get back in the car. He said he found residue of cocaine on the driver floor. I’m like ‘You have got to be (expletive) joking. There’s no way in hell. I don’t do that, I’ve never been around that.’ He was like ‘I’m going to let you go this time.’”

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While Johnson was a Steeler, he was coming home from a movie theater one night when police stopped him.

“I was treated like I was definitely a criminal,” he said. “I get pulled over. The officer behind me asked me to put my hands out of the car. Next thing I know, I look back and there are eight police officers behind me. Guns drawn, no questions asked.

“I get out of the car. ‘Put your hands above your head!’ I do that. They tell me to walk backward to the sound of their voice till I get to them. Every officer had their gun drawn on me like I was doing something illegal. Any sudden move, I could have been George Floyd.

“I followed and obeyed their commands. Once I got to them, they cuffed me, put me in the back of a police car, searched my vehicle illegally because they had no warrant, no probable cause, no anything. I’m asking questions like ‘what am I arrested for, why did I get pulled over?’ No answers at all.

Then I told them I play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but as soon as I’m let out of these handcuffs I’m calling our police chief.’”

Johnson said once the police verified he was a Steeler, he was uncuffed and asked not to contact the police chief.

“Their excuse was they got a call saying there was a yellow car in the area driven by someone pulling guns out on people. That car was a Mustang, but I had a Dodge Charger. A two-door versus a four-door. Unreal.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by Johnson’s stories, yet I was.

“It’s a natural reaction,” he said. “I would assume somebody of a different race than me would not endure the same types of things that I endure. Being black in America is not the most promising thing.

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“A parent should tell their kids to never treat somebody that way. Don’t brush it off like it’s nothing. Don’t look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin. There’s more to life than to do that. You’ve got to spread love and less hate.”

This man is a success story. He had a wonderful playing career. At 38, he is a second-year college coach who was promoted to coordinator.

“I’ve played for some of the best coaches anybody could ask for,” Johnson said. “Why not share my knowledge with some young individuals who could benefit from it?

“But I’d honestly give back all my success, all my accolades, for everybody to be treated equally with no problems.”

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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