Ohio State's Terry Johnson Can't Stay Silent Anymore After George Floyd's Death: “I Have to Speak Up”

By Colin Hass-Hill on June 6, 2020 at 1:05 pm
Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson felt his blood start to boil. Anger coursed through him as he watched George Floyd laying on the ground with a police officer’s knee pressing on the back of his neck for the first time last week.

As Johnson described it, it was “flat-out murder with a man down, knee on his neck and three other guys holding him down.”

The video ended, and he went downstairs to gather his three sons – a 5-year-old and 7-year-old twins – around him. Johnson, the sole black assistant coach and one of three black staff members in Ohio State’s basketball program, knew his children were too young to fully comprehend the footage. But he still wanted them to see what happened to Floyd.

“The way our world is, we can't wait anymore,” Johnson said on Thursday. “We just can't wait. So I wanted them to see that.”

So, Johnson played the video for his three boys to see. Initially, he wondered whether it was an example of bad parenting. He worried about scarring them at a young age. But, no, his wife said. Kristen, who is white, told him, “They have to know.” 

The trio of children watched, processed it as much as they could and each reacted differently. One was in total shock, one was sensitive and one was angry.

“I'm slowly having these conversations with them more and more about just you are a black man in America and you're not going to be treated fairly at times,” Johnson said.

As a black father of three boys, Johnson has intentionally wanted to avoid his sons fearing or feeling anxious around the police. When he followed Chris Holtmann from Butler to Ohio State in 2017, he bid on and won a prize at a silent auction to have officers drive his kids to school. The police picked them up and had donuts and milk with them. It was a “great thing,” Johnson said.

At that time, protecting his children meant having them interact with and familiarize themselves with police officers. But last week, it meant showing them the horrific video of Floyd that led to charges against four Minneapolis police officers and triggered protests throughout the nation.

Wildly different tacts. The same ultimate purpose.

Personally, Floyd’s death sparked Johnson to publicly speak out on his own platform, too. Typically in the past, he’s been fine to highlight positivity from his team, his team or others outside of himself on his social media channels. That’s been the goal ever since he joined Twitter while working as an assistant coach on Brad Stevens’ Butler staff years ago. 

Right now, however, he doesn’t think he has much of a choice other than to say what’s on his mind.

“Now I feel I'm in a position where this has to stop,” Johnson said. “All this injustice, George Floyd, there's many more before him. Enough is enough. I'm tired. Pretty much, like he said, I can't breathe. I can't breathe either and there's nobody kneeling on my neck. So now I feel to the black community, to my family, to my boys, to our team, I have to speak up.”

Terry Johnson

For Johnson, a black assistant coach for a team with a majority-black roster of players, speaking up won’t necessarily put him front and center like it did for Seth Towns, who got detained in downtown Columbus last week – though he did attend the Kneel For Nine protest this week. He plans to put out messages on Twitter and wear a wristband when eyes and cameras are on him and his team during Buckeyes games next season.

Eventually, Johnson said, he thinks “this is the one” that will create real, legitimate change. He sees how white Americans are both recognizing and, more importantly, speaking out over the past couple of weeks.

Within Ohio State’s team, that’s also the case. Senior forward Kyle Young and junior wing Justin Ahrens were the first two Buckeyes to speak out against racism on Twitter following Floyd’s death. Holtmann shared firsthand experiences seeing racism with the team during a Zoom meeting, Johnson said. The head coach also tweeted about his shock and sadness seeing another incident of “senseless violence to unarmed and defenseless black men.”

“Will there be a day when these conversations are unnecessary? God, I hope so,” Holtmann wrote, using a Martin Luther King Jr. quote as the caption.

Johnson, having worked with Holtmann since 2013, took to Twitter to back up the head coach.

“One of the most influential guys to him, in his life, has been Martin Luther King,” Johnson said. “Coach is genuine when he sent out his tweet. Like, I had to back it up. He ain't just doing this for likes. This is what's truly on his heart. I was like, ‘Holt, no, this is you. Put out what's on your heart because we're together. I'm with you all the time. I know what's on your heart.’ And I would hope it's on your heart, too. If not, I'm probably not working with the right guy.”

Within Ohio State’s team, Johnson hasn’t hidden from sharing his own personal experience with racism. He recently explained to the staff and players how he got a scar that remains ever-present on his forearm.

Between his sophomore and junior year at Lamar University, Johnson and his teammates went to a Texas beach to hang out during Labor Day. One of his teammates heard an older white man ask, “Why did you bring these n-----s down here?” All of a sudden, a fight broke out. Someone jumped on his friend’s back, so Johnson hit them off. Suddenly, he remembers, someone said bottles were broken. Johnson turned around and snapped his arm back as a bottle scraped his chest and caught his forearm.

In the same virtual meeting, junior guard Duane Washington Jr. and strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks, among others, also shared personal stories of experiencing racism.

“It's been going on before I was born, before you was born, and it's crazy, we're still fighting the same battle,” Johnson said.

Clark Kellogg, an all-time great Ohio State player who’s now a broadcaster for CBS, spoke to the hoops team about recent events on Monday. 

In that Zoom call, he told the players and coaches that progress won’t happen overnight, and this will be a long-term process that has already continued for many years. The important thing, Kellogg said, will be for people of all races to be “intentional about getting to know one another.”

“That will hopefully help,” Johnson said. “It may not solve it, but it will help us continue in the right direction.”

There’s no easy answer. Not one person can singlehandedly fix the issues that have droves of Americans protesting throughout the country. But Johnson, along with many others, won’t allow himself to stay silent anymore.

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