Like any other day, Karen Johnson picked up her son Andre from his football practice at Miami Senior High School and began cooking dinner.
Rated the No. 3 receiver in the country by The Sporting News, Andre was looking over recruiting letters from universities such as Miami and Southern California, while his mom stood alone in the kitchen and suddenly heard a voice.
“It was like somebody was on the side of me whispering in my ear saying, ‘Go tell Andre that if he goes to the University of Miami he will win a national championship,’” she said. “A couple of nights later, we were heading to dinner with UM, and Andre said, ‘I think I’m going to go to UM. And maybe two years later, we’ll win the national championship.’”
Three years later, as a redshirt sophomore, that’s exactly what Andre Johnson did when he earned co-MVP at the 2002 Rose Bowl.
The following season, after catching 52 passes for 1,092 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns, Johnson and the Hurricanes lost in the national title game to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
He and redshirt sophomore running back Willis McGahee were early draftees on a team that sent eight players to the National Football League. Johnson was selected third overall by the Houston Texans in the 2003 NFL Draft.
When he made the decision to leave and pursue his professional football career, his mom had one condition: Johnson would come back to finish his degree.
Seven years later, the 6-foot-3, 228-pound football player stayed true to his word and enrolled for the 2010 spring semester.
“It was just something I always wanted to do,” he said. “I always told my mom that if I left school early, I’d come back and finish. So I just felt like it was time to come back and get it done.”
The Pro Bowl wide receiver makes the daily commute from his home in Ft. Lauderdale in time for his earliest class at 11 a.m.
“It’s definitely different because you haven’t been doing it for so long,” he said. “To be honest it’s kind of fun to be back here. I get a kick out of just seeing people looking at me walking around campus and things like that.”
Initially, classmates were surprised to see a book bag-toting Johnson riding on the Hurry ‘Canes shuttle or eating at the food court.
He signed autographs and received bewildered stares from workers at Wendy’s.
“For me to come in and just walk into class with my book bag on, I know they’re kind of wondering why I’m here,” he said. “It shows them that just because you’re presented with an opportunity you can still come back and get your education.”
His decision to return to school and finish his degree is something that he says his peers respect.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he went back because he was always one of those guys who wanted to achieve things, and I knew that was one of those achievements,” said McGahee, now a sixth-year running back for the Baltimore Ravens.
McGahee was supposed to enroll in three classes for the spring semester with Johnson, but had to back out at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts. Although undeclared when he left the university, the Pro Bowler hopes to pursue political science.
“I just want to get my degree,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to put on my wall.”
According to David Wyman, assistant athletic director of academic services, more than 50 percent of UM’s former athletes inquire about finishing their degrees. That number includes former All-Pro defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy and former cornerback and Super Bowl champion Duane Starks.
“The University of Miami is a family, and we always embrace our former student-athletes to help them in any way possible,” Wyman said. “Our door and arms are always open to help them get back in school and finish their degrees. We want to see them continue to produce and have successful lives even after football.”
Junior offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, who is in Johnson’s social inequalities class, believes that the receiver serves as a role model to kids, college students, student-athletes and professional football players alike.
“He was one of those top guys who got drafted and left early,” he said. “He was blessed with the talent he has, and he’s not hurting money-wise, so he notices you can’t play ball forever. It’s good that he’s fallen back upon his education.”
When Johnson left the University of Miami, he needed just 30 credits to graduate with a degree in liberal arts. This semester he is a full-time student taking 12 credits.
One of his professors, Dr. George Wilson, teaches his social inequalities class and had him as a student when he first came to Coral Gables.
“It has been a pleasure to see how much intellectual and emotional growth Andre has made,” Wilson said of the soft-spoken 28-year-old athlete.
Chris Harris, a Ph.D. candidate who has Johnson in his intercultural communications course, appreciates that the professional football player participates like any other student. He also agreed that Johnson has a quiet and somewhat shy demeanor.
Forty-two NFL touchdowns later, the wide receiver has yet to celebrate like some of the sport’s play making receivers such as Cincinnati Bengal Chad Ochocinco or free agent Terrell Owens.
“He takes all of his assignments seriously and gets them all in on time,” Harris said. “He’s taking his degree seriously. He has a good work ethic and always does what I ask him to do. My class is discussion based, and he participates consistently.”
During Pro Bowl week, Johnson missed classes because of practice and admitted that he was worried about receiving excused absences.
“I was pretty nervous about it because I knew I’d be missing a lot of time over those two weeks and I didn’t know, with me being away for so long, how the teachers would react to it, but they’ve been very helpful,” he said. “They understand that part of it, but I’m going to try my best to communicate with them and get my assignments done.”
When he isn’t shaking off Pro Bowl cornerbacks or hitting the books, Johnson stops by his childhood home for a meal every now and then and to spend time with his mother.
“He likes seafood. He likes fish and shrimp,” Karen Johnson said. “When he was first at school, what I would do is call him and ask him what time he would get out of practice on a Sunday. He’d bring a couple of players by and I’d cook them a home-cooked meal. They would eat and they’d bring some back for the guys who couldn’t make it.”
It’s that camaraderie that Johnson misses the most seven years removed from the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.
“There are so many memories that I have just from being around my teammates, being over at the Hecht Athletic Center all the time, even in the dorms when I stayed in the dorms,” he said. “We were always on campus. When you spend so much time somewhere and you get up one day and leave, you definitely miss it from the memories.”
As a Parade All-American, Johnson actually missed his high school graduation ceremony because he was competing in the Florida/Georgia All-Star Game.
“I feel like I’ve never really graduated,” he said. “Me getting my college degree would definitely be a graduation that I go to.”
His mother still remembers the entire recruiting process.
When then-head coach Butch Davis came to visit, she asked questions purely on academics, and gave her brother the job of anything related to football. She can’t wait until her son joins his brother, Willie, as a college graduate.
“I’ll probably be in tears. It’s going to be interesting,” Karen Johnson said. “We will need extra tickets.”
Christina De Nicola may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calvin Cestari contributed to this report.
Players who’ve returned to complete degrees
4 Duane Starks,
Class of 2005
Class of 2006
4 Kenny Holmes,
Class of 2006
4 Kenard Lang,
Class of 2007
4 Lamar Thomas,
Class of 2008