Craig Johnson is resilience personified.
The 2016 graduate of Howard University was a soccer player and a scholar during his time at the Mecca, which is enough to push students to their breaking point. However, Johnson was also fighting a separate battle — leukemia.
The trajectory of Johnson’s life was rerouted in 2008 when he was just fifteen years old. Johnson was a talented soccer player, playing on his school’s varsity team as a freshman in Louisiana. During a routine practice, Johnson was knocked down by a teammate who happened to be his cousin. That hit caused Johnson substantial pain throughout the day. His mother suggested, “Just go soak, you’re probably out of shape,” she recalls.
A tangerine sized knot in his abdomen spurred a visit to the pediatrician. That visit confirmed that Johnson had been dealing with a sports hernia, so he was admitted to a general surgeon.
“So I’m on the examining table with the general surgeon. I couldn’t breathe. So they ran the ultrasound up my side and they saw my spleen was swollen and it was torn. And so I was admitted into the hospital that day and given a blood transfusion in hopes that my spleen would heal on its own,” Johnson said on a podcast.
A nurse walking by in the hospital overheard the conversation regarding Johnson’s condition and ran a random blood culture. That’s when she saw something different in his blood which happened to be leukemia.
The very next day, August 29, 2008, he was introduced to the St. Jude family during his first day on campus.
Due to the threat of cancer cells spreading, Johnson couldn’t have surgery and was sentenced to bed rest for his first two months on campus. He lost virtually all muscle tone in his legs during this time. His weight started around 180 pounds, then he was given steroids which got him up to about 205, but he could not eat for ten days and was left at 128 pounds.
Johnson was able to go back to school after nearly two years with St. Jude receiving schooling and treatment. Of course looking drastically different, Johnson had to almost reintroduce himself. He was able to play out his senior soccer season after missing his sophomore and junior seasons.
Driven by his love for soccer and inspired by his four older siblings that attended HBCUs, after graduating high school early at 16 years old, Johnson chose to attend one of the two HBCUs with a soccer team and enrolled at Howard University.
Through his freshman year at Howard, Johnson was still going through chemotherapy on top of dealing with the normal struggles of a freshman year far away from home. Johnson was going to Howard hospital for two days every week with visits that would last four hours each.
Johnson was secretive about his treatments during his freshman year, not wanting to be the “cancer kid.” Going from St. Jude, where he was offered one-on-one instruction to help him learn at his pace and where his questions were addressed specifically, college was a big transition. Johnson was able to contact the Howard University Office of Special Student Services, which helped him get the accommodations he needed to be successful.
As Johnson became acclimated to his new environment and he trekked along the road of physical recovery, fate led him to walk on to the Howard University men’s soccer team.
“I took soccer as a class to fill my P.E. requirement,” Johnson remembered. “In the class, which I took with the goalie for our real team, I scored a goal every day. At a certain point the teacher was just like ‘What are you doing?’, so I walked on to the team.”
“I ended up doing very well that season,” Johnson described to The Hilltop. Following his final year playing at Howard, Johnson began play with an adult league in Washington D.C. Then, he received an invitation to a professional soccer tryout in Charlotte. From his showcase in Charlotte, he was invited to a tryout in Houston, then in Europe.
Johnson was able to build his body back up to a place where he could compete at such a high level not by training with soccer all day, but rather through playing intense runs of basketball. The summer following his freshman year at Howard, Johnson went home to Louisiana and every day would play pickup basketball with his cousin, who played at Dillard University, as his teammate. From sun-up to sun down, that type of fierce competition in the summer heat of Louisiana was sure to get his body back into shape.
When he returned to Howard, it was more of the same. Johnson’s close friend, Chris, whom he met on move-in day would join him as they played basketball all throughout their days at the Mecca. Even before Johnson walked on to the soccer team, he was about as active athletically as if he were already a part of the squad.
Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2016, Johnson returned to Howard to complete his master’s in special education and teaching. After completing his master’s in 2018, Johnson became a marketing specialist for the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising and advocacy organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I told my mom when I first started treatment, I was going to be a part of the St. Jude mission for the rest of my life. And I didn’t know what that meant at the time at 15. But obviously you fast forward and I see so many different ways of how that statement has come true,” Johnson recalled.
He now works for ALSAC as a way of giving back and supporting the next generation of kids and families who will be told that their child has cancer.
Johnson’s journey with cancer has taught him the importance of living life to the fullest and never taking anything for granted. He believes that his experiences have made him a better person and has given him a new perspective on life.
In his own words, “Some of the hardest and toughest people you’ll see in this life, I’ve seen that side of them that otherwise I wouldn’t have known was there. No matter what these people portray, that vulnerability and care that you see when their loved one is fighting something… it really reminds you that there’s humanity, there’s love in everyone.”
Copy edited by Jadyn Barnett