By Jennifer L. Warren
NEWBURGH – It was never a question of whether Deondre Johnson possessed the talent to play football.
Rather, the big unknown that lingered: Could he develop into a mature, focused true leader, both on the football field and off of it? The last couple of years Johnson definitively delivered, providing unquestionable clarity to that unsolved query. Going from an at-risk student status, who played the game of football well but lacked elusive leadership his freshman year at Newburgh Free Academy West, Johnson “found himself” his sophomore year, not only feeling more comfortable with his scholastic setting while improving his grades, but so too, developing priceless confidence.
Wednesday, inside his school’s auditorium, all that hard work, dedication and growth was rewarded when Johnson, surrounded by a supportive, impressive-sized crowd of family and friends, signed a Letter of Intent to play football for Division I Rutgers University, part of the prestigious Big Ten Conference. The moment not only brought tears to the 6-8, 200-pound Wide Receiver Johnson’s eyes, but so too created a ripple of emotion throughout the crowd. His Goldback Varsity Gridiron Coach, William Bianco, was among the first to speak, providing words aimed at Johnson’s indelible footprint on the 2022 Section IX Championship program and beyond.
“All of this just didn’t happen; a lot of people were part of Deondre’s maturation process into becoming a great person and football player,” said Bianco, who dubbed Johnson the best NFA football player over the years to receive a Division I Scholarship. “He could not have done it without all of you, who were a part of it, but this also could not have been done without Deondre, who did the work, became a leader and checked all the needed boxes; he is a great player who inspires others and makes his teammates better.”
Many of those appreciative teammates were on hand at the Signing, cheering loudly, proud of and happy for their friend. Another member of Johnson’s Newburgh Free Academy West “Family,” School Counselor, Lakeya Stokes, was also present, providing powerful remarks that painted a picture of the four year high school journey that shaped Johnson into the impressive young man he has become.
“He went from a struggling student to a High Honor Roll one,” said an emotionally visible Stokes. “To me, Deondre is the definition of what Newburgh is, working through and overcoming so much.” Turning to Johnson, before hugging him, his counselor of four years added, “I am so proud of you and the growth I have seen and witnessed in you.”
Tears welling up in his eyes as he listened in to various speakers, including NECSD Superintendent, Dr. Jackielyn Manning Campbell and Assemblyman, Jonathan Jacobson, and looked around at the joyful crowd in front of him, Johnson is intensely aware of the profound impact his Newburgh “village” has had on his adolescent evolution.
“Becoming a leader was the true turnaround; it happened by trusting the people around me and really being able to learn what they were teaching me,” said Johnson following the Signing. “The biggest way Newburgh affected me was by giving their support; I really felt like they were behind me, and I just know I’m going to still feel it-in the classroom and on the field- when I’m at Rutgers.”