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Mom’s Love Leads 4-Star Indianapolis CB D.J. Johnson to Iowa

August 22, 2017

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

LaShanda Santiago expected her son, D.J. Johnson, to announce his college decision either on the early signing day in December or the late one during February. That’s what they had decided.

Johnson surprised his mother when he returned from his Iowa visit at the end of July, however. He told her he would be announcing his decision on Aug. 22, her birthday.

Santiago has worked two jobs for the last nine years, raising D.J. and his older sister, Dazha Johnson, as a single mother. That impacted her son.

“She’s done so much for me throughout the years and that was the only thing I could really think of for a birthday present, making sure she doesn’t have to pay for college or anything,” Johnson said.

The four-star cornerback from Indianapolis North Central High chose Iowa ahead of his other finalist, Notre Dame, on Tuesday. He also held scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Syracuse, among others.

Ohio State had been showing increased interest in Johnson. He believed they would still offer him a scholarship after his commitment but he told HN he is solidly pledged to Iowa and won’t be changing his mind even if the Buckeyes come calling.

Johnson (5-11, 170) became Iowa’s 12th known verbal commitment in the 2018 recruiting class. He joined Tyrone Tracy and Anthony Torres as Indiana standouts in the group.

“I’m very proud,” Santiago said. “He’s a great kid. Everything that he does he always tells me he’s doing it for me. He tells me that he sees how hard I work. He says he knows how hard it is being a single mom taking care of them and making sure they don’t go without. He’s just very, very thoughtful and considerate in that way.”

Santiago visited Iowa twice with her son. She felt good about his choice.

“They were very open and honest with me. They answered any question I had. That made me feel great. It made me feel like they were interested in my son. I felt like they were very eager to make him a part of their program,” she said.

The recruiting process was stressful, at times, for Santiago. She wasn’t used to it and was concerned about sending her son to a far-away place with others looking out for him. Iowa eased those worries.

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“In the beginning I was very, very scared. But the more that I spoke to staff and the coaches there, I felt very comfortable. They made me feel like they’re going to take care of him and they’re going to become his extended family. I’m not as worried knowing he’ll have them to lean on when I can’t be there,” she said.

Santiago also realizes getting her son out of Indianapolis will be good. The city is experiencing a great deal of violence, particularly an uptick in crimes against high school athletes.

In May, Warren Central High standout football player Dijon Anderson died from injuries sustained in a shooting. He had signed to play for Southern Illinois. Ben Davis High star Rondell Lee Allen was shot while sitting in a car last month.

“It’s very alarming that the incidents are happening consistently. That’s not something that you ever want to happen to any kid. It makes me want to encourage D.J. to get out of Indiana. That’s not to say that there’s no crime anywhere else but I feel like I want him to experience other avenues outside of Indiana,” she said.

“Where we are right now is not good for young athletes. It’s almost like you’re afraid to promote that your son is doing well and has scholarship offers because you don’t know if these crimes are being committed because of jealousy. There are so many angles you look at as a parent.”

The increasing crime rate also catches Johnson’s attention. He’s on alert.

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“A place like Indianapolis, it’s really dangerous. You have to watch who you’re around, where you go and the people you hang out with. At parties and stuff, people know you if you’re an athlete. There are a lot of haters. You just have to watch your back,” he said.

“I just try to stay out of it because at any moment it can all be taken away from you. It’s a wild place to grow up. There’s a lot of violence.”

Santiago has set the example for her son. He’s watched how hard she works and emulated it.

Johnson credits his mother for him becoming one the country’s best high school football players. She works a full time job for a medical equipment company during the week and then works weekends at a mental health facility.

“It definitely showed me how to be a hard worker and when you want something you have to do what you have to do to get it. That definitely was the start for me and a big factor in how I’m at the point where I am now in my life. She’s worked so long and so hard so everything I do I try to do for her and make sure she doesn’t have to work like that anymore,” he said.

That blue-collar mentality makes Johnson a good fit at Iowa. The Hawkeyes aren’t flush with four- and five-star prospects, but through hard work they compete well against programs that do.

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“What’s most important about Iowa to me is just the people. The people are special and they’re genuine. They’re real. They’ll tell you how it is before anybody else. It’s a special place and the people make it that,” he said.

Johnson has built a strong relationship with assistant coach Kelvin Bell, who recruits Indianapolis.

“We’re real cool. I can go to him and talk about anything and he’ll give me advice. He’s a real genuine guy. I really like him,” Johnson said.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach, also bonded well with Johnson. They provided him with a vision on how he’ll be used with the Hawkeyes.

“They think I can be another corner like Desmond King, be that lockdown guy. They talked about me being the No. 1 corner that they wanted. So, I can come in and play early, definitely. Hopefully with Coach Parker coaching me, he can get me to where I want to go,” Johnson said.

Johnson received excellent guidance from a former Hawkeye football player. Anthony Dean, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at North Central, helped with the process while doing his best to stay impartial. Just because Iowa was right for him, didn’t mean it would be the place for his student.

“He wasn’t leading me any way. He’s just been telling me whichever I choose, he’s going to support me either way. He just told me to know that some things are fake and some things are real. You have to see between those things. There are people that want you and people that just want to use you,” Johnson said.

The support he received from others made Tuesday a day Johnson won’t soon forget.

“It’s emotional for me and my mom and for the people that have helped me get to where I want to go because I’ve been through so much,” he said.

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