Defending the Dreams of Children at Risk
All-Pro linebacker Derrick Johnson has faced some tough crowds in the ten years he has played football in Kansas City.
Today’s crowd goes a little easier on him: it’s a gymnasium full of small children listening to him read a storybook.
“I wish I could climb like you. But I think being different is very cool,” Johnson reads from the book.
For Johnson, this is more than just a fun day away from the grueling schedule of a professional football player. This is serious business.
Growing up in Waco, Texas, Derrick was fortunate to have a great role model for education: his mother. “My mom was a schoolteacher for 40 years. Education was very important in our house growing up, and that always stuck with me. My mom loves working with kids, and I got that trait from her, too.”
But he realizes not everyone is lucky enough to have a great start in their schooling.
So in 2012, after establishing himself as a cornerstone of the Kansas City defense, Johnson established Derrick Johnson’s Defend The Dream Foundation, with a goal of leveling the playing field for a generation of inner-city students in Kansas City.
“In the inner city, if reading levels are below average when entering fourth grade, the chances of those students graduating high school are low. We can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the linebacker shared.
On the field, Johnson has made more than 900 tackles. Off the field, his ambition has been even greater: his goal is to impact the lives of more than 30,000 at-risk children in Kansas City by the end of 2015.
“Education connects kids to the opportunities of their future - it’s the key to getting them out of the situation they are in now,” says Johnson. “By doing just a little bit more and doing it early, in elementary and middle school, it’s going to help them in the long run.”
So far, Derrick and his foundation have focused their work on two main areas: encouraging reading and helping meet kids’ basic needs for school. “We can change the lives of the kids in our own community by encouraging them to read and helping them to feel that reading is cool,” says Johnson.His “Hitting the Books” campaign challenges Kansas City-area students to read a combined 100,000 minutes for their schools, with top readers recognized at special events. Derrick’s foundation has also provided 15,000 books to more than 5,000 at-risk students in 2015.
Also in 2015, the foundation opened its first five “DJ’s Discovery Den,” which partners with Scholastic to transform unused space in a school into a comfortable reading area stocked with more than 1,000 books.
In the fall, Johnson held his second “Gearing Up!” back-to-school program, providing backpacks and essential school supplies to 300 inner-city students. The program is sponsored by State Farm.
Bringing It Home
His family’s past has shaped his outlook, but his family’s future is driving his desire to help as many kids as he can. “Two of my passions are education and working with kids,” says Johnson. “I have four young boys of my own, who I love very much. The foundation lets me combine two things that I love and make a difference in the community in which I live.”
That community has also played a part in motivating Derrick to act locally. Johnson has been a hugely popular player among Kansas City fans. That was never more apparent when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in 2014 and was forced to miss most of the season. Fans cheered him on during his recovery and after his return – he’s back in action in 2015, leading the team in tackles.
“I love Kansas City. Our fans have been so supportive of me and our team and I want to give back to them.”
Coming from someone who has seen first-hand the kind of difference a good education can make in the lives of students, families, and communities, Johnson’s message is clear: “You can do whatever you want to do, but education has to come first.”