This is the second of a two-part story on UGA 4-star signee Netori Johnson.
ELLENWOOD — Netori Johnson’s smile is ever-present. He’s quick with a laugh or a joke. He always seems festive, with his ever-changing hair color and jolly disposition.
But that jovial demeanor masks a tragic past. When it comes to adversity and misfortune, Johnson has had more than his share at such a young age. Abandonment, illness and death, they have all been present in his life, and recently, too.
Yet you’d never know it. Johnson carries on, using positivity and humor like a shield and sword.
“Tori is funny,” said his grandmother, Venus Meadows, with whom he resides. “You’re laughing the whole while when you be around him. Everybody loves him. He’s a lot of fun to be around, always has been. I get a lot of strength from Netori, because he’s very upbeat.”
Just the two of them, Netori and his grandmother, live in the Decatur suburb of Ellenwood now. Not so long ago there were more.
Two members of that household are no longer with us. But each of them remains a very big part of who Netori Johnson is. He’ll carry their memories with him to the University Georgia, where the 4-star offensive lineman will enroll in June as one of the prominent members of the class of 2017.
“I’m excited,” Johnson said. “I’m on track to graduate and ready to get up there and start the next chapter.”
DEION OFFERS OPPORTUNITY
The 6-foot-4, 334-pound Johnson has always been big for his age, and athletic besides. So he was recognized early on as a budding football star. In fact, it was former NFL superstar Deion Sanders who was one of the firsts to harness Johnson’s considerable talents.
As a middle schooler, Johnson’s rec team played Sanders’ famous travel team, The Truth. Johnson broke the collarbone of one of the Truth’s running backs making a tackle in that game. It was something Sanders didn’t forget.
Sometime afterward, Sanders offered Johnson and his family and the opportunity of a lifetime. He invited Johnson to attend Prime Prep, the now-infamous charter school Sanders co-founded in Texas.
There are several versions of stories as to how and why Johnson ended up at the ill-fated school. Johnson admits that he was getting in trouble at school at the time, “having altercations and stuff.” A Dallas Observer story from 2014 quotes his mother saying Netori was involved with a gang and was arrested for possessing a handgun. According to that account, Prime Prep wrote the judge on Johnson’s behalf, pleading for leniency in exchange for their intentions of reforming the teenager.
Whatever the genesis, Netori did move to Texas that summer and spent his ninth-grade and half of his 10th-grade year with Sanders at private school in Oak Cliff. All was well.
“I loved it,” said his grandmother. “He couldn’t get in any trouble out there. You’re out on a thousand acres of land. How much trouble could you get into? You know, you’re isolated. He met a lot of people, he learned a lot of things, he experienced a lot of things, and I was glad. It was a learning tool for him. It helped him immensely and I’ll be always eternally grateful to Deion Sanders for what he did.”
But a series of tragic events brought Johnson back to Ellenwood. First came the unexpected death of his brother.
Deontae Johnson was seven years older than Netori, but they were close. Several years before Netori had left for Texas, Deontae was diagnosed with Cushings Syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder that affects the brain. He also suffered from diabetes and depression.
Deontae had successful surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2008. But according to family members he was never the same after that.
“He got a little wild,” Netori said. “He got into the street life and started making some bad decisions.”
After an argument with a girlfriend in 2013, Deontae hung himself in his closet. He was 23.
“I was 16 when it happened,” Netori said. “They tried to hide it from me. Deion called me out of a class and said, ‘I’m going to fly you back home.’ I wanted to know why because he never would fly me home; he didn’t want me getting into trouble. He didn’t let me come home often, unless it was Christmas break or something. But he wouldn’t tell me.”
In fact, Netori ended up finding out his brother was dead via Facebook. The plan was to tell him in person, so his mother and grandparents were not answering phone calls. But it backfired. A friend sent Netori a screenshot of his mother’s Facebook post about losing a child.
“I wasn’t happy about that,” Netori said.
Netori spoke at his brother’s funeral. They wore matching outfits that day, blue Polo shirts with a pink emblem and tan Polo slacks.
MORE BAD NEWS
Fast forward to the next Christmas and Netori had come home to Ellenwood. As the family ate and reveled in the holiday, Netori told them he had something he needed to get off his chest.
“I told my family then to never hide nothing from me again,” Netori said.
Hearing this, Netori’s grandfather told him he had something to tell him and directed Netori to another room. There, Alfred Meadows informed him he had been diagnosed with cancer and it was advanced.
