It was the night of his 11th birthday, and Keyshawn Johnson found himself in the Venice Beach homeless shelter on Rose Avenue. He remembers the card and cake the employees gave him. The children he watched at the shelter's daycare center, a job he took in return for a small amount of cash, all came and sang to him. In a few weeks, he moved to the Compton homeless shelter with his mom before they were able to afford a more permanent residence.
For both Greg and Keyshawn Johnson, two South Central Los Angeles natives, football opened opportunities in life that may not have been available otherwise. In their hometown of Los Angeles, almost 36 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and only 6 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. Although they grew up 27 years apart, the unrelated Johnsons both faced economic barriers and used football as a tool to get a degree and find a positive community.
Keyshawn Johnson was born in 1972 and was raised with six siblings by a single mother. In his youth, adversity was something he overcame daily. Johnson occasionally sold marijuana on the street to help bring home extra money for his family, and the obstacles he faced as a child encouraged him to strive for a financially secure future. From a young age, Johnson began to play and develop a passion for football. After he started to see his potential in the sport, he knew football was a great opportunity for him to rise above the situation he was born into.
"I never wanted to be put in a situation again where I'm homeless or sleeping in my mom's car," said Johnson. "Now I got a chance to rewrite my families history."
Johnson's mom, Vivian, knew that football would be a way into college, and she drove her old, blue Chevy to pick him up from USC everyday. She wanted her son to be the first person in their family to get a degree and create a stable life for himself.
At that point, Johnson was too young to be a Trojan, but he enjoyed being at the field to collect footballs for the coach or pass out flyers in the athletic department. Johnson spent any extra money he had on cleats or other gear so that he could continue to play. "My success was deemed as don't go to jail, don't get killed and live a successful life," said Johnson.
Johnson's football talent landed him a full-ride scholarship to USC. Once he was at the school, he realized that attending college meant more than just playing football, and the degree attached to it became invaluable. "I wanted to get my degree because I knew the league was always going to be there, and at the end of the day, I wanted to have the USC experience and graduate," said Johnson.
He played football for USC for two years, and received the offensive MVP for the 1995 Cotton Bowl Classic game and 1996 Rose Bowl. Johnson's amazing junior and senior seasons at USC led him to be selected first overall in the '96 draft. He went on to sign a multimillion dollar contract, helping the South Central athlete achieve more than he'd ever dreamed of.
Although Johnson's story dealt with his career in the late 90s, the idea of football players dealing with financial adversity did not disappear with the decade.
As a current freshman on the Trojan team, cornerback Greg Johnson has gone through his own set of tribulations. While the two Johnsons are not related, Greg is also from South Central LA, and grew up in Watts. Greg Johnson was raised by his parents with his three siblings, and dealt with many troubles in his youth.
"I came from poverty. I didn't having as much as everyone else. All I had was my family and that's basically it. I didn't have much, and for me to end up in this position is just a blessing," Johnson said.
As a child, Greg didn't know if he would even go to college. Neither of his parents graduated with a degree, and Johnson said it would have been a financial strain on his family to pay for a four-year university. Fortunately, coaches in the area recognized Johnson's talent, and convinced his parents to support his athletic endeavors in hopes of future success. Johnson's parents weren't very involved in his football career, but they knew that football could lead to college scholarships and potentially professional contracts.
Combined with school funding provided to athletes with income-based need, the amount of money his family set aside for Greg to attend a few camps and buy equipment was all he needed. He committed to play football for USC his senior year of high school.
On the NCAA signing day of 2017, Johnson tweeted, "I went from eating PB&J on saltine crackers to signing my National Letter of Intent to the University of Southern California."
Along with the financial issues he faced while growing up, Johnson also dealt with challenges off the field his junior year of high school. One day afters school, his close friend and teammate, Elijah Galbreath, was shot and killed outside of his home on East 103rd Street.
"Dealing with my friends passing away has been hard, and not having anything. Seeing everybody on TV with fast cars and this and that, and not having any of that has been fueling me to get to that point," said Johnson.
On top of other obstacles, the loss of his friend was extremely challenging for Johnson. Near the end of his high school career as recruiters and all-star games started to arise, many of his tweets included statements like, "look Eli…we made it," and kept him connected with the memory of his lost friend.
One of Johnson's former high school coaches, Malik James, has known him since he was in fourth grade. Even though James is older than Johnson, he said that watching him progress in life and make it to the college level has been inspiring. "You don't see kids go to college from this area," James said. "He picked up 50 scholarship offers coming out of South Los Angeles. That just doesn't happen around here."
Just like Keyshawn did years ago, Greg took advantage of the opportunities football offered, knowing that focusing on the sport had potential benefits. Having the support of their hometown throughout their career helped both Johnsons realize that the game is about much more than wins and losses, it's about learning from your hardships and using them to shape your life.