By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
© 2017 Collegiate Baseball Newspaper
ESTHERVILLE, Iowa. — Iowa Lakes Community College sophomore outfielder B.J. Johnson has faced a turbulent life so challenging that he lived in a car as a high school student for 5-plus months in Tallahassee, Fla.
Every night, he parked his car in one of 20 locations he felt safe at after eating a burger or two from McDonalds from money friends and teachers gave him so he wouldn't starve.
When B.J. was just a baby, his dad Keith was sentenced to life in prison without parole while his mother Theresa was in and out of jail fueled by drug addiction.
His saintly grandmother Shirley Ann Edney took on the mammoth responsibility of raising B.J. and his five brothers and sisters from the time he was six months old until her death Sept. 27, 2013 — nearly 17 years.
This young man never told anybody at Rickards H.S. in Tallahassee about being homeless until his signing day to Iowa Lakes late in his senior year of high school.
He simply didn't want to be a burden to anyone. At signing day, it gave him the opportunity to tell people what a torture chamber of hell he had endured through his young life.
This powerful message was presented to help people understand they can overcome anything in life.
B.J., who was the captain of his baseball team and elected Mr. Rickards H.S., only wanted his friends and teachers to see the positive side of him day to day with a smile that has melted thousands of hearts in Florida and Iowa.
He grew up in a 3-room, 2 bathroom trailer home owned by his grandma, and he cherishes everything he receives in life. It is the way he was brought up by this marvelous lady.
"It was difficult growing up," said B.J, who is now 20 years old.
"My grandmother raised me from the time I was six months old, and she meant the world to me. She drove me to visit my father in prison. My grandmother took custody of me and my five other brothers and sisters when I was six months old. My mom was on drugs and in and out of jail. And my dad was in prison.
"I'm not absolutely sure what my dad did to get a life sentence since he really wouldn't tell me. But my dad acknowledged he was convicted of eight felonies. I do know one was attempted murder and a couple of robberies. He has a life sentence without the prospect of parole and is serving his sentence at Liberty Correctional Institution in Florida.
"As far as my mom, I knew she was doing drugs. But I didn't know what type of drugs since I was so young. I have been told by my brothers and sisters she was hooked on crack cocaine.
"That was only one of the drugs she used. It was really, really bad, and she couldn't stop. She also loved her alcohol."
Life Changing Death
B.J. said without his grandma, he doesn't know how his life would have turned out.
"My first memories of her was when I was three years old. I was told that I went back and forth between my mom and grandmother at an early age because of my mom's drug problems and being in and out of prison.
"My grandmother lived in a trailer house which had three bedrooms and two baths. My grandmother didn't like my mother, honestly. She didn't like her due to the fact that she was on drugs constantly and left my brothers and sisters and me on the street.
"I was 16 years old when my grandma died as I was attending Rickards High School.
"When she passed, it was a time when three of my sublings had moved out. But three of us still had to be cared for, and we were able to stay at my grandma's trailer for a period of time.
"My older brothers and sisters were always coming back to my grandma's house. Either something was going wrong, or they needed a place to stay. When my grandma died, my oldest sister Shevonn took over the house briefly. But then she started going through her own 'storm,' so she decided to move to New Jersey.
"At that point, nobody was able to pay the bills on the house. My aunt from New Jersey had to shut it down. At that point, we had to move in with my mother in another location in Tallahassee. She came back into our lives when my grandmother passed away, which was a blessing.
"She was living with a friend named Nick. So I stayed with them for a few months along with my sister and brother. It got to a point where I felt Nick really didn't want us there. In my heart, I didn't want to be somewhere that I wasn't wanted.
"My grandmother left me her car which was a blue 2002 Chevy Cavalier. I had a driver's license, and my aunt helped me get it insured.
"I could have stayed at Nick's if I really had to. But again, he really didn't want me there. I didn't have anything to give this man even though he was giving us a place to stay. So I decided to just live in my car. My goal at that time was to make it as a college baseball player.