Alfred Meadows died almost exactly a month later, in January of 2015. He was 63.
“He lost it. He just lost it,” Venus Meadows said of her grandson. “That tore him up, ‘cause he really adored his grandfather. … We were still dealing with his brother’s death. That was very traumatic for him.”
Netori’s biological father, Nelvin Johnson, has been incarcerated since 1998. He’s serving a 30-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery.
“That was my father, basically,” Netori said of Alfred Meadows.
Netori came home for his grandfather’s funeral and he never went back to Texas. He enrolled at Cedar Grove High soon thereafter and has been there since.
FOOTBALL OFFERS OUTLET
As bad as it was dealing with his brother’s death, it was even more difficult for Netori to deal with the loss of his grandfather. Of everybody in his life, this was the person to whom Netori was closest. You had to be around them to appreciate it.
Alfred Meadows (L) with Tori (R) and his uncle, Marvin Meadows. FAMILY PHOTO
“His grandfather, he talked to him, he spent a lot of time with him,” Venus Meadows says. “He talked to him every day when he took him to school, on the way back home from school. Sometimes, in order to go to bed at night, I’d have to tell him, ‘Tori, get off of my bed. I’ve got to go to sleep.’ He’d say, ‘I’m talking to my Dada right now.’ So, they talked all the time. He was just a positive role model in Tori’s life and he loved him and he loved being around him.”
Said Netori: “My granddad, I could talk to him about anything. If I was stressing about something, if I wasn’t doing good in school or having a hard time in football, I could talk to him about it. We’d sit on the back of his truck and talk. We would ride around town.”
Understandably, Netori didn’t get over his grandfather’s passing quickly. But toward the end of that first summer without him, he figured out how to channel his feelings.
He did that through football.
“I wasn’t happy then. I was very depressed,” Johnson said. “But it kind of evolved me as a football player, because I had something to fight for and to take out. I had a lot of anger to take out.”
The first to feel Johnson’s wrath were his teammates at Cedar Grove. Eventually it was the Saints’ opponents.
“My teammates didn’t like me because I’d go so hard,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I was taking out my anger on them. They were, like, ‘calm down, take it easy, we’re at practice, we’re all team.’ But I was hitting them hard, with all my might.”
NEXT CHAPTER AWAITS
Johnson’s exceptional athleticism for being such a large person is what has always attracted the attention of recruiters. And thanks to the early exposure he received from Sanders at Prime Prep, a lot of schools were on him early.
He ended up with literally dozens of scholarship offers. Johnson committed to Alabama in the summer of 2015, then de-committed and reopened his recruitment in February of 2016. He would pledge his services to UGA two months later, shortly after attending the Bulldogs “93K Day” spring game at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia offensive line signees Justin Shaffer (L) and Netori Johnson pose next to the practice field at Cedar Grove High in Ellenwood. CHIP TOWERS / DAWGNATION
Johnson followed in the footsteps of his Cedar Grove teammate Justin Shaffer. With the two of them book-ending at offensive tackle and rotating on the defensive line, the Saints won the Class AAA state championship this past season.
“Tori’s a little more athletic,” Smith said. “He’s not as technically sound as Justin is because Justin was with me four years and Netori only about three. Quickness-wise, both of them are pretty quick. … But pure speed, Tori is a little faster. He’s just blessed.”
And confident. Between performing well at all these elite camps and games in which he has competed these last few years and having endured all the challenges life has thrown at him, Johnson will arrive at UGA this summer self-assured and optimistic.
“I feel like the guys that are there right now don’t have what I have, so I feel like I’m going to have an opportunity to start,” Johnson said. “I’m not saying I’m going to walk in and start and be the man, but that’s how I’m thinking, that’s what I’m going to aim for. Even if I sit my freshman year, my sophomore year there ain’t going to be no stopping me.”
No one will be happier to see Johnson step on that campus than his grandmother.
“I hurt his feelings the other day because I said I’d be glad when he goes to college,” Venus Meadows shared. “But I really will be glad because it’ll be like another chapter. We’ve been through high school and everything that happened here. But when he goes there (to UGA), I know he’ll have a tutor with him, I know they’ll monitor his health, I know they’ll keep an eye on him. I don’t want him to be here. This isn’t the safest community to live in. When he graduates, the next week he’ll be gone, and I’m glad for that.”
At that point, she feels Netori Johnson will have survived.