Mom, grandma and grandpa come to watch Corey Johnson play soccer, catching nearly every one of The Evergreen State College’s home soccer matches.
They are treated to the sight of Johnson, Evergreen’s leading scorer this season, darting and weaving through defenders, working for shots.
“I love having their support,” Johnson said. “It means a lot.”
The Johnsons have gone through a lot together. Corey’s grandparents took him into their home when his mother, Maria, became addicted to drugs.
“She’s been clean for two years now,” Corey Johnson said before a recent Evergreen soccer practice. “They’ll even travel to some of our away games. It’s amazing.”
So is Corey Johnson’s story.
It’s behind Johnson’s megawatt smile – friends in his school nicknamed him “Sunshine” because of his friendly grin.
It’s behind his gregarious nature.
And behind his honor-roll grades as an art major and behind his knack for putting a soccer ball into the back of a net, there is a troubled life.
When Johnson was 14, he’d help get his mother prescription drugs. Sometimes, he’d cry himself to sleep at night, worried about his mom.
“It was a hard time. That’s why I ended up moving in with my grandparents through high school,” Johnson said. “My mom got through her addiction battle. They were great support for me.”
Maybe what’s most amazing about Johnson’s life isn’t so much what he’s become – an all-state soccer player his senior year at Mark Morris High and Evergreen’s leading scorer the past two seasons.
But it’s what he’s not – a high school dropout selling and using drugs, his life slipping away. He’s beaten the odds.
An only child, Johnson never really knew his father. He moved in with his grandparents, Larry and Betty Johnson, during his freshman year at Mark Morris High School in Longview.
Despite the problems at home, Johnson still excelled in the classroom and in soccer.
“Corey is an artist. You can tell in his game that he’s an artist,” Evergreen coach John Purtteman said. “Everyone is between an artist and a bricklayer. He’s more creative, more dynamic. He doesn’t just smash through people.”
Soccer has helped Johnson cope.
His story is sad, yet happy. Sad because of the heartache of his mother’s struggles with drugs. And happy because of caring grandparents. Maria comes to games in a wheelchair because she’s recently had double knee surgery. Her parents drive her from Longview to watch Corey.
“My grandparents have been amazing,” Johnson said. “Even my friends and their families have taken me in since I really haven’t had a dad. My friends’ dads, all growing up, took me in. They’ve all helped.”
Johnson’s hardships have helped him manage the demands and the pressures of soccer. Purtteman said Johnson has a knack for remaining calm in pressure situations.
“It’s like things slow down for him when he’s about to shoot,” Purtteman said. “He stays calm.”
After dealing with the heartache Johnson has faced, dealing with the challenge of putting a soccer ball into a net is easy.
“I don’t know if all the things I’ve faced have helped me be a better soccer player or not,” Johnson said. “I just like playing the game.”
Johnson has scored nine goals, matching his season total last year when he led the team in scoring as a freshman. He’s helped Evergreen get off to a 4-6-3 record, keeping them in the playoff hunt with three matches remaining.
“He’s a quiet leader,” said Nathan Salveson, Evergreen’s goalkeeper. “He works hard. He’s always trying to make everyone else better. He always has a positive attitude no matter what.”
Johnson looks back at his life and sees a line of people who have helped him along the way.’
“My mom was a great mother for the time she was somewhat clean through junior high,” Johnson said. “When that became an issue, my grandparents stepped in and helped and gave me the support I needed. All the other outside forces supporting me – teammates, friends, their parents – is amazing.”
Johnson said that support helped him focus on what someone that age needed to be concerned about. He didn’t have to worry about food or a place to stay. His needs were met.
And he could just be a kid.
Johnson said he also drew strength from his Christian faith. He went to Catholic school in elementary and middle school, giving him a moral compass.
“There’s a connection to God for me,” Johnson said. “It helped me get through the tough nights.”
His mom’s life has given him an insight to drugs. It’s scared him straight.
“Seeing my mom go through withdrawal, trying to help her get prescription pills. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pleasant,” Johnson said. “There were many times at night where I was crying. Just seeing that and seeing how messed up someone can get really drove me away from it. It’s not something I desire at all. I don’t want to be like that. That was a great lesson. It scared me.”
But his mother’s experience didn’t make him withdraw from life, from people or from sports.
“There’s a little awe-shucks about his game,” Purtteman said. “It comes easy for him, but he works hard. Everyone likes him. He’s always got that smile. That’s why everyone calls him Sunshine.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5432