"So for a little more than five months, I lived in my car and slept there. All of my brothers and sisters as well as my mom and friends wanted to know where I was staying. I would tell them that I was staying at friends' homes and was fine. I never told anybody that I was living in grandma's car. The last thing I wanted to do was have them panic or worry over what I chose to do.
"But the reality was that I was parking the car at night in probably 20 different locations. It might be at a park one night or a lake. Then another night, I might park it next to my friend's home after asking permission and making up a story of why I needed to leave it there. Then the next morning, I would drive to school.
"The key was being in a place that was safe. I had a pillow and blanket inside the car plus some clothes to change into.
"I chose to sleep in the driver's seat at night because that is where my grandma sat when she drove. I wanted to be as close to her as possible. I was able to lower the back of the seat down."
Johnson said never during this 5-plus months of sleeping in his grandma's car did a police officer knock on the window in the middle of the night to inquire what he was doing in the vehicle.
Ultimately, he had to get rid of his Chevy Cavalier because of severe mold problems inside the vehicle.
"During Christmas break, one of my baseball buddies figured out that I didn't really have a family to be with. He asked if I wanted to come to his dad's home (Rickards H.S. assistant baseball coach James Keister) for Christmas. It ended up being for several months.
"Even though I was staying with them, I never told them I had been living in my car. They don't know how much of a blessing they were to me as they got me out of that situation. They ultimately found out on signing day months later."
Johnson said the Keisters were shocked when they learned what B.J. had to endure.
"They weren't really mad at me. But they were stunned that I never shared this important information with them. They simply didn't understand why I didn't let them know what was going on because they would have helped me out. It was so touching to me the way they not only helped me out but how much they truly cared about my welfare."
How He Survived
Johnson said during that 5-month-plus period when he lived out of his car, he asked different teachers and members of the office staff at Rickards H.S., along with friends, for money so he could get by.
"I always had a source for food. At one of my friend's home, his mom always fed me. It didn't matter what time I was there, she always had food for me which was always appreciated.
"I mainly focused on lunches I was able to have at school for my main meal every day. I would typically just have enough money for dinner which often would be a couple of burgers at McDonalds. I really didn't have a big appetite. I found that $2 would get me by. If I could get that amount of money, I could have dinner. Because of the amazing people I had at my high school, it was easy to get $2 a day.
"I didn't eat hamburgers every night. I switched it up every once in a while when somebody would offer me dinner. I really enjoyed those evenings with home cooked meals. Sometimes a person would offer me $5 or $10. And then I was able to splurge a little bit on dinner. But I always needed food for the next day, so I didn't go too crazy. Eating burgers allowed me to conserve money.
"I also had to purchase gas for the car. I was extremely careful with the money I did have.
"Many people knew my grandma died. They just assumed I was staying with my mom. But they really didn't know I was living in a car.
"When I asked for money, I didn't try to make it too obvious what my situation in life was because I didn't want to worry everyone."
Angel From Heaven
Rickards H.S. Guidance Counselor Linda Thompson was another guardian angel in Johnson's life.
"That lady is everything to me," said B.J.
"She came into the picture my senior year of high school as she helped fill out FAFSA papers (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) which would help in going to Iowa Lakes College.
"When my aunt came down from New Jersey to clean up my grandma's home before shutting it down, she also helped with filling out the FAFSA papers with Linda Thompson. During the process, my aunt told her all about my grandma dying and everything I had gone through.
"Mrs. Thompson was shocked to learn all of this. Since my aunt didn't realize I was living in a car, she didn't tell Mrs. Thompson. She thought I was just moving from one friend's home to another at night to sleep.
"From that point, Mrs. Thompson essentially became my mom. Every day after that, she called me to her office, and we would talk for long periods of time. Ultimately, she asked me where I was staying. I told her I was living with one of my ex-girlfriends. She said no, you will now be staying with me and my husband.
