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Johnson’s enthusiasm towards helping the children of San Jose largely comes from both his experiences in Brooklyn and the steps he took towards becoming a professional tennis athlete. Johnson’s teenage years began with a bad start: he lost his dad to a drug overdose (Moody 1). Being raised in an impoverished area of Brooklyn, Johnson was denied both a satisfactory education and constant opportunities to succeed. He found tennis as an escape route from his troubled life. “It was rats and roaches and things like that, and it gave me a change to get away, away where there was green grass. Tennis gave me that, a nice dress code, beautiful clubs, smart people,” explains Johnson during a CBS5 interview (Kelly 1). Opportunities arose as he met a wealthy tennis coach who offered Don a job as an assistant in exchange for tennis lessons. Soon enough, Johnson’s success allowed him to play pro and played on tour from 1969 to 1972. (Moody 1) Furthermore, Johnson was acknowledged by the Northern California African American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame and became the first African American initiated into the Northern California US Tennis Association Hall of Fame. During the interview, Johnson commented, “Tennis has been good to me. In some cases it was being black, but I say it was easy because I was the only one out there.
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His life began to take a different turn when he met his mentor: legendary player Arthur Ashe. In New York, Ashe and Johnson spent six years setting up and running the city’s first national junior tennis league program. It allowed more children to have a shot at tennis, the way Ashe and Johnson were lucky to have (Moody 2). Johnson brought this compassion here to the Bay Area when he moved to San Jose with his wife in 1976. “Arthur was my inspiration, mild manner genius, he was just what I needed to take that fire in me and control it. I promised Arthur Ashe that I would keep the fuse lit, that I would everyday strike a match and put it out there,” commented Johnson. (Kelly 1)
Today, Johnson’s programs include both private and group clinics as part of his Los Paseos Lobsters Junior Tennis Program. The group clinics on the weekends and after school allow him to work with the numerous kids who are picking up tennis. Also he charges almost nothing in comparison to what other professional coaches charge (Moody 1). In fact, his junior tennis programs are free this summer (Kelly 1) Sometimes, Johnson even pays part of the cost to enter the programs for kids out of his own pocket. A SFGate article honoring Johnson said he has coached more than 100,000 students from ages two to eighteen since he moved to San Jose in 1976. (Moody 1)
Even his private lessons have been a success. He gave some kids an opportunity they would have never dreamed of unless Johnson made them work for it. “I train them hard. I don’t let them get away with anything because I didn’t get away with anything. I make it tough for them. I still have that drive in me that I had in New York. My mother used to say, ‘If you work hard, it will pay off’. I was taught that when you’ve got something, hold onto it,” emphasized Johnson (Kelly 1). 14 year old Tayler Davis is junior tennis champion who has been coached by Johnson since he was 8. Today, Tayler owns over 77 trophies and is ranked No. 1 in the girl’s 14 age division in Northern California and No. 11 in the United States. During an interview, she commented “Coach Johnson taught me how to respect people, and I’ve learned that you have to put in hard work to be successful in tennis and anything in life.” (Moody 2)
To Johnson, his lessons are more than just teaching tennis. Johnson acknowledges that ‘teaching the sport allows him to teach other things important for success: education, sportsmanship, professionalism, respect for others, hard work, and discipline.’ (Kelly 1) Doug Fitzpatrick, father of one of Johnson’s students agrees. “The man is so great at what he does. He does so much for the kids and the community. He taught [my son] a lot of discipline. He had to wear uniforms. He [is] strict on these things, but the kids love it.” (Kelly 1) His approach can be summarized on a plaque he recently receive from certain dignitaries of San Jose and other tennis fans from the Los Paseos Association Board that states “Johnson teaches more than tennis; he teaches character." (Los Paseos 3).
Johnson’s efforts have given opportunities for kids who do not have much to look forward to. The majority of the children attending Johnson’s tennis clinics come from lower class families and attend schools with low standardized test scores. The crime rate is high and drugs ravish the streets. It is a community similar to that of which Johnson grew up in Brooklyn. Therefore, Johnson has provided a costless means by which the youth can escape disaster by focusing their time and attention on tennis.
Instead of spending after school hours on the streets, Johnson invites kids to hit with each other at the nearby tennis courts. Although he trains them hard, he is able to motivate them to come back the next day. In wealthy communities like Pleasanton, the cost of a single tennis lesson ranges from sixty dollars or more. However, Johnson promises four times as many lessons per week. (Moody 1) This allows Johnson to make sure that the kids and their parents have no reason to lure themselves away from his program.
Don Johnson has made an improvement to society by giving the youth the chance to have something to look forward to. These kids are the world’s future and Johnson is securing their success. Everyday the tennis coach steps onto the courts with the children, he increases the chances that each of those kids will be able to leave a life of poverty and reach somewhere successful.
As a success story himself, Johnson has earned the Jefferson award for using tennis as a means by which the poor children of San Jose can avoid the dangers of drugs and crime. Two years ago, Johnson held a tournament in San Jose that I attended and participated in. Unlike other tournaments where the athletes are only awarded for winning their matches, he awarded a few players who displayed respect and maturity on the court with his own ‘Citizenship Award’. One of the recipients was former Foothill student Chris Summerlin (Class of 2006). On the trophy, Johnson’s words were printed: “The Tennis court is a place of competition and education”.
Moody, Shelah. "JEFFERSON AWARD: Presented to Don Johnson." SFGate. 2 Apr. 2006. 18 Feb. 2008
Kelly, Kate. Interview with Don Johnson. CBS5. 15 Mar. 2006. 18 Feb. 2008
"Los Paseos Association." SouthSanJose.Com. Los Paseos Association. 18 Feb. 2008
"Don Johnson: Using Tennis to Teach Life Skills." Cbs5. 15 Mar. 2006. 18 Feb. 2008