Marquis Johnson stood in front of his second-grade class for show-and-tell and levied a threat to those who would listen.
Hurt his mother and pay dire consequences.
Startled by what she heard, Johnson’s teacher phoned Victoria Anderson, his mother, wondering exactly what was going on at their home.
“He got up in show-and-tell and he told them he would kill whoever if they hurt me again,” Anderson said. “She thought it was my current husband at the time. I was like, no, it had to be my past. That was my first awareness of anything.
“That’s when I first started talking to him and trying to find out what had been going on before we moved to Orlando.”
Johnson had witnessed his mother being verbally abused. What his mother didn’t know was that her son also had been abused himself.
His comments in class were the first signs of how troubled parts of his childhood had been.
Now with the New Orleans Saints, Johnson is ready to speak out against childhood abuse, ready to help those overcome the struggle the same way he has been able to.
“I’m not trying to be out there to have my name out there,” Johnson said. “But I have a story to tell, a testimony, and it doesn’t just need to be used in church. I want to be able to spread the word. I’m hands-on.”
Mental, Verbal and Physical Abuse
Johnson, 24, grew up in Sarasota, Fla., with his mother, who had him at 18. His father, George Johnson, was a football standout and went off to play football in college.
The abuse started when Anderson ended up with her first husband.
“He was abusing him when he saw his biological father in the streets,” Anderson said. “I started hearing things of that nature and then of him spanking him in public and stuff like that, which I didn’t give him permission to do that.”
Johnson said it was more than just spankings, however.
There was verbal abuse and mental abuse that went along with the physical.
Yet, in spite of Johnson’s second-grade show-and-tell experience, Anderson said she never fully knew how bad it was for her son.
“A lot of things I was unaware of until recently,” Anderson said. “Some things I did and it was due to past relationships that I had, but it was things that I found out recently, when he got into college and they tested him for ADHD and some things came out that I was unaware of myself.”
Johnson isn’t alone in experiencing abuse of some kind while being younger than 18.
According to Dr. Joy Osofsky, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the LSU Health Sciences Center, there are 3.3 million reports of child abuse every year, of which nearly a million are confirmed. The latest data shows that 12 out of every 100,000 children up to the age of 18 experience abuse.
Staying Away from Trouble
Johnson could have become another statistic, another person passing the abuse along to the next person.
But Anderson made sure, as much as she could, to keep him active and away from the rough home life and neighborhood she believed she was hiding from Johnson.
“He always stayed involved and I always kept him in things,” Anderson said. “It was a joy watching him participate in sports and he also sings so participated in choirs and church activities and he grew up in the boys and girls clubs. I kept him busy to keep him out of things and away from negative things in his life.
“It was kind of an escape from the everyday household situation.”
Anderson also partly credits Johnson’s involvement in church as a reason he was able stay strong and not head down the wrong path.
“I kept him in church,” Anderson said. “Now I hear more of that. I really think that helped a lot as far as that (goes).”
Johnson played football and basketball growing up before picking up singing in the choir. He did whatever he could to stay away from his house.
“Sometimes, like any parent or anybody that you know, when you have a lot of issues going on and at the same time, work isn’t good, they come home and they kind of put it on you or the family in general, the stress,” Johnson said. “That was a way for me to get away from everything.”
This helped Johnson get to where he is today, an NFL defensive back expected to contribute on a playoff-contending team.
For that, he can thank his mother, the same one he wanted so dearly to protect as a child.
“For people to overcome that adversity there has to be some positive influence,” Osofsky said. “Obviously, his mother made good decisions for him. … It’s very important (he had) someone who believes in him.”
Understanding, Helping Out
That doesn’t mean, however, that he never got angry about what was happening to him.
“I know how I am sometimes mentally if I think about it, how sometimes angry inside and filled up one kid can be,” Johnson said. “I can imagine what those kids are going through and even adults how they’re acting and behaving today.”
So Johnson formed the Quis 4 Kidz Foundation, an organization aimed at helping children overcome abuse to lead successful lives.
Johnson already has begun giving talks on the speech circuit, expressing the need for a quality work ethic as a way to escape the dangerous path of being stuck in a bad situation.
“It’s just not good,” Johnson said. “I try to help them out and say I’ve been there. I’ve actually been there. You can ask. I always tell them don’t take what I say and just do it good for one week. You need to keep doing it and remember it.”
Johnson said he has turned to help in his past to help overcome the abuse mentally. And through that help, he has learned to not use his abuse as an excuse to do the same to others.
“I treat others how you want to be treated,” Johnson said. “Let’s do everything, let’s be equal so I won’t go past this.”
Overcoming Abuse, Attaining Success
Anderson is still unsure of how her son was able to hide the abuse for so long. She said she began to truly find out the night in April 2010 that Johnson was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams.
In other words, Johnson became a major college recruit and a key contributor to Alabama’s 2009 national championship and an NFL draft pick in spite of his struggles.
That he got to the point where he was drafted is a testament to just how tough Johnson is, Osofsky said.
“A lot of children are resilient, but some are better able to overcome,” Osofsky said. “… He is able to say bad things happened to me but I was able to overcome it.”While he was the head coach in St. Louis, Steve Spagnuolo said he selected Johnson partly on the player’s character. Now with the Saints as defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo is happy to have Johnson still around.
“There was no indication to me,” Spagnuolo said. “I don’t have a lot of experience in that realm to know how young children react to that. But that being the case, my hat goes off to him. A great deal of respect for the person he has turned out to be. I think he’s a very accountable guy, a very smart guy.”
Johnson, now in his third season, isn’t deep on experience. He has played in only five games, missing parts of both 2010 and 2011 with a knee injury.
He has worked with the first-team defense early in training camp with cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson spending time on the sideline injured. He also has spent time in the nickelback position.
“You’ve got to take full-fledged advantage,” Johnson said. “This is a small league. They’re rotating you quickly. The thing you want to do is when somebody gets hurt, you want to be able to come in and play you like you are a 1. I’ve just been doing that.”
Regardless of whether he ends up playing a lot or not, though, Anderson is and will always be proud of her son for overcoming so much to come so far.
“I always tell him how proud I am of him of all his accomplishments and I always try to encourage him to keep praying and keep working hard and doing the things that he’s doing,” Anderson said. “That brings a light in my life, to be able to come and do things and see him play ball and talk to the community and the kids about what he went through and to be a motivation to them. That makes me proud and gives me honor to be his mom.”