UB's Darien Johnson has outrun the streets, statistics and record books
Track and field senior looks to continue breaking records after overcoming the odds
Every time Darien Johnson walked to the intersection of Genesee Street and Plymouth Avenue, he knew there was a chance he would never come back. It may have just been a few blocks from his mother’s Rochester, New York home, but it was still, after all, rival territory.
“For maybe about a mile, it’s ridiculous, there’s probably a different gang on every corner,” Johnson, a senior communication major and short sprinter at UB, said.
It’s the type of place parents beg their kids not to go. It’s dangerous. Terrifying. It was also, for an angry teenager without a male role model, the perfect place to make a name for oneself.
Darien Johnson has overcome several hardships, like growing up in a gang-infested Rochester neighborhood and his own anger, to become a record-breaking member of the UB men's track and field team.
Johnson and his friends, a group of kids who loved to brawl that went by the name of SSG (South Side Genesee) or sometimes BSG (Barton, Seward, Genesee), were walking to a friend’s house one night in the summer of 2009 when their budding reputation nearly caught up to them.
“One of my friends, he was walking out in front,” Johnson said. “And we just saw a laser beam and then heard a bunch of gunshots going toward him, and I was just like, ‘This is it.’”
The fastest man in the history of UB was that close to being nothing more than one of inner-city Rochester’s crime statistics.
According to city-data.com, Rochester had 19.9 murders per 100,000 population in 2013. The national average that year was 4.5. There were 436 robberies in Rochester that year while the U.S. average was 109. And of the 75 largest cities in the country, Rochester ranks fifth in poverty rate, according to a U.S. Census Bureau Community Survey in 2015.
These days, Johnson’s got his mind on other statistics.
He’s focused on numbers like 6.68 seconds – the time it took him to run the indoor 60-meter dash and break the UB record for the third time this season. Or 1:25.43 – another UB record time that he led his 4x200 relay to this season. Or 10.1 or 10 flat, which is the time he and his coach expect to see him running in the 100-meter by the end of the season, which would demolish UB’s current record and qualify him for Olympic Trials later this year.
After three years of mediocrity to begin his college career, he’s burst onto the fringe of the national scene, raising questions about just how high the ceiling might be for a kid who talks about making a .7 second jump in the 100-meter dash without a hint of doubt in his voice.
There is an odd dissonance about Johnson. He’s ferocious, yet extremely vulnerable.
He speaks of still-occurring anger problems, yet acts with absolute civility. He sometimes speaks with overconfidence, other times with insecurity, and often does both within the same train of thought. He’s closer to mastering his sport than he is to mastering himself, but he knows in the fast, fleeting world of short sprinting, you can’t have one without the other, and so he’s working on both.
Not long ago, he was nearly just another casualty to the gang life of Rochester, and things didn’t get easier after he earned a scholarship to UB. Johnson lost his confidence and love for the sport. His family was torn apart and separated by a house fire.
For a kid that’s been through so much, his aspirations for what comes next are bold.
Professional track career. Indoor USA Champion. Olympian.
There is a laid back look often seen in Johnson’s eyes, but it takes only four words to turn it into something much different, something simultaneously determined yet apprehensive.
“Don’t think. Just run.”
Those are the four words that Walter Larkin Jr. texts Johnson before every race.
Larkin has always had a theory about Johnson, the runner who calls him “dad,” and who he says is more of his “adoptive sons” than an athlete. His theory is that Johnson is a “headcase,” a word even Johnson knowingly uses to describe himself.
“Very few people should be able to beat someone with his combination of size, natural speed, and strength,” Larkin said.But, as the theory goes, too often, he beats himself. His temper is too short. He overthinks things too much. He’s been through too much. For years, the “headcase” has stunted his own growth both on and off the track. But this year, he’s flipping the script on his career narrative. His surprise success this year caught many people, including Johnson himself, off guard.
“I didn’t expect a gear like this to kick in this year, I didn’t expect it to kick in this fast,” Johnson said. “I feel like there’s a second gear, third gear, fourth gear waiting to kick in.”
Those next gears have always been waiting for him. The prophecy of such success for him has long been written by those who have seen him develop and wondered just how good he might be if his mental toughness ever matched his talent.
He wants to find out if he has what it takes to be what he thinks he can be: one of the fastest men on the planet.
He knows he must first master the mission Larkin reminds him of so often – to run, and to live, at peace.
