BEREA: When Barbara Johnson’s five sons were growing up in West Monroe, La., bicycle riding and basketball were their preferred activities. Football was taboo, because she feared her boys would get hurt.
So when Barkevious Mingo was convinced to risk life and limb — at least in his mother’s mind — the Browns’ future first-round draft choice had to sneak around to attend practice his junior year in high school.
“I wasn’t technically going around her back, but I really didn’t have her blessing,” LSU defensive end/linebacker Mingo said. “I won her over late in the year and got her to come to some games.”
Johnson didn’t want to come. She resisted when a co-worker at Lowe’s told her how good Mingo was and that she needed to see him play.
“I said, ‘I’m not going, I’m going to see him get hurt,’ ” Johnson said after Mingo’s introductory news conference Friday at Browns headquarters. “He said, ‘He’s not going to get hurt, he’s knocking everybody else down.’ ”
She went but didn’t watch, sitting in the bleachers with her hands covering her face. But apparently, she peeked occasionally.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to hurt somebody else’s child. He needs to stop,’ ” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘KeKe, stop that.’ He can’t hear me cause it’s loud. When he got home I said, ‘Why did you hit that boy that hard?’ He said, ‘Mama, that’s the game.’ ”
Johnson didn’t know anything about football then. She’s still learning. But now she worries less and believes more.
“I think he can hold his own,” she said. “I’ve seen what he can do. I like to say, ‘He likes to eat quarterbacks.’ ”
Johnson had never been north of her home state until the past week. Mingo’s 15 quarterback sacks and 27 quarterback pressures in three years at LSU got her to New York, where Mingo was feted in the NFL’s pre-draft festivities and fitted by a stylist. Then it was on to Cleveland after the Browns used their No. 6 pick on Mingo in Thursday’s first round.
“I haven’t been anywhere, Louisiana and Florida,” Johnson said. “I go south, I don’t go north. That’s all over now.
“That’s what’s so amazing about it. I’ve never been [to New York] and then my child takes me there.”
A high school basketball player in Montgomery, La., Johnson still battles her sons on the court in one-on-one or two-on-two. The eldest, Hugh, played basketball at Louisiana-Monroe and hopes to continue his career overseas. The two youngest, Malik and LaDarian Johnson, played football and basketball. Barbara Johnson came up with the name Barkevious, using part of her first name, but it was second-oldest son Hughtavious who nicknamed him “KeKe.”
As Barbara Johnson talked about her on-court escapades with her sons, a little bit of the determination Mingo showed to play football came through.
“They don’t try to stop me too much,” Johnson said of their on-court battles. “They say I’m old, I’m not that old. They’ll let me get to the goal, but I can shoot. I play them hard, but they don’t want to play me hard.
“Even with my little guy they’re like, ‘Mama, get back, you’re going to get hurt.’ I say, “I’m playing. Come on.’ ”
But off the field and the court, Johnson said Mingo is humble and quiet.
“You never know he’s in the room if you don’t go in and say, ‘KeKe, are you in there?’ ” Johnson said.
Mingo has also shown a big heart and a commitment to community service. That should quickly make him a favorite of fans and charities in Northeast Ohio.
At a recent pre-draft visit to a children’s hospital in New York, Mingo’s agent Jeff Guerriero said an NFL representative told him: “ ‘Your guy was one of the only guys who came over and was hugging those kids, passing out stuff. You could tell he genuinely cared about those kids.’ It’s not something you have to tell KeKe to do, it’s something he wants to do.”
Two weeks ago at KeKe Mingo Day at the convention center in Monroe, La., Guerriero said he was blown away by a story told by Don Shows, Mingo’s football coach at West Monroe High School. Shows recalled a team activity during Mingo’s junior year.
“Coach Shows said, ‘I knew this kid was a good person when I saw a physically handicapped child. He went over and spent three hours with that child,’ ” Guerriero said of Shows’ speech. “’No one knew he did it. I saw him and I never said anything about it until today. I knew then that was a good guy.
“Then I got him on the field and was like, ‘That’s a great guy.’ ”
For the Browns and their fans, Mingo seems to offer the perfect dichotomy — a handicapped child’s best friend and a pass rusher who feasts on quarterbacks. It’s a disparate combination a mother can learn to love.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.