Hall of Fame track star made the right choiceCarlton’s Kerrick Johnson remembers the day his life changed. It was Dec. 4, 1986. He was preparing for a court appearance after an incident involving a friend’s car in which it appeared he would be charged. The experience scared him straight.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
Carlton’s Kerrick Johnson remembers the day his life changed.
It was Dec. 4, 1986. He was preparing for a court appearance after an incident involving a friend’s car in which it appeared he would be charged.
The experience scared him straight.
Johnson had always possessed prodigious strength and talent, but his penchant for getting into trouble had already cost him a considerable chunk of his Carlton High School athletic career.
If he wasn’t drinking, he was chewing tobacco, both cardinal sins for a high school athlete. Johnson eventually lost his entire junior athletic year to suspension.
“I freely admit it,” Johnson said. “I drank. I smoked pot. I chewed a tin of tobacco a day in ninth grade.”
Yet after the court incident, Johnson turned everything around.
As a senior, he regained his right to compete and won the Minnesota Class A state championship in the shot put and discus throw. He went on to the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Once there, he won four consecutive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championships in the discus and two in the shot put, and became the first male UMD athlete to capture an individual NCAA championship in any sport.
On July 13, Johnson will enter the NSIC Hall of Fame at a ceremony in St. Cloud. His road to success was long – but one well worth traveling.
Johnson played football at Carlton in addition to throwing weights in track.
“I played basketball too, until ninth grade,” Johnson said. “I quit that and enjoyed football. Jim Malosky recruited me for four years to come play for him. I had the size and speed, but I didn’t have the ‘inner crazy’ to play football. I didn’t have the drive to go out and kill people.”
So, it was track that drew and held Johnson’s attention. Inspired by his late sister Sheri, who threw discus and shot put for Carlton, he found the sport to be the one he preferred.
“You compete against yourself,” he said. “It’s you against you. Can you make the next workout better than the last? It was relaxing for me. You’re only at full stretch when you’re throwing as far as you can.”
Johnson describes himself as a ‘Type B’ man, but while deciding what he wanted to do with his life, his track career was in jeopardy because he couldn’t stay out of trouble.
“I don’t know where that came from, but that is the way I was,” he said. “I got caught stealing as a freshman and lost a full season of sports. Back then they gave you three ‘strikes’ for discipline violations, and that was my first.”
His second strike involved tobacco use, and an eventual trip to Community Memorial Hospital for a seminar to help reduce his suspension.
“I looked around the room and saw the next youngest guy there was 45 or so,” Johnson said. “Here I was, 16 years old, watching these people go through addiction.”
Yet that experience wasn’t enough to stop Johnson from re-offending, and he lost his entire junior year of competition after another tobacco offense. That, and the incident with the car, finally put him on the straight and narrow.
“If I didn’t stop it, I was going to Woodland Hills,” Johnson said. “I was working at Jim and Jo’s at the old KOA campgrounds in Carlton and I changed my entire circle of friends. I stopped everything.”
It was a significant choice for the young man.
“I didn’t go to parties,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to parties. My senior year we graduated early, and all these grad parties were going on. I didn’t want to deal with it. I told my buddies to call me at home if they needed a driver. I started my career as a designated driver at that point.”
He also allowed himself to be talked out of attending Vermilion Community College by longtime track and football coach Bill Hudspith.
“Bill called me after I graduated and asked me what I was doing that fall,” Johnson said. “I told him I was going to Vermilion to get into secondary education and he asked if I wanted to come to UMD instead.”
Once at UMD, Johnson was a force. He reached nationals as a freshman after setting a personal best in the discus by 10 feet in the conference meet.
“They told me two days before nationals that I was on the final list,” he said. “I went out there and watched these guys warm up and they were throwing it 20 feet past my best distance. I thought I was going to get smoked.”
Then the competition started, and the throws of the other competitors dropped off. Johnson qualified for finals and earned All-American status as a freshman.
Johnson broke through in 1992, winning the NCAA Division II indoor shot put championship, following it up in 1993 as a senior by winning the outdoor discus title.
He was a six-time All-American, with three titles in the outdoor discus, two in the outdoor shot put and one in the indoor shot put. At the time he graduated, he held all of UMD’s discus and shot records – indoor and outdoor alike.
His discus throw of 179 feet 3 inches at the St. Thomas Invitational on April 11, 1992, still stands as a Bulldog record and is the third-oldest outdoor record on UMD’s books.
He graduated from UMD with degrees in psychology and philosophy in 1993 – but there was still something he wanted to do.
After leaving school, Johnson traveled west with his mother. He had wanted to get into law enforcement at UMD but, as he says, “I let myself get talked out of it.”
So, he worked near his mother, finding jobs in San Diego and in Arizona until finally returning home in 1999 to work for LTV [Steel Mining Company].
“You know how that turned out,” Johnson said. “I was laid off 15 months after I started.”
Johnson took that news as an opportunity, finding jobs at the Moose Lake Correctional Facility and Carlton County Jail before being hired as a Cloquet police officer in May 2004.
“I met Kerrick when I was an adjunct instructor at Fond du Lac [Tribal and] Community College and Kerrick was there earning his Associate of Arts degree in law enforcement,” Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said. “As fate worked out, there was a vacancy and he was hired.”
Lamirande has high praise for Johnson’s natural ability to defuse tension, due to that “Type-B”
“He’s a perfect fit as it relates to being a home-town, small-town kind of guy,” Lamirande said. “His personality allows him to ‘de-escalate’ situations. He keeps the peace. He treats people very well.”
Lamirande also praised Johnson’s tact, which helps quite a bit in policing.
“I try to lead by example,” Johnson said. “I was asked throughout my high school and college career, for example, if I ever took steroids. I never did, but I must have been asked the question a hundred times.”
His diagnosis as a different kind of “Type-B” – diabetic – at age 26, before going into law enforcement, brought about a second lifestyle change.
“I quit drinking completely,” he said. “It all just turns into sugar and carbs. I try to raise my kids by example too.”
Johnson, wife Bridget and their children, Zoie (8), Kyra (5) and Maya (3), still live in Carlton.
And, the man himself knows how fortunate he is. He knows how far he’s come from that day in December 1986.
“I don’t talk about my past in front of the kids,” he said. “But I made the decision to change.”
“He’s a great police officer,” Lamirande said. “His personality is very well suited for policing for the city of Cloquet.”
So yes, that decision in December 1986 had real consequences. All of them for the better.