"Since that point, I have been living with her when I am in Tallahassee."
Thompson first took a keen interest in B.J. during his senior season and essentially became a second mother to him.
"As the Guidance Counselor at Rickards H.S., we start meeting with seniors during their final year," said Thompson.
"It wasn't until I was working on a college application which included financial aid that I found out that B.J. had been on his own for some time. In one area of the form, B.J. wrote down he was an independent.
"I asked him what he meant being independent? And he told me his grandma had passed away and he was sleeping at friend's homes. He never mentioned he was sleeping in a car and essentially surviving on his own.
"I was absolutely amazed at all he had gone through on his own.
"I made sure he was taken care of from that point on as he began living with our family right after the Christmas break of his senior year.
"My husband is used to me bringing kids home. I am a preacher and a teacher's daughter and grew up in a home where we had four biological children. But there were always many others living there. That's how I was raised. And my husband was all for helping B.J. out.
"I talked to my principal about this because I wanted to make sure it was OK to bring B.J. into our home to help the young man out. We were allowed to do it. Even then, I didn't really know he had lived in his car because he never told me. I just knew he didn't have a consistent place to live at.
"There were a lot of people who would have helped B.J. if they had known what he was going through. But nobody knew the scope of what he was facing. It was a delight to have B.J. stay with us. At the time, my husband and I were empty nesters. So it was great to have him stay with us to finish out his senior year.
"During his senior year, B.J. was the captain of the Rickards H.S. baseball team. He was offered a scholarship at Iowa Lakes College, and we put together a signing day for him. He really wanted to tell his story. That was the first time I realized he was living in a car for months.
"After his talk, a press release was sent out, and the story exploded in Tallahassee. He was such a celebrity. We went to his high school graduation award ceremony and stopped to get some gas on the way. Somebody asked B.J. if he was the young man who lived in his car.
"He said yes. B.J. was then presented two $20 bills. People would see him and want to help him out. It got to the point where I would just take that money so I could put it in the bank for him. His story really touched people. And his personality also touched people as well.
"Before B.J. talked about what problems he had overcome in life, staff members and teachers at the school realized he was having a difficult time in life, and many times brought extra food for him."
Linda said that B.J. is now her son and has been since his senior year of high school.
"I may have met some needs in his life. But he has met a lot of needs in my life as well. He is a great kid. I feel like his real mother. We hit bumps in the road if his grades aren't what I think they should be, or if I don't think he is spending his time doing what he needs to do.
"When we go on family vacations, B.J. is with us. When I go visit my daughter, my 4-year-old granddaughter always says B.J. is her favorite person. She is one of his many female admirers.
"Even though B.J. was the baby of his family of six kids, I can't emphasize enough how important his grandmother was in his development.
"She instilled some great qualities in him along with his other five brothers and sisters. At the top of the list is how he genuinely cares about people. He really feels it is his job to help other people and make sure other people are OK. He cares tremendously about many people in Estherville as well as Tallahassee."
Special Tonic Of Baseball
Johnson said that baseball has been his saving grace in life.
"My grandma had all of my brothers and sisters play T-Ball. One of my brothers really enjoyed baseball and kept going with the sport. I enjoyed watching him play. When I was old enough to play T-Ball, I loved it and kept playing baseball year after year.
"Now I am a college baseball player at Iowa Lakes. I know this would have thrilled my grandma because she loved watching us play baseball. No matter how bad life's struggles have been, baseball has allowed me to get through the roughest days you can imagine. Baseball has allowed me to take my mind away from all of the negative things in my life."
Last season as a freshman at Iowa Lakes, B.J. hit .333 with 2 home runs, 7 doubles, 21 RBI and stole 19 bases in 23 attempts.
The 6-foot-2, 160-pounder has tremendous speed and has been timed at 6.46 in the 60 yard dash, according to Iowa Lakes' Head Coach Joey Pavlovich.
