Inside Jimmy Johns' 15-year journey to self-forgiveness and a degree from Alabama
For 15 years, Jimmy Johns has been at this grind.
Working and studying. Leading and achieving. Mentoring and fathering, all with the purpose of feeling complete again. All to square this thing with one last holdout who could not forgive.
Sure, there was a practical purpose, also.
There were bills to pay and children to raise, and with a tenacity instilled in him by his late grandfather, Luther Thomas, Johns has been laser-focused on that for more than a decade now. Adulting has always come easy for Johns, and he didn't need a college degree for that. But on Friday, a contingent from Johns' hometown of Brookhaven, Mississippi, will cheer for him at the University of Alabama's commencement ceremony. At 35 years old, he will graduate from UA with a degree in consumer sciences, and there won't be a grad in the house with a greater sense of fulfillment than Jimmy Johns.
Achievements like this matter more when there is first a life to rebuild from a rock-bottom fall. The former Alabama football running back's promising athletic career was destroyed in 2008 when he was arrested on felony charges involving cocaine distribution, was dismissed from the team and served nearly 13 months in jail. He's managed to rebound since his release to build a career and a family.
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But this forgiveness thing has been tricky.
When devastating, life-changing mistakes are made, some deserve forgiveness and some don't. Some ask for it, some don't. Some get it, some don't.
Brookhaven, Johns acknowledges, helped pick him up after his fall from grace. There's something of a love affair between Johns and this tiny, football-loving town near the southern end of Mississippi. He's still the star quarterback who led Brookhaven High to its last state championship, and the local hero status that comes with that never faded.
Sure, there were a few locals who turned their back on Johns after his arrest, but they were mostly hangers-on, angling for a hand in his pocket if his football career had gone pro. The vast majority of his hometown embraced him quickly, and gave him some much-needed footing after his incarceration.
"Culturally, the Black community is a forgiving community," said former Alabama safety Chris Rogers, a close friend and teammate of Johns at UA. "I'm sure there were people who were disappointed in him and his fall from grace, but most everybody rallied behind him."
Back at Alabama, coach Nick Saban forgave. Friends, family and teammates forgave.
Everybody except one.
Since his release 12 years ago, Johns has remade himself into a reliable father and husband, a highly successful car salesman, a mentor who speaks to schoolchildren about life choices, a trainer of young athletes, a management employee at one of the nation's biggest corporations, and finally, as of Friday, a college graduate.
All to square one grave mistake with one last person not ready to forgive.
The last holdout? Jimmy himself.
Nobody's forgotten the 2004 Brookhaven Panthers.
It's been 19 years since Johns, their do-it-all quarterback, led a comeback win over Clarksdale in a Class 4A state championship game, 29-23, and capped it with a game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. He threw for 266 yards and ran for 107, right through the Clarksdale defense and straight into his hometown's heart, cementing a local legacy in a football-loving community with what is still the only state title in school history. He won the state's Mr. Football award.
Truth is, he was Brookhaven's favorite son even a couple years before that. The middle child of five, from a young age he combined athletic brilliance with a larger-than-life personality: approachable, engaging, full of humor. He'd bump into his coach's mother at the grocery store and strike up a conversation. He was in gifted classes in elementary school and befriended more people than most.
The key to the city, his Uncle Billy Thomas says, was his.
Home was the best place for him upon his release in 2011.
"Brookhaven, for the most part, absolutely loves Jimmy," said Johns' wife of nine years, Ayonna Monique, "and at the time I think he needed to feel that. And he wouldn't have felt that somewhere else."
Within a few months of returning home, Johns was one of the area's most successful car salesmen. Between his easy charisma and determination to provide for his family, he earned up to $100,000 in a year in the job, even working off the clock at times to engage with customers or get signatures to speed up paperwork.
"People don't drive me," Johns said. "I drive me. I motivate me. Being a provider motivates me."
Of course nobody will forget the '04 Panthers or their star quarterback. But if they're too young to remember, they need only watch a Friday-night BHS game. Jimmy Johns Jr. is a starting linebacker. He made 115 tackles last season, and plays for Tucker Peavey, who coached his dad.
If Jimmy has the key to the city, the Johns family has a spare.
The Saban influence
Johns still abides by Nick Saban's 24-hour rule, giving himself 24 hours to celebrate a life milestone after once adhering to a 24-hour rule about celebrating victories. He held it to 24 hours when he got his acceptance from UA's admissions office to reenroll.
"Everything Nick Saban instilled in him is still very much a part of Jimmy's life and his character," Ayonna said. "The perseverance, the commitment, the dedication − he's continued to live by all that."
The coach's sermon about the importance of completing a degree stuck with Johns, too, although he was self-motivated for that anyway. But Saban was a big reason he wanted to finish his degree specifically at Alabama. He'd wanted to play at Alabama so young, he has no childhood memory of a time when he didn't.
It had to be Alabama.
But would he be allowed back? Was he wanted back?
Johns was arrested on five counts of distribution and one count of possession of a controlled substance following an investigation where he sold cocaine to undercover officers, including twice on campus. His grandfather, whose grind was the timber business, had passed away. Johns, by his own estimation, had lost some purpose. Saban dismissed him from the team and issued a terse statement.
“This type of behavior obviously will not be tolerated and he is no longer a part of our program," Saban's statement said.
Of all the people Johns felt he disappointed, he was especially uncertain whether repairing his relationship with Saban was possible. Turned out, forgiveness was there, too.
"He's overcome a lot. I'm very proud of the guy for sticking with it and graduating now," Saban said. "I think this is a really positive thing for athletics because you learn a lot of lessons in life. I think he learned some perseverance and wanting to do the right thing and change his station in life so he could have a better life. I have a tremendous amount of respect for it."
