How could Charles Johnson even begin to talk about leaving football? The game he loves, to which he gave his blood, his body and nearly every one of his 32 years of life?
How could he begin to say goodbye to the game that got him out of a small Georgia town with few opportunities? The organization that committed to him as he did to it, for 11 years, 67.5 sacks and 20 forced fumbles as well as countless huddle breakdowns, helmet-slaps and hits?
He addressed the people who shaped him.
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Johnson, the defensive end who was selected in the third round of the Carolina Panthers’ 2007 NFL draft and played his entire career as a Carolina Panther, used the majority of his retirement ceremony speech at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday afternoon to address his former teammates and coaches. And that is how he said goodbye.
The crowd of well-wishers was so large that the ceremony was held in one of the Panthers’ team meeting rooms.
Dozens of players came, including Johnson’s former teammate at Georgia and in Carolina, Thomas Davis, 16-year defensive end Julius Peppers and former defensive end Mike Rucker.
It was to them, to the handful of veteran players in the room, and to defensive coordinator Eric Washington that Johnson addressed the bulk of his comments.
He was earnest, grateful and candid. He sought out each person in turn to make eye contact with them as he spoke.
“I will never take for granted having gotten to play with you,” he told Davis.
He joked to Peppers about how the two never talked until Peppers showed him one of his game checks early in his career. After that, Johnson was motivated to be like Peppers, and later, the two bonded over fatherhood.
He thanked Washington for making him a part of his family, and for seeing him as more than a football player. He thanked center Ryan Kalil for being the first to console him in tough times. He thanked head coach Ron Rivera and assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III.
And because Johnson is who he is, he talked a little smack and drew some big laughs, and put his heart into every word.
I only knew Johnson for a brief time, but last year he was kind enough to offer me a peek into what would become his main passion after football: his son, Charles, nicknamed “Prince.”
At their home in South Park, we sat and watched Prince shoot basketballs on a tiny hoop in the backyard, and we talked about how Johnson became a father before he was ready. But it was in fatherhood that he grew the most.
We talked about how, when Johnson had back surgery after the 2016 season, the most painful days of his life weren’t from the physical agony, but the look Prince would get on his face when Johnson told him he was hurting too much to lift his son and hold him in his arms.
In 2011, football made him the highest-paid player in the NFL, but it also gave him that painful moment five years later.
As we talked, Prince ran up to show his dad his loose tooth, and as he giggled and ran into the house to show his mother, Ebony, the look of wonder and love on Johnson’s face was one I won’t forget.
Johnson had that same look as he addressed Prince during his retirement ceremony, and thanked him for shaping him, too.
“You are my motivation,” he told his son, who sat with Ebony in the front row. “I wasn’t built for fatherhood (when I had you). But I made myself be built for it.”
But the balance as a player was hard. Johnson gave his entire young adult life to the Carolina Panthers. He gave his shoulders, his spine, his knees, his fingers and hips.
He gave his voice, he gave his heart. He took nothing for granted. He gave endlessly to charity, created affordable housing communities and other philanthropic endeavors. He coached Little League baseball and youth flag football in his free time.
Johnson said Thursday he turned down an $18 million contract offer from Tampa Bay three years ago to finish his career as a Carolina Panther.
“Consistency. Hard worker. Funny. I like to talk junk. I don’t like to take crap. Not very talkative, but if I have to, I can,” said Johnson when asked what he wanted his legacy to be.
“Off the field, in the community. Things like that.”
And it’s what we will see him do next in his community and how he raises his son that will continue to show us who Johnson is.
He said goodbye to football by thanking the people who shaped him.
But the Panthers have Johnson to thank, too, for setting a standard on and off the field for the players who come after him.