This is the first of a two-part story on UGA 4-star recruit Netori Johnson. Part II will run Tuesday on DawgNation.
ABBEVILLE, Ga. – It was a birthday celebration. That’s why they were all here. The reason Netori Johnson and other family members drove to the middle of nowhere in South Georgia early Saturday morning was to visit Johnson’s father. Nelvin Isaiah Johnson turned 41 years old on March 3.
His birthday occurred inside Wilcox State Prison, same as they have for nearly 20 years now.
It is only the second time in Netori Johnson’s young life that he has seen his father in person. Well, at least that he has any memory of anyway. Nelvin I. Johnson (at least 12 known aliases) has been incarcerated since Netori was 2. He is currently serving a 30-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery. He is inmate No. 0000775478 to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Obviously, Nelvin Johnson hasn’t been a big part of Netori Johnson’s life. But after Netori emerged from a nearly five-hour visit in the medium security prison located about 30 miles east of Cordele and I-75, he said he could not have been happier about his decision to go there.
“I’m full of excitement, joy,” said Johnson, who made the 2½-hour ride to the prison with his paternal grandmother, an aunt and a cousin. “I’m a very happy person just to be able to sit down with family that I usually don’t see or talk to and share my feelings with my dad about how I feel about him being in prison. It was a really great experience.”
And for Johnson, it comes at a critical time. In four months, he will report to UGA’s campus along with 26 other recruiting signees to begin his college football career with the Georgia Bulldogs. Johnson is a big-time offensive line prospect out of Cedar Grove High, a 4-star recruit who chose UGA over Alabama and a host of other major-college programs. As far as football is concerned, there are huge expectations for this 6-foot-4, 334-pound man-child.
That Johnson made it here to this point, unscathed and largely unblemished despite growing up in volatile surroundings under the most challenging of circumstances imaginable, is a bit of a modern-day miracle. But he was able to do it thanks to a myriad of mentors and caregivers who have been placed in his path along the way.
Cedar Grove coach Jimmy Smith is one among them.
“I’m happy for him,” said Smith, who the family counts as one of Netori’s saving graces. “As a matter of fact, I kind of advised that he do (visit his father). He’s been talking about doing it for a long time, and I think he’s mature enough to where he can handle it.”
Netori’s mother, Tara Stroud, agreed that the visit was a good idea.
“Despite his father being in prison since Netori was 2, they have a good relationship,” Stroud said. “He has always told Netori to be the opposite of him. … The Atlanta streets led him down a different path.”
After what he has been through the last four years of his life, Johnson figures he can handle just about anything at this point. There has been trouble, tragedy and unimaginable losses that would have tripped up most teens.
Yet through it all, Johnson has not only maintained his balance, but managed to keep a positive, upbeat attitude. His fun-loving personality is best personified by the ever-present, neon-dyed locks atop his head. That’s now a trademark for which has become well known.
Saturday’s visit, Johnson said, was simply another box he needed to check before heading off to college.
“It was just a need,” Johnson said as to why he wanted to visit his father now. “I had to do it.”
ROAD TRIP WITH RELATIVES
Wilcox State Prison is medium-security prison housing about 1,800 male inmates. It is located in the city of Abbeville and the county of Wilcox, about 30 miles east of Cordele and I-75 in South Georgia. Johnson made the trip there at the urging of his grandmother, Sarah Johnson. He rode down with her, his aunt, Shawnteen Johnson, and cousin, Quishauna Johnson.
It has only been recently that Netori has spent any time with his paternal grandmother, Sarah Johnson. She wants him to have a relationship with his father, Nelvin Johnson. CHIP TOWERS / DAWGNATION
After making the long drive down Saturday morning, they spent nearly five hours with Nelvin in the prison’s main visitation room along with dozens of other inmates and their families. Netori said they spent most of the time huddled around a small metal table on one side of the room, swapping stories and sharing memories.
“It was great,” Johnson said. “We talked about things when I was younger, things I don’t even remember. … And we talked about football. A lot of the guys in there have seen me on TV and play in some of these games. One of the guards said he had a kid who played at Crisp County and we beat them this year. He said we lost him some money.”
Johnson emerged from the prison with a shoe box that he said was filled with “letters and stuff.” He walked out with his father’s family – people with which he has spent very little time the last 10 years or so – laughing and joking. And hungry. All they had to eat all day were snacks from a vending machine.
“I’m glad I did it,” Netori said.
Not everybody was happy about Netori making this trip, however. Namely, his maternal grandmother.
Netori and his maternal grandmother, Venus Meadows, after an all-star game in Orlando in January. FAMILY PHOTO
Venus Meadows, 65, has been Johnson’s primary caregiver most of his life. Netori calls her “Mama,” with the annunciation on the second syllable, but she’s actually his grandmother. She and her husband, Alfred Meadows, raised Netori along with his older brother Deontae in Ellenwood. Even before Nelvin Johnson permanently incarcerated by the State Department of Corrections, they made it their business to keep their grandsons away from their father and the lifestyle that he chose.
So when Johnson made the trip to Abbeville, he did so only with the grudging blessings of the grandmother that raised him.
“If it was my choice he wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” said Meadows, with whom Netori still resides. “His father’s mother (Sarah Johnson), she has never been in Netori’s life, never tried to come by and see him or spend any time with him or anything. So I’m wondering now why all these people are coming out of the woodwork. You know what I’m saying? I’m very leery about all of this.
“But Tori, he’s very mature. He says some things from time-to-time that shock me. He’s got a lot of wisdom, and he knows the good from the bad. But that’s his father and he doesn’t have his brother anymore nor his granddaddy. So I guess he forgave him and he wants to have a relationship with him.”
Make no mistake about it, it’s Ms. Meadows – along with her late husband, Alfred Meadows — who have done the most to get Netori Johnson where he is today. He has a loving mother in Tara Stroud, who has done whatever she could whenever she could to raise him and is deeply involved in her son’s life. But between health and personal problems, the best solution was for Stroud’s children to remain with her parents.
And that has proven to be tremendous blessing for Netori. In the Meadows, he and his brother found stability, consistency and comfort. They lived in the same place the whole time. Alfred, an Army veteran, drove a garbage truck for the DeKalb County sanitation division. Venus Meadows used to work but quit after she and her husband were awarded full custody of the boys by the courts in 2006.
“Whatever I can do for him I try to do,” Ms. Meadows said. “I get up every morning, make him breakfast, take him to school, go back and get him. He likes to eat and I like to cook, so I don’t mind doing it. I’m the one who ran them to the doctor’s appointments when they were sick or to practice or whatever was going on. That’s all it is. I don’t mind doing it because I love him.”
Smith, who has been as much of a father to Johnson as a coach these last two and half years, interceded on behalf of Johnson seeing his father before finishing high school and moving on to bigger and better things at UGA.
“He’s at an age now where he’s a young man now and there’s some stuff his daddy needs to tell him, like about decisions he needs to not make and stuff like that. You know what I mean?” Smith said. “So, I think now is a good time, because he’s about to go off on his own. College is an opportunity to do a lot of good things, but it’s also an opportunity to make a lot of mistakes. So I think it’s a good time to talk to his father.”
Johnson certainly thought it was.
“I think the relationship with my father will be a lot different from now on out,” Johnson said. “I used to talk to him some on the phone, but going to see him is going to change the whole thing.”
(Coming Tuesday: How Netori Johnson overcame multiple tragedies to pave his road to Athens.