Support for Johns from the UA side of his life, beyond Saban, was also firm. Staffers in the Alabama athletics department, former teammates, as well as his high school coach, Peavey, were among Johns' most frequent visitors during a 13-month sentence served in Tuscaloosa.
"After I got in trouble, we talked about the process of making it right. He told me Alabama doesn't turn its back on family," John said of Saban. "As a 20-year-old kid, I needed to hear that. Since I've been out, I've always come to A-Day, I've done the alumni flag football. I still needed to feel a part of it, and he never batted an eye."
From football camps and clinics to youth coaching and speaking engagements, Johns did a lot to give back. He's raised funds for local school supplies and has spoken his life truth with regularity to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Dandy Dozen preseason football team, an honor Johns himself received in 2004. He has given speeches to youngsters not only in Mississippi but across both his neighboring state lines, in Alabama and Louisiana, everywhere from banquet halls to locker rooms.
"The way I felt, it was like I couldn't do enough," Johns said.
One year he spoke to the Mississippi North-South High School All-Stars, and at halftime of the game, proposed to his wife. Johns has also helped train some of the area's top athletes, including Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Davion Taylor of nearby Magnolia, who was a 2020 third-round draft pick. He even organized a semi-pro team called the Tri-County Heroes once, bringing together top former prep players from various high schools in the area.
Brookhaven took Johns back and he, in turn, gave back.
If he really did owe his hometown a debt, he paid it and then some. All that work in the community contributed to a slow healing for Johns, but one that never felt complete.
"I think he went through several years of working on his self-esteem, and I still feel like it's constant work. Ongoing work," Ayonna said. "He was put back together quickly as far as pushing himself to work and handling responsibilities. But I always felt there was still a work in progress."
The finish line
The UA admissions process, second time around, was unnerving for Johns.
As part of his application, he had to send a letter to UA's dean of the College of Arts & Sciences that established he'd completed various requirements set forth by a judge, and, in his words, "answer whatever questions there were." He filed that letter in December in hopes of receiving an answer before the school broke for the holidays, but it didn't come.
The grueling wait extended into January.
"There was a process of getting back into school at Alabama. But coach Saban always said to fall in love with the process," Johns said. "When I got the call, I just hugged my wife. It was a relief. It was exciting, but you still know you have work to do. I was just glad to get the chance to finish what I started and where I started; you know, to close that Alabama chapter the right way."
COVID-19 took its toll on the car sales business, so Johns took a job at Wal-Mart and worked his way up to management quickly. He also decided the time had come to finish a degree, and aced two courses last fall at Southwest Mississippi Community College that were required to transfer to Alabama. After learning he'd been admitted for UA's spring semester, Johns took three online classes: CSM 461 (Management for High Performing Organizations), an astronomy lab, and, as an elective, an African-American studies course. He cut his Wal-Mart hours down to 40 a week with a role in it's Continuous Skills Development program and often studied until 2 a.m.
He's slept no more than four to six hours a night for the last four months to make sure he'd be in a cap and gown Friday.
Johns' path from his second shot at a college diploma has included the UA athletics degree completion program, which assists former players in finishing coursework many of them left behind to play NFL football. In Johns' case, the detour was longer, much different, and far more challenging, but has ended in the same place. UA Associate Athletics Director Molly Dowd runs the program for football players and knew Johns from when she once tutored him as a 20-year-old undergraduate. Fifteen years later, she advised him on what he needed to walk across Alabama's graduation stage.
"I just made sure he was in the right classes or got him some tutoring support if he needed it," Dowd said.
Also in Johns' corner was Alabama football's First and Ten program, administrated through the Letterman's Club, which gives former players a postgraduate resource for career development.
As for his final three Alabama classes this spring, he scored A's in them all.
"He wanted his kids to see him finishing school, working a job and taking care of family," Ayonna said. "He'd get through an assignment in that astronomy class and then he'd be telling our daughter which stars were which. He's been stressed out and nervous about it, but also excited. And the stress part is over now."
The last step
The educational journey ends for Johns on Friday, but it's not the only journey. The time might soon be right to see where his degree can take him.
To a new state maybe, or a new job. A new frontier. A new country. Who knows?
Even though he's come far without a diploma, he speaks of graduation like ground zero of a rocket launch into the rest of his life. He might be ready to leave the cradle that Brookhaven has been. Johns will always be a part of it, but he's paid his debt to society and has given back locally long enough to feel good about his hometown ledger.
"I realized this: When I got in trouble, everybody around me went through it too. But I didn't know that back then because I was selfish," he said. "When it all crashed, my eyes opened, and I saw my mom had to go through it, my coaches, everyone. I'm built to handle it, but everybody's not built the same way. Graduating is how I wanted to make it right for those people."
It's been right with them for years.
He didn't have to rebuild a lot of relationships, he only needed to go back to being himself. But it still took him 15 years to remove the weight of his mistake, bit by bit, from his own shoulders.
Guilt did that.
"I think sometimes we all are really critical of mistakes we make, and we have a hard time getting over it. But I think the key thing for everyone is to not waste a failing, and learn from your mistakes and move on," Saban said. "It's difficult to do sometimes if you get frustrated with your circumstance, and some of the mistakes we make."
The chase for a diploma comes to a close for Johns Friday, but something else just as important comes to an end as well. Graduating from college, and specifically from Alabama, will finally unburden him from that guilt.
"I think I've been avoiding that, forgiving myself, until now, until this big day when I can graduate," he said.
Friday is the big day.
The day Jimmy forgives Jimmy.
Tuscaloosa News columnist Chase Goodbread is also the weekly co-host of Crimson Cover TV on WVUA-23 and the Talkin' Tide podcast. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.