By Johnny Jackson
Ken Johnson delighted in the small crowd of students formed around him. Each came with a question about his life and career as a college basketball player, and professional football player.
"I thought it was a great learning experience," said Meet Patel, 11.
"He taught us to never give up, and keep trying to accomplish our goals," added Brooke Worley, 10.
The two fifth-graders took part in Oakland Elementary School's "Making Positive Choices" Assembly on Wednesday. Johnson was guest speaker for the event, which targeted the school's third- through fifth-graders.
The event served as an opportunity for students to be inspired in their lives, according to the school's counselor, Sandra Sosa. She said the assembly was hosted by Sports World, Inc., and sponsored through various donations, which made it free for the school.
"His purpose today was to motivate, and inspire the kids to persevere and never give up. Even though life is hard, never give up, and you'll succeed," said Don Ford, the school's counselor intern.
Johnson towered over his audience as he spoke. He weighs about 240 pound and stands at just under six feet, six inches tall.
"One of the keys to be successful is to persevere," said Johnson, a former defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals, in the National Football League (NFL). He played eight years, 1970-1977.
Johnson told students a story about overcoming challenges, winning over much larger opponents, and, sometimes, failing against smaller opponents.
Bob "The Boomer" Brown, he recalled, was the 280-pound opponent he faced early in his NFL career. Brown was an offensive lineman with the then-Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders, who intimidated most he encountered.
The smaller Johnson said he surprised himself to learn that he was able to compete toe-to-toe against the offensive lineman, who is now a professional football hall of famer. Meeting that challenge, he noted, only came from overcoming others.
Johnson said he tried to play football during his seventh- and eighth-grade years, and rode the bench both seasons. He also tried out for the basketball team as a youth and was "cut the first day, for two years."
Years later, he was selected as an All Big Ten basketball player at Indiana University. There, he was named Most Valuable Player during his junior and senior years, he said. It led to him being drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Johnson said he accepted an invitation to tryout with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys. He said he was cut from the team before the Cincinnati Bengals acquired his talents, first as a backup, and then as a starter.
"My mom taught me to pray," he said. "My dad taught me to obey."
Johnson said he fell back on his parents' lessons, when met with challenges and difficult choices in his life. He said he also learned lessons from his teachers, namely his fifth-grade teacher, "Ms. Lacy," who recommended he be held back a grade level.
"I had to repeat the fifth-grade," he told the students. "But I became a better student because of it. I was one of the top students in my class in high school. In fact, I got a scholarship to Indiana University."
The motivational speaker talked about his personal tragedies, which included the death of his sister --killed because of a drunk driver. "Because of a bad decision, my sister's gone," said Johnson.
Johnson acknowledged the incident, and other tragedies over the course of his young life, led him to become a more spiritual person. "God can take failures and turn them into success," he said. "I prayed, and God said to me, 'If you give me your broken life, I'll give you a new beginning.'"
Johnson concluded his motivational talk, leaving students with a directive:
"Every one of you here has gifts and talents that you don't realize you have," he said. "Students don't you ever, ever, ever, ever quit."