His speed also allows him to cover a lot of territory in right field as he won a Gold Glove last season in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference.
Prior to a home game last season against Ellsworth Community College, one of the great moments in Iowa Lakes baseball history unfolded.
B.J. was thinking about his grandmother prior to this conference game as he jogged to the right field foul pole.
"I always pray for our team first at this spot. But on this occasion, I had a prayer for myself because I wanted to do something special to honor my grandma. I am not a big, strong baseball player who hits many home runs. In fact, in my entire high school career over four years, I only hit one home run.
"I have some speed and exploit that part of the game.
"In the first inning, I hit a ball to the warning track. I was really close to hitting a home run which was pretty exciting. When I jogged back to the dugout, I felt good about that at-bat and had even more incentive to do something special for my grandma.
"Then I went up to the plate again and hit a home run! I couldn't believe it, and it was totally unexpected. When I hit the ball, it looked like it was going out as I was jogging to first base. When it went over the fence, I pointed to the sky thinking about my grandma. I dropped my head and kept running around the bases.
"When I crossed home plate, I gave the biggest hug to my roommate Ashtin Moxey. Then when I got to the dugout, I high fived everyone, walked to the shed near the dugout and broke down crying. That was the first college home run I had ever hit, and it was a great way to honor my grandma."
Johnson, a great student of the game, is deeply into every ball game as he verbally lets every opposing team know he is there as he roots for his teammates.
"I am definitely a bench jockey," said Johnson.
"I am a huge supporter of all my teammates. If you are in a different jersey than my teammates, I have to get under their skin and enjoy doing it. Baseball is such a mental game that is bothers a lot of players when I do this. If I can get in their head, it's over. I know we can play better than them regardless of how much talent they have."
B.J. said while he doesn't have to ask for money to eat in Iowa, it is still very hard because his family is 1,324 miles away in Tallahassee which is over 20 hours away by car.
"It's really difficult not being able to be with my family for months at a time. I haven't heard from one of my sisters for almost a year. When a game is finished and you see a teammate calling his parents to tell them how good he is doing, it's tough to watch. I wish I could call my mom, dad or grandma.
"While I love my teammates, I still feel very alone. My family is so far away, and everything I am doing is for them. At the end of the day, family is important."
Dynamic Young Man
Johnson said that when he had to make a decision on where to play college baseball, he felt the best fit for him was Iowa Lakes.
It was an opportunity he simply couldn't turn down because Head Coach Pavlovich was going after him hard.
"I will never forget his recruitment," said Pavlovich.
"I obviously told B.J. how much we wanted him to be a part of our program and how important he would be. We presented him with a substantial scholarship. He was extremely grateful and then said something that floored me. He mentioned that if we had a bed and some food for him, that's all he needs.
"A comment like that really stops you in your tracks as a college baseball coach. Realizing everything he had gone through in life, it made you think about what was important for this humble young man who has the largest personality of anyone I have ever met.
"When B.J. ultimately got to Iowa Lakes, he came to my office. After he introduced himself, which was the first time we had met in person, he gave me the biggest hug ever.
"He then said, 'Thank you for letting me on campus. I can't wait to give you everything I've got.
"I got him situated in his room. After that, I introduced him to Sarah Stokes in the office next to mine, and he hugs her. To make him feel welcome at Iowa Lakes, I introduced him to other people in the office complex, and he is hugging everyone.
"At that point, I'm starting to wonder why this guy is hugging everyone in sight. But it wasn't fake at all. He truly wants people to know he cares about them. After the first few weeks in Estherville, he got to know a lot of people, and they were all in his corner.
"The ladies on campus who I introduced him to were greeted with a special title after B.J. got to know them. Sarah was called 'Mrs. Sarah,' and all of the women were given appropriate titles like this. All of this has continued for the past year and a half.
"While he has a large number of people back in Tallahassee pulling for him, he also has a special group of people here in Estherville who think the world of him as well."