The raging bull of Rochester
What came first, the boxing or the street fights? Johnson is struggling to remember.
“The boxing came first,” Johnson said. “Well, no, the fights outside the ring came a little first.”
What really came first, however, was the furious rage that left him punch-drunk both in and out of the ring for years. Before he ever stepped foot onto the track, Johnson was a boxer. He says he took up boxing to improve himself for the real fights, the ones he always seemed to find himself in outside of the ring and on the streets.
“When I started boxing I felt like I didn’t fear people,” Johnson said. “As soon as somebody said something to me, I was ready to swing.”
There was a time when fighting was Johnson’s release. When he got angry, he was ready to go. Many of his fights were individual, but he also formed a small-time gang with some of his friends who lived around him. They went by two names.
BSG, which stood for Barton, Seward, Genesee, the three streets they always hung around. And SSG, which stood for South Side Genesee, the part of the gang-infested street many of them came from and hung out around.
Early on, all attempts by his family and teachers to turn him around were mostly futile. In his worst years, he’d throw desks at the wall, chairs at his teachers, and even once lit his own mother’s mattress on fire.
As the years went by and he got to more consequential ages, Johnson’s temper put him in the same dangerous position as many angry, confused kids in inner-city neighborhoods without a male role model. He balanced on a tightrope between righteousness and ruin, destined to fall to whichever side nudged him harder.
“I just wanted to fit in, I just wanted everyone to think I was cool, and think I was about that life,” Johnson says in hindsight. “I thought me being a gang member would attract more people.”
Luckily, his athletic ability, fiery temper, and edginess did attract someone. He just didn’t know it would be the coach of the locally famous Rochester high school track dynasty.
Fast, not furious
Johnson’s mother Debora was an only child, which meant Johnson had no aunts or uncles. His biological father was never really in the picture. Johnson says he doesn’t “really hear from him.” His older brother Dekedrian was only a few years older than him, so there was no male role model for Johnson early on.
The only other person that helped raise Johnson was his grandmother, with whom he formed a close bond. He said that when he was in trouble, when the teachers would make him call home, it was always his grandmother he would go to. She was the bearer of all of his secrets, the one who let him have girls over when his mother wouldn’t. She passed away a few years ago.
Right now, in the midst of his jump toward superstardom, it’s a very delicate time for Johnson’s family. Last year, a few days after Christmas, an electrical fire destroyed his mother’s house. At the time of the fire, Debora was in the midst of putting herself through college while also working and providing for her family.
The fire set her back majorly, and forced her and her sons to live separately for a while as she tried to put the pieces back together.
“I basically told them, we might have to separate for a little while, but things will be alright,” Debora said. The family split between multiple houses and Johnson went back to UB.
There was a time when this stuff would have made Johnson angry. Nowadays, it motivates him.
“I want to see my mom smile,” Johnson said. “I want to be able to succeed in the sport so she can stop working. It’s only right that me and my older brother let her shut it down sooner or later.”
Just like fighting or throwing something across the room once was, the track is now his release. It is his livelihood. No matter what happens, he knows it can and it must, be briefly forgotten in his pursuit of greatness.
“When I’m running, everything disperses,” Johnson said. “It’s not really me thinking of the pain I’ve been through, running keeps me away from all that stuff.”
He understands now that the fiery temper that once burned inside him will only slow him down.
“As he got older, he understood that there was more out there and life was bigger than just always getting upset,” Aubrey Sheffield, a former high school assistant coach of Johnson, said. “If you run happy, you’ll always do more than running angry.”
It is true, Johnson has come a long way. The temper he speaks of is now almost invisible. He is no longer fast and furious, but rather just fast. His love for the sport is driving him to drop all the negative weight off his back. He’s finding that the better person he becomes, the faster he runs.
The four horsemen
According to the Schott Foundation’s 2010-11 national report on black males’ high school graduation rates, Rochester had the single lowest graduation rate for black males (21 percent) in the entire country of any district to enroll more than 10,000 students. The year before, the four-year graduation rate for black males in Rochester was just 9 percent.
But from 1998-2011, Walter Larkin Jr., the track coach at Edison Technical School, a trade high school in inner-city Rochester, was intent on defying the statistics.
Sheffield, one of his former assistant coaches, said he stopped counting how many Edison Tech runners went to college on scholarships years ago, when the number was well over 100.
