Photo Courtesy of Jimmy Johns

By Billy Watkins

       His diploma rests on the living room mantel,  and it says in all kinds of fancy language and script that 35-year-old Jimmy Johns is a graduate of the University of Alabama.

       The ceremony was held May 5 near Bryant-Denny Stadium where Johns — Mississippi’s Mr. Football in 2004 out of Brookhaven — played for the Crimson Tide.

       It was also near the football facility parking lot where Johns used to sell cocaine after practice. He made money. A lot of money.

       But he was arrested  the summer before his senior year and eventually served 13 months in the Tuscaloosa County jail. Undercover police officers purchased drugs from Johns five different times during a 10-day span.

       “I put a stain on Brookhaven, the University of Alabama, my family, my friends, the whole state of Mississippi, and my culture,” Johns says. “When I got arrested I know what people said … ‘just another young guy getting in trouble.’

       “But I wasn’t a bad person. I was a guy who made some boneheaded decisions. And I wasn’t able to forgive myself until I walked across that stage and received my diploma. I felt like the weight of the world was off my back. I did it for me, my wife (Ayonna), and my (four) children.

       “A lot of people stood with me through the bad times, didn’t give up on me, forgave me. But I hadn’t forgiven myself. Now, I can.”


       Most anyone who saw Johns play quarterback for Brookhaven High School could tell he was a special athlete. I watched him play several times his senior season. He is among the best prep players I’ve ever seen.

       I heard him interact with his coaches and teammates on the sidelines. He was everything you could hope for in a player.     

       When asked postgame about a great pass he threw, he always talked about the receiver and offensive line. One by one, when TV stations brought their cameras to do postgame interviews with him, Johns always grabbed a teammate who hadn’t played in the game to stand beside him. 

       “You know what? One of those guys who didn’t play a down won a playoff game for us against Wayne County my senior year,” he says. “We always had a meeting before every game, and the subject that afternoon was the Bible verse that talks about faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. And the saying for that game was, ‘No matter what, I still believe.’

       “We were down 21-7 with seven minutes to go. When I went to the sidelines during a timeout, one of those guys who never played said to me ‘I still believe. Jimmy.’ Man, a fire snapped in me. I said, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ “

       Johns ran 50 yards for a touchdown and was part of a highlight-reel  fourth-down throw-and-catch to help win the game in overtime. Brookhaven went on to beat Clarksdale for the Class 4A state championship.

       He threw for 2,173 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,394 yards and 20 TDs that season.

       Johns gave Ole Miss and Mississippi State a hard look during recruiting. At one point, he listed State as his probable choice. But Johns had loved Alabama since he watched them play on television when he was five years old. He even told his mother, Patricia, that he was going to play football one day for the Tide.

       He signed with Alabama and head coach Mike Shula in 2005.


       Moving to Tuscaloosa was almost like taking up residence in New York City in his eyes.

       “I’d never been out of Mississippi until then,” Johns says.

       His mother, a registered nurse, raised Johns and his four siblings. But he also spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ place in neighboring Franklin County. His grandfather, Luther Thomas, hauled pulpwood for a living — a hard way to make it in this world.

       Johns worked right beside him during summers and weekends.

       “We didn’t have any running water in their house,” Johns recalls. “We picked blackberries and plums. We grew our own food. Burned candles to save money on electricity. I’ve been reading about The Great Depression, and I understand why my grandparents were like that.

       “They had nine children and every one of them turned out successful. My grandfather went to work every single day to help make sure of that.”

       Johns was the Tide’s second-leading rusher in his freshman and sophomore seasons. They won 10 games in 2005 but just six in 2006.

       Shula was fired. Nick Saban was hired away from LSU.

       This was just about the time that Johns began using, then selling, cocaine. He was suspended by Saban during the 2007 spring for not attending classes. He spent that season mostly on special teams.

       Saban switched Johns to linebacker in the spring of 2008. The Tide lacked depth there and Saban thought defense was Johns’ mostly likely route to the NFL.

       Saban took a special interest in Johns, holding one-on-one meetings with the 6-foot-2, 230 pounder about the intricacies of playing linebacker.

       What Saban didn’t know was that Johns was living a double life. As soon as he completed his daily football duties, Johns started selling and partying. Night after night.

       Johns received an anonymous call in early June: “Jimmy, you need to stop doing what you’re doing.”

       Johns told the caller he must have the wrong Jimmy.

       It was only a couple of weeks later when police detectives drove up behind Johns’ car at a convenience store, hemming him in.  

       “It was over. The drugs, football,” Johns says. “I was almost relieved.”