Ultimate Role Model
Pavlovich said B.J. is a tremendous role model.
"Despite everything he has gone through in life, he hates to inconvenience people," said Pavlovich.
"When he is going through issues in life, he keeps it to himself. B.J. is the most energetic, enthusiastic and well meaning young man I have ever dealt with as a coach.
"He comes to practice with a smile on his face and always gets everyone engaged in what we're doing. He is the guy who says prayers before games. B.J. has a strong, positive message. He gets on his teammates about grades and how people should live their lives.
"One time on a bus trip coming back home last season, B.J. was talking to a teammate about how he liked to treat women with respect and why he won't sleep around with women because that's wrong. He wants to have a meaningful relationship with one special lady. If he met the girl of his dreams right now, he would marry her.
"B.J. is a very strong willed person who knows how he wants to live his life. He gives a ton of energy and passion to that every single day. That includes school. Academically, he works extremely hard on that end as well. It's important to him."
Pavlovich said that Iowa Lakes' baseball team was going through a rough stretch last season.
"We were coming back from a trip on the bus, and B.J. was going through a situation with his family and had a rough day. He told the team to stay positive and keeping working hard as he started crying on the bus as we arrived back in Estherville.
"We let all the players off the bus, and my assistant coach Blake Hardegree and I spent some time with B.J. to see if we could help him.
"We both thanked him for caring so deeply about the team. We realized how much he was dealing with concerning his family. Then he looks at us and said, 'Coach, this is all I got. This is everything I have in my whole life. Why wouldn't I care? I have to give everything I have in this process.'
"It made me tear up because of the passion this young man has for everyone and everything around him. It makes me proud to be involved with someone like this."
Pavlovich said B.J. is highly competitive as well.
"When he got here as a freshman, he would talk to our pitchers and tell them that they couldn't get him as he led off first base ready to steal second. He has that attitude that he will take the next base, and it doesn't matter what you do.
"I have not taken that attitude away from him, even though I have mentioned that it would be wise not to talk as much to the opposing pitcher.
"When he arrived, he was really raw with his hitting stroke. But we really worked with him hard so that he now drives balls well and added a leg kick that he has perfected. That's why his power numbers went up as a freshman.
"It doesn't matter who the pitcher was he faced last season, he was consistently good and had a great approach at the plate. He made adjustments quicker than anybody on our team in games. If he makes an out in his first plate appearance, he sits there studying the pitcher and sizing him up and figuring out how he was pitched and then always puts good at bats together after that."
One In A Million Person
Johnson's baseball coach at Rickards High School in Tallahassee was Brian Kelley.
"When B.J. came in as a freshman, we knew he had a good chance to make it to the next level," said Kelley.
"In his sophomore season, he moved up to the varsity level, but he didn't play as much as he wanted. There were some upperclassmen in front of him, but you never saw him upset about not playing. And he never missed a practice unless it was incredibly important.
"When it came to his living situation, I didn't know a thing about him living in a car. That's just how B.J. is. He doesn't want to burden anybody.
"We would have done anything to help if B.J. mentioned he was living out of a car.
"But he never gave any indication how much he was suffering in life."
From time to time, Kelley would get extremely upset in games.
"B.J. would come over and calm me down even though he had the weight of the world on him which I didn't realize at the time. He would tell me the situation wasn't that serious. It was just a game. His words are pretty powerful when I look back at everything he went through."
Kelley said Rickards H.S. has a lot of kids who don't have much in life.
"They come from single home families a lot of times. Some kids use that as a crutch. B.J. absolutely didn't do that…never at all.
"We had B.J. on a weight training program for baseball, but he just didn't gain much weight. As I look back on what he had to go through, he just didn't have enough to eat.
"He deserves every single thing he gets. What really hit home with me was how unselfish he was. I never saw him be mean or disrespectful to anyone.
"Without question, he is one in a million."