Arthur Brooks, however, was not among the Edison runners to receive a scholarship offer, so in his senior year, he began skipping classes and not filling out his college applications.
“I’m gonna pick you up, and take you to the library,” Sheffield told him. “And we’re gonna do applications and essays all day until you get it done.”
Brooks graduated from Brockport University in 2015 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. He is among the hundreds of kids to go through the Edison Tech track program and end up going to college because of it, whether it be via scholarship, or the urging of the coaching staff.
“Those coaches, they should be hoarded with humanitarian awards,” Brooks said. “They invested the time, money, and love to all of us, especially the kids who didn’t have a father figure in their life.”One of those kids was, of course, Johnson.
Larkin still remembers the first time he met Johnson, the talented troublemaker who had just transferred into Edison for his sophomore year. After fights, bad grades and other troubles, his mom decided to enroll him into a different school. He was tall, incredibly skinny and raw as could be.
As he often did, Larkin right away saw the immense potential he possessed, and everything that threatened to waste it.
“He was borderline, he was either gonna go in one direction with his life or the other,” Larkin said. “I do believe him coming to Edison was a blessing, because he didn’t have any male role models in his life, so he kind of looked at me as a father figure, and I know it changed him.”
The coaching staff at Edison would make it a point to take in kids who came from broken homes. They would take kids who were headed down a bad path and put them into a winning tradition that could transform them.
If someone on the team would get caught stealing, that day at practice, everyone would be punished. Someone skipped class? Someone didn’t do their homework? Everybody’s going to pay. Brooks recalls Larkin encouraging kids to join the team who had been expelled for bringing guns to school. One time, a member of the team was found guilty of murder.
“They did all they could to try to help him,” Brooks said. “He just wouldn’t come to practice.”
If kids didn’t have a method of transportation, one of the coaches would pick them up and drive them to practice. If they didn’t have running shoes, the coaches would buy them running shoes.
Larkin said that right away, he could see that Johnson had a “winning mentality.” He saw potential in him not just as a runner, but also as a person. Although Larkin said Johnson always had a winning mentality, “he didn’t start off winning.” Sheffield doesn’t sugarcoat it, when Johnson first joined the team, he was “slow.”
He joined in the 2009-10 season, which happened to arguably be the best of the 14 Edison teams to win sectional titles. On the strength of a stacked senior class of future college runners, that ’09-10 team went all the way to States.
The glory of it all, however, was short lived. The coaches and runners at Edison Tech, for over a decade, called themselves “the dynasty,” and the dynasty was cyclical, it had to be. As soon as one class of runners was getting closer to college, they knew it was their job to groom the next group of runners to keep the tradition going. No one wanted to see the Edison reign come to an end on their accord.
When he first got to Edison, Johnson says he was still “trying to live the rough life.” At practice, he would outrun everybody for the first 20 meters and then lose his stamina and get smoked. The upperclassmen and coaches knew if they could get Johnson, who at the time was more committed to being the quarterback on the football team, to fully commit to track, and to leave the streets behind for good, they could turn him into the next Edison great.Larkin believes in order for a team to win in track, they need “four great boys, four leaders.” He calls them “the four horsemen.” It was their responsibility to make sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to, both on and off the track.
With such a great class of seniors graduating, it was time for someone new to step up. One of the top sprinters on that ’09 team, Mark Canady, was a junior and still returning the next season, but someone needed to help him out and become the horsemen in waiting.
“The upperclassmen came to talk to me ... telling me that I needed to step up,” Johnson said.
Larkin recognized Johnson’s potential to be one of the next horsemen not just on the track, but also off of it.
“I liked him, he was just a nice kid,” Larkin said. “I could tell he had it in him, he just needed that male role model.”
Imperative to being one of the dynasty’s leaders, was making sure that everyone was doing the right thing off the track. The kids spent more time together in school than the coaches possibly could. It took a kid fully committed to the track, a kid immune to the peer pressure that surrounded him and his teammates, to take the role of a leader at Edison.
Sheffield remembers the full circle moment when he knew Johnson could play the part. At the end of his first year, Johnson, still not 100 percent indebted to the track, lost a race at City Championships.
“He couldn’t hold it in anymore, he burst out in tears,” Sheffield said. “He felt as if he let the team down, and after that, Johnson wasn’t gonna let anyone ever beat him again.”
That summer, the one between 10th and 11th grade, with one foot on the track, and the other in the streets, Johnson had a choice to make.
