Ex-Michigan DB Deon Johnson Now Mentor To Detroit Youth, Elite Son
Deon Johnson had plenty of success at Michigan.
The Detroit native made his mark in the secondary for his home state Wolverines and helped the program notch a signature win in the 1993 Rose Bowl.
Almost 30 years later, Johnson has to be pushed to relish in some of his former glory. He’d much rather talk about the meaningful relationships he built during his time in Ann Arbor.
“My experience at Michigan was positive,” Johnson said. “I was part of three Big Ten championship teams. I had a winning record in the big games against Michigan State and Ohio State. I developed some long lasting lifetime relationships at Michigan. It was a great experience.
“My head coach, Gary Moeller, doesn’t get talked about a lot, but he did a great job while I was there. Lloyd Carr was my defensive coordinator and recruited me out of Detroit. He and I still have a great relationship.”
Johnson took what he learned both on and off the field at Michigan and applied it to life after football. He knew he wanted to help his local community and give back to the city that raised him.
After spending some time coaching at Detroit King, Johnson teamed up with Curtis Blackwell, who most recently served as Michigan State’s Director of Recruiting, to form Sound Mind Sound Body in 2004.
“We were trying to figure out what to do with kids in the offseason,” Johnson said. “In Michigan, once you put the ball down in November, you can’t pick it back up until June. We were trying to find an opportunity for the guys to work out. We were training guys at a youth center in downtown Detroit. We partnered with a tutoring company. We combined our training program with the education component and called it the All-Star Training Program. That’s how it started out.
“Then we started training kids at Oakland University inside their soccer bubble, and we started doing showcases and camps. That’s when Sound Mind Sound Body came along. We were trying to figure out why our kids weren’t getting recruited. That’s when Max Ex was developed — Maximum Exposure. We began taking kids out of town for 7v7 and taking them to schools and camps.”
Of course, Sound Mind Sound Body is more than just an ordinary all-star training program. Yes, Johnson. Blackwell and other board member give local players an opportunity to showcase their skills at camps, national club 7v7 tournaments and individual sessions. But their mission goes beyond that.
Sound Mind Sound Body equips athletes with the resources needed to succeed off the field. From mentoring to SAT prep to tutoring, Sound Mind Sound Body is fully invested in the future of kids around the Detroit-metro.
“Before we do anything in the program, the kids go to the classroom,” Johnson said. “It’s classroom first. From there, we go to life skill development. There is an SAT component of it. It’s all about developing that sound mind part of it. That’s the important part. Making sound decisions will help you develop so you can be sound on the football side of it.”
Johnson’s star pupil at Sound Mind Sound Body holds a special place in his heart. That’s because he has the unique opportunity to mentor and train his own son, elite 2022 Grosse Pointe (Mich.) South cornerback Will Johnson.
The four-star prospect has been on the recruiting scene since before he was in middle school and really came into his own playing for Max Ex on the 7v7 circuit last offseason.
Now, Johnson is one of the most sought after recruits in the country for next cycle. At 6-foot-2, 182 pounds, Johnson holds offers from Florida State, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, USC and several other major programs across the country.
“It’s exciting to me,” Deon said. “It’s like I’m reliving some old days and memories. It’s different now. Coaches would come see you and court you. Now, you pretty much have to go see them. The roles have flipped. The only time you would really be on campus would be for official visits. Now, these guys take a ton of unofficial visits. Sometimes, they are on campus 10 or 15 times before they become seniors. It’s totally different.”
Deon does his best to provide Will with guidance to navigate the recruiting process. While things may be a lot different in the age of social media, Deon always goes back to something that stuck with him from his time at Michigan — relationships are key.
“I just tell him that it’s about developing relationships,” Johnson said. “A lot of these guys may be at different schools by the time he’s done with high school. Right now, it’s about developing positive relationships. The guy you’re talking to now could be timing you in the 40 in the NFL in four or five years. It’s just about getting to know these guys and asking questions. That’s basically it. The better the relationship the more comfortable he will be.”
Michigan put an early offer on the table for Will and has been doing everything possible to establish trust and build relationships with both Deon and Will. A top overall target in 2022, Will speaks to U-M cornerbacks coach Michael Zordich on a weekly basis. He also had a video chat with head coach Jim Harbaugh last month.
For Will, the opportunity to play at Michigan and take the same route his father did back in 1990 is something that will be tough to pass up.
“It would mean a lot me,” Will said. “I always used to watch (Deon’s) games on YouTube. I know it would mean a lot to him that I would be following in his footsteps at Michigan.”
While Deon wants Will to make the best decision for himself, it’s clear he still bleeds Maize and Blue. And he’s not opposed to dropping little hints here and there.
“I like what they are doing at Michigan,” Johnson said. “They are trying to go after some of the top kids in the country. I like the direction. I think I ready that we moved up to Top 5 in the country in the recruiting rankings. That’s always a good thing. I think I sent that to Will on Twitter today (laughs).”
Even Will smiled and rolled his eyes a bit when asked if his father tries to give him a slight Michigan nudge.
“He always tells me about his time at Michigan,” Will said with a laugh. “He always gives me hints about wanting me to go there. He doesn’t push me to go there. But I can tell that he’s trying to give me hints.”
Deon added that he doesn’t have to tell Will too much about Michigan. Will has been around the program, and those that have been a part of it, his entire life.
“I still have a lot of friends from Michigan,” Johnson said. “He sees how we communicate. A lot of my friends are successful business wise and are family men. He sees the type of people and men that Michigan develops. Michigan has a top-notch education, first class facilities and they are going to take care of you. They are going to treat you like kings.
“You’re going to have all the advantages. And it’s close to home. For some kids, it can be a great opportunity.”
Will wants to visit Michigan after the dead period. But he also wants to see schools like Ohio State, Oklahoma and Penn State. A true national recruit, Johnson is far from a lock to land at U-M. He wants to take his time and explore his options.
Regardless of where he ends up, Will knows one thing is for sure — he’s going to be the best Johnson.
“Yeah,” Will said as he looked at his father. “I’m going to be better than him.”
With his confidence, talent and father’s guidance, Will may very well win a Rose Bowl of his own one day.