       When he realized he would spend a year behind  bars, Jimmy formed a plan. “Almost like I was preparing for a football season,” he says. “I said, ‘OK, I want to come out of this on the other side in a good way.  I want to be the person I should be. Thirteen months are a long time. So I attacked it with the mindset of ‘What can I do to make myself better today?’  Day by day. I read a lot. Thought a lot.

       “I’m not gonna pretend it wasn’t hard, but the visits from family and friends made it so much more bearable.”

       Johns had suffered from depression for most of his life. His grandfather died in April 2006 and it hit him harder than he even realized.

       When he was released in September 2011, Johns lived with his mother for a few weeks. He got a job selling cars at Roger Dabbs Chevrolet in Brandon.      

       “I can’t even fathom Jimmy doing the things he got in trouble for at Alabama,” said Scott Allen, general sales manager and Johns’ boss at the time. “The guy has such a big heart. And he’s selling a boat-load of cars. He’s a model employee.”

       He began speaking to youth across Mississippi about life’s pitfalls, about how a few wrong decisions can smash a dream to pieces.

       He was earning more than $100,000 a year selling cars when COVID hit in 2020. The car business suffered. He took a job at the Walmart distribution center in Brookhaven making $16 an hour.

       “It was humbling,” he says, “but you know me. I attacked it. We load and stack the big trailers out there. I told myself, ‘I’m gonna be the best stacker they’ve ever hired.’ ” He also entered the company’s leadership skills program and earned a promotion to manager in a matter of weeks.

       But there was one thing missing — a diploma.

       “I was only a few hours shy of my degree in consumer sciences . I wanted to show our children that whatever you start, you finish,” he says. “And, of course, my wife has been an elementary teacher in Brookhaven for 10 years. She’s all about education, and she wanted me to do it.

       “It was just another way to show people that I am not the bad guy that spent time in jail. I wanted them to know me as the person I was before all that. And the person I am now.”


       Between the time that he was arrested and sentenced, Johns attended Alcorn State in Lorman.

       He was getting gas at a service station near campus one day in 2008 and noticed a young woman doing the same.

       “There was something about her,” he says. “I knew I had to introduce myself.”

Photo Courtesy of Jimmy Johns

       Ayonna, who grew up in the state of Washington, had never heard of Johns, the fallen football star.

       “We clicked almost immediately,” Ayonna says. “And he didn’t hide anything. He told me one night, ‘I may have to spend some time in jail.’  The reality of that wasn’t sinking in. Of course, that was 15 yeas ago and we were basically kids. But, again, the bottom line was we just clicked. And I think about it now, if I had let that break us up we wouldn’t be married, we wouldn’t have our wonderful kids.”

       She visited him in jail as often as possible. The two exchanged letters.

       “I still have every one he wrote me during that time,” she says. “I remember how much it meant when I went to the mailbox and there would be a letter from Jimmy.

       “I’m just super proud of him. He made up his mind to do something and he did it.”

       He and Ayonna have been married nine years. Each has a child from a previous relationship. They have two children together.

       Jimmy Johns Jr. is a rising senior linebacker for Brookhaven High School. He led the team with 115 tackles last season.

       “We had to have the meeting,” Johns says.”I had to ask my son if he wanted me to coach him like I knew he needed to be coached. But I told him, ‘Only if you want it. I’m not pushing it on you.’ He said he did, and I’ve tried to teach him the little things and the big things. I coach him the ways pros are coached.”

       Father and son have traveled to exotic places where NFL players work out in the offseason. Jimmy Jr.,  has run in the beach sand of Jamaica and the hills of the Virgin Islands.

       “I’m not just training him in football. It’s about life, too,” Johns says. “I want him to see other places, other cultures. I never saw that when I was 16.”

Says Jimmy Jr.: “I’ll never forget watching him work the way he has to accomplish his goal.  A lot of hours, a lot of long nights.”

Photo Courtesy of Jimmy Johns


       One of the first people to greet Johns after receiving his diploma was Nick Saban.

       “When I got arrested, Coach Saban naturally wasn’t happy but he told me, ‘You’re family. And you’ll always be family,’ ” Johns says. “He has stood by that. So have many others at Alabama.”

       Johns worked for two weeks preparing a short speech he wanted to give Saban. He silently followed the coach to his office and just before the door closed, Johns slid in.

       He thanked Saban for the discipline and the love. And he gave Saban a few reasons that he would be a good addition to his staff one day.

       “Coach, you know nobody loves football more than me. Everything about it,” he told Saban who listened quietly.

       Johns is thankful for those few minutes.

       “I really believe I’ll wind up on Coach Saban’s staff one day,” said Johns, who is still working at Walmart. “I believe in storybook endings. Wouldn’t that be a good one?”