Hoodlum or horsemen?
The birth of Darien Johnson
Every summer, Larkin had an open door policy at his house. He had a gym in his garage, and he would always encourage his runners to come over to work out, eat and hang out together.
“Kids who come from broken homes, I would often take them in and let them stay there,” Larkin said.During the summer preceding his junior year, the one in which he was tapped to step up as one of the leaders of the Edison Tech track team, Johnson decided, with the encouragement of his mother, to stay at Larkin’s house.
Every day that summer, sometimes twice a day, Larkin would put Johnson through tough, limit-testing drills, both on the track and in the weight room. He would feed him baked foods, fruits and vegetables. He wasn’t allowed to eat fried foods and he had to take vitamins.
Off the track, it was a summer of firsts for Johnson. First time being forced to clean his room. First time being forced to take out the garbage before being allowed to leave the house.
Of course, his first instinct was to quit.
“There was times me and my mom talked and I told her I really don’t want to do this,” Johnson said. “Because I really didn’t see that I had the talent.”
Debora would have none of it. She knew this was her son’s ticket to college, and she credits Larkin for convincing him to go to college.
“Before [Larkin], college wasn’t even a thought,” Johnson said.
Larkin knew that the summer between 10th and 11th grade was a pivotal one. Most college recruiting comes during the junior year of high school, so when it came to earning scholarships, his runners needed to be running their best by their junior year.
It is also a pivotal summer off the track. When you return to school an upperclassmen, the reality sets in that high school won’t last forever. It comes time to start thinking about who you want to be in life. Going into that summer, Johnson was still unsure, but by the end of it, he had an epiphany.
“I saw I didn’t want to live that life,” Johnson said. “I saw how I was interacting with track people when I was over Walt’s house, compared to my old friends. [At Larkin’s house] I would act like myself, whereas over there, I had to act like something I wasn’t.”
By the time that summer ended, it was obvious Johnson had transcendent talent, and even he was starting to see it. He shaved a half-second off his 100-meter time in just a couple of months, although Sheffield says, “it may have even been more than that.”
Additionally, he was no longer a skinny, lanky kid – he was “a powerhouse.”
“If you saw the formation of his body from 9th to 11th grade, you will see that he really did put it all in that summer, to come back and be one of the best,” Larkin said.
Perhaps more transforming than anything though, was the development of his relationship with Larkin. He was no longer coach, he was “dad.” And to Larkin, he was no longer Darien Johnson, he was “son.”
In his last two years at Edison, he became one of the “horsemen,” the face of the dynasty. He became one of the top runners in all of Section V and helped continue Edison’s run of success. He was twice named an All-American in the 60-meter dash and indoor 4x400 relay.
When it came time to think about college, he was recruited by a laundry list of schools: Syracuse, Binghamton, Penn State, Akron. He even got offers for football. But he knew where he wanted to go, and it wasn’t any of those schools.
He wanted to go to UB, just like Larkin. Perry Jenkins, Buffalo’s head coach of sprints and relays, was a friend of Larkin’s and Larkin felt confident Johnson would be coached well at UB. Still, at first, Johnson couldn’t “get any love” from Jenkins. He would send him e-mails and not hear back.
Jenkins came out to Rochester that winter break for an annual meet called the “Upstate NY Holiday Classic,” and brought with him some of his top runners from UB.
Johnson, just a 16-year old high school junior at the time, beat every single one of them in the 55-meter dash. It was no one-time fluke, he won against college runners twice, first in the prelims, then again in the finals.
After that, Johnson proved to Jenkins he belonged at Buffalo. Jenkins figured Johnson would come to UB and destroy the record books by his sophomore or junior season.
But it didn’t happen that way. On and off the track, the struggles of Johnson were only beginning. He had outrun the streets and the statistics, but all along, his greatest opponent was still looming.
And before he could crush the record books, his own demons would have to go first.
The big plan
Two years before Johnson re-wrote the record books at UB, he sat across from Jenkins and asked him for his release to the University of Akron.
“We’re not losing you,” Jenkins told him.
Just how close did it come to happening?
“It was really close,” Jenkins admits.
Johnson says that during his first two years at UB, he was calling Larkin “probably three times a week to say ‘I don’t like it here.’” He says in his first two years at UB, he tried to get released at least two or three times.
