NFL Star Gives Back to Community

A story of the family, friends and Clearwater Community Learning Center that transformed Leonard Johnson’s life.

NFL Star Leonard Johnson

NORTH GREENWOOD—Far, far from the deafening cheers, the shaking stadiums, the growls and groans and gore and glamour of the National Football League, in a mindset a million thoughts away from hurt or be hurt, and in an atmosphere where gang tackles, clothesline hits and blindsided combat is replaced by spreading oaks and family gatherings on sunny days, hometown hero and Carolina Panthers defensive back Leonard Johnson spends quality time giving back to “the community that made me what I am today.”

“I love North Greenwood, I love Clearwater. This is my home,” says the 26-year-old NFL star and hometown hero. “Oh, this community has changed. It was totally different than it is now. When I look back, there are so many changes. It’s like night and day.” Johnson was born and raised in North Greenwood, encompassing 11 census tracts marked by low educational attainment and extreme economical disadvantage.

As a preteen football superstar, a Greenwood Panther in the local youth leagues, talented Leonard Johnson quickly became known across Pinellas County.

At the same time the young Leonard Johnson was running up and down the youth football fields, the surrounding North Greenwood community was entrenched in the mode of the classic ghetto ’hood. Crime, health problems, unemployment, homelessness, rundown buildings….

Johnson claims, however, that in such a world of poverty and despair, he found a richness of community support, so vital, he says, for a kid growing up in the ’hood: “I had the support of everybody, most particularly my parents, of course.”

Friends and family kept him going—especially his mother—a Pinellas sheriff’s deputy whom Leonard gave the ball from his first NFL interception. For as long as he can remember, Johnson says his mother stressed his destiny as a role model to the whole community.

Ignored in the 2012 NFL draft, despite his success in college ball, Johnson refused to give up. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally noticed, and he spent three seasons wearing the Bucs’ red and black before joining the New England Patriots in 2015 and the Carolina Panthers this season.

But, as anyone who knows Johnson will tell you, he is still the same old Lenny, spending a lot of time working with and watching youth athletes.

“These kids got to learn to just walk the straight line. Sports is not going to be everyone’s way out, but I’ve learned that playing the game of football actually taught me a lot about life. It teaches you a lot about adversity. When things come up in life, you find a way to persevere.

“It’s not always the most athletic guy in the community and not always the smartest guy in the community that makes it out. It’s just the one that has the total package.”

The total package. That is Leonard Johnson, on and off the field. But it wasn’t always that way. His mother, Schenique Harris, recalls a ten-year-old boy that could score touchdowns but couldn’t read. “Oh Lord we spent thousands of dollars on ‘learning to read’ programs and none of them worked,” says Harris. “Leonard was very smart. I knew that. They wanted to put him in special education. There was just something in the way of his learning to read. I was sick. I was upset, crying. I was trying everything I could, learning to read programs, tutors … I did not want to fail my kid.”

“I’m from Clearwater, Florida, man. I swear that just being from here kind of molded me and made me who I am. I love the people around me, and the pride that everyone has who’s from this area … especially when it comes to sports.”

One day, feeling lost, mother and son took a drive that changed their lives. A sign in front of the Community Learning Center of Clearwater (CLC) caught her eye: FREE TUTORING. “I immediately made a U-turn and went inside,” says Harris, who found the help she was seeking at the then small center which employs Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s unique Study Technology basics to reduce illiteracy. “Immediately I saw progress. It was unbelievable. Almost right away, there was Leonard reading and writing. And understanding what he was reading!”

Eventually, Leonard caught up. He graduated from Largo High School with everyone else his age. “I shudder when I think of what could have happened,” she says, her voice shaking, “Leonard would have never gone to college and never realized his dream of playing in the NFL.”

Since 2012, Johnson has been extremely busy with his community service, with countless personal appearances at sports fields, gyms, community centers and community events. Only a few months after signing on with the Bucs, Johnson helped make a brand-new football field a reality for his hometown North Greenwood community with a $100,000 Tampa Bay Buccaneer grant. In fact, they call it Buccaneer Field.

“I’m from Clearwater, Florida, man. I swear that just being from here kind of molded me and made me who I am. I love the people around me, and the pride that everyone has who’s from this area … especially when it comes to sports.”