He fights for their success
By AMBER MOBLEY
Published December 17, 2006
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Julian Johnson, a Freedom High assistant football coach, works out with some of his players after school recently while training for next year.
Behind the door to Room 403 at Freedom High School is Mr. J.
He doesn't have to talk loudly.
His presence speaks for itself.
The former University of South Florida linebacker is Freedom High's assistant football coach.
This time last year he was detecting road-side bombs in Afghanistan as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve.
He may have to return.
But now, Julian Johnson, 25, is back in class teaching math to students who have failed the FCAT.
He has a way of commanding a classroom and it's not all brawn.
A lot of it is been-there-before.
He knows they can pass. But focus is the key. He knows, because he can relate.
Focus was hard to find when he was about that age.
The military would become his remedy.
But before any of his students take that step, Johnson, of Tampa Palms, hopes to wrangle them in the right direction with a mixture of discipline and down-to-earth attitude.
"Students know I'll call their mamas quick," he said. But he's still the type of teacher who will turn a chicken gordita from Taco Bell into a math problem or incorporate the latest dance craze into a mathematical theorem. Johnson just wants his students to learn.
"My style is unorthodox, but you have to trust me."
Sports, school, service
For as long as he can remember, Johnson has been an athlete.
In his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, he played soccer and ran track. He took up basketball after moving to the United States with his family at age 10. By ninth grade, Johnson was playing football after researching the sport at his local library.
He played the sport all through high school and walked onto the USF football team.
But education was just as important as sports in his parents' eyes, and they didn't like what they were seeing.
He tended bar and worked at the VA hospital to put himself through school. He changed majors often.
His dad insisted he was partying too much and suggested he join the military to regain focus.
Johnson didn't like the idea at first but joined the Army on Sept. 8, 2001, three days before that fateful Tuesday morning.
His first thoughts: "Oh Lord, here we go."
"Knowing my luck, the minute I join the Army something happened."
Johnson would later be better for joining, he said. The Army helped him stop "doing everything average."
After taking a year off from college for military training, Johnson graduated from USF in 2003.
Hillsborough County Schools hired him as a math teacher in May 2004.
In February 2005 Johnson was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan.
As part of the Army's Alpha 391st Engineer Company, Johnson would help clear improvised explosive devices from the roads so that troops could travel safely.
As dangerous a job as that is, Johnson said it all felt routine, until March 6, 2006, when "four guys died in a blast."
"The passenger and driver of the tank died instantly. The medic on board died 45 minutes after. The gunner died within three hours of the blast," he said.
"That was a couple of weeks before we came home ... they all had kids from months old to 6 years," said Johnson, who is single.
After that, "the days became blurred." But what does stand out are the moments he spent packing up the dead soldiers' personal belongings.
In a letter he found, one of the soldiers' daughters wrote, "Daddy, I'm so glad to hear from you. I can't wait to see you."
It was tough.
But times over there were always tough.
"There's never a time to relax. There's no safe haven," Johnson said.
Those who would smile at you one minute would just as easily shoot you the next.
"When I was over there, all I could think about was my mom, dad, sister and brother, making it back to them."
Pushing to the limit
Johnson can't forget his homecoming from Afghanistan.
"My mom hugged me, and then she threatened me," he said with a chuckle.
"She said, 'You healthy? You alive? Okay, I don't care what you got going on, you're going to grad school.' "
"I love her spirit. ... My mom made sure we got our education."
Growing up, "if you didn't finish your homework, you had to get up at 4 a.m. to finish it," said Johnson.
This practice mirrored his mom's favorite poem, The Ladder of Saint Augustine, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
Johnson still recites it for encouragement as an adult, to push him to "work hard" - his football team's battle cry.
And before his players hit the weight room for daily practice, they meet in his classroom to do homework and then review football plays.
Johnson believes jocks can be geniuses too.
An hour later when he changes from dress shirt, slacks and shoes into a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, it's time to work even harder.
Johnson grunts with his players as they collectively push through the burn during a workout on a recent Tuesday.
"C'mon. I'm right here with you," he tells a player while spotting him on a heavy lift.
Lifting, squatting, pushing and pounding, Johnson does all the maneuvers with his team.
Players, most at least seven years his junior, half-jokingly cry out, "I can't feel my face!"
Johnson yells for more.
Amber Mobley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 269-5311.
[Last modified December 16, 2006, 21:01:31]
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