His confidence dropped to an all-time low during his sophomore year at UB. He didn’t feel Jenkins’ workouts were as challenging as the ones he did in high school and he made it known. Runners that he had once dominated in high school were now dominating him in college. For a while, he lost his love for the sport.
For those first two years at UB, the only thing Johnson may have led the team in was disciplinary pushups. It seemed everything he did got him punished. He thought coach Jenkins hated him.
“There was a meet my freshman year, I was going into the 60 ranked third, going into the finals, and I came out like 7th, and I sat there and moped, and he yelled at me in front of everybody at the meet,” Johnson said. “That was a huge down time. I felt like I lost respect for him, I felt like he lost respect for me... I just didn’t feel like he liked me.”
Yet, Jenkins convinced Johnson to stay when he told him the big plans he had for him. He told him if he could get it right, despite his struggles, Johnson had a chance to make a run at the 2016 Olympics.
“Myself and Walter, we both sat down and made him realize this is a place you should be, just give [me] a chance and things will turn out.” Jenkins said.
His junior year, Johnson came back with a better attitude and his times improved. Still, it wasn’t quite the performance he proved capable of when he beat some of UB’s top runners as a 16-year-old. But nonetheless, the comeback was underway. His confidence was rising and he was starting to have fun on the track again.
Still, he was flying under the radar heading into his senior season this year. And for “the headcase,” what a blessing that would be.
The time Johnson ran this season to break UB’s 60-meter dash record for the third time, 6.68, ranked him among the top-30 NCAA sprinters in that event in the country. According to Jenkins, Johnson’s time in the 60-meter dash this season should translate to somewhere between 10.15 and 10.25 for the 100-meter. Johnson has personally set his goal as high as a 10 flat.
The USA Track and Field qualifying standard to make it to Olympic Trials this July in the 100-meter is 10.1. Coming into this year, his fastest time ever in the 100-meter at Buffalo was a 10.76. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Johnson made a leap in time that substantial in such a short period.
“This year, it’s almost like his re-birth again, just like in high school,” Larkin said.
The first time Johnson found some semblance of mental peace and stability, as an upperclassman in high school, it resulted in an insane uptick in time that won him a college scholarship. Now, the second time, as a senior in college, it’s lifted him into UB’s record books, made him a Mid-American Conference champion, and put him onto the fringe of the Olympic discussion.
Both of these leaps in miniscule amounts of time followed years of hardship and lack of improvement. If Johnson is, as he swears, capable of another leap in time this large with the furtherance of his mental toughness and continuance of his work ethic, where might it take him?
“It will lead me to be a possible USA Indoor Champion for the 60,” Johnson said. “Or make the World team, it will definitely get me on pace to make the next world team.”
After three years of college track stuck in purgatory, will the rockiness of Johnson’s rise actually turn out to be his advantage? Is there another conference-championship winning sprinter in the country leaving college feeling more like they haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential yet?
“For a while, he was kind of just going through the motions,” said Tyra Forbes, a women’s track and field athlete and Johnson’s girlfriend. “Whereas now, he’s like ‘Wow, I’m actually fast, I can do this.’ So he works harder because he knows he’s capable of being the best.”
It took him 22 years to figure it out, but Johnson now knows that he can be the best. As he approaches graduation this May, everything is seemingly starting to brighten for him. The happy endings are everywhere around him.
More than a year after the fire, his mother Debora is putting the pieces of her life back together. She just recently graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in probation collections from Brockport University, and she’s now living in an apartment in the suburbs of Rochester with Johnson’s younger brothers. The family is once again living together, now closer than ever.
Larkin is no longer the track coach at Edison Tech, instead he has a new leadership role at the school: principal. Sheffield has his own head-coaching gig now at Penfield High School in Rochester.
As for Johnson, he refuses to believe this record-breaking, conference-championship winning, swan-song of a senior season is his happy ending in progress. The track has always been his sanctuary, and he has unfinished business.
“I still have a lot to go,” he says.
On and off the track, Johnson knows he’s still a work in progress. He’s got a lot behind him, a lot to run for, and he’s still figuring out how to deal with it all. But still, he knows the day is coming, when he wakes up on the day of the race, looks at his phone, and feels at peace with the four words his “dad” knows hold the key to Johnson becoming who he wants to be on and off the track.
“Don’t think. Just run.”
And when that moment comes, his mental toughness finally matching his talent, there might be no stopping Darien Johnson.
Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org