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Senior Spotlight: A Dudley Linebacker Dreams Big
Landen Clark Johnson keeps a stack of books beside his bed.
On the spines are recognizable names – Magic Johnson and Tim Tebow, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright. But look close. Among Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Wright’s “Native Son,” there is this title: “Why Young Men Are Tempted.”
That’s a gift from Landen’s mom, Jacquelyn.
She works as a human resources business partner for a local financial services company, and she tells her oldest son to be aware of what’s around him and work hard, treat people right and believe in God.
“You reap what you sow,” she tells him, “and you’ll receive.”
His dad, Michael, offers that same advice. He’s an Army veteran, a clerk of court in Guilford County, and he tells Landen, “The only time the word reward comes before work is in the dictionary.”
Landen believes in those snippets of wisdom. On his bedroom dresser, behind his bevy of football and basketball trophies is a Bible verse. It’s Jeremiah 29:11. It reads:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Hope. Landen believes in that, too.
Dudley Football’s Lessons in Life
On June 7, Landen graduated with honors from Dudley High where he studied engineering in Dudley’s Early College Academy. He wants to become a computer software engineer, and he chose to go to Dudley Early College Academy because he liked the challenge.
Take this year. Landen took general education and introductory engineering classes at N.C. A&T, earned 28 college credits and made the dean’s list.
“I didn’t want an easy ride,” he says.
Landen also went to Dudley for something else – he likes football. And he did well. He’s a broad-shouldered 18-year-old who stands 6-feet-2, weighs 205 pounds and wore No. 21 for the Dudley High Panthers.
He played inside linebacker. In his junior season, he earned All-Conference honors, and for the past two years, he was named by the News & Record to the second team All-Area squad.
This past season, he was named Dudley’s defensive player of the year and selected as Wendy’s Heisman High School winner for Dudley High.
Ask Landen his on-field statistics, and he can rattle them off the top of his head like a grocery list.
Watch his highlights online, and Landen can cover the field in an instant, engulfing opponents with a swarming tackle.
Wonder aloud about his next move, and he’ll mention he’ll play football an hour south of Greensboro at Catawba College. His athletic talent -- and his work ethic to become a stronger, faster football player -- earned him a full scholarship. He’ll attend college for free.
In Catawba’s football guide this year, Landen gives 10 thank-yous to dozens of people. That includes his parents, his coaches and Jesus.
Then comes his kicker: “I’m ready to get to work. #Cat-U #GoIndians #BleedBlue.”
Landen’s on-field accomplishments do come across as loud as a Friday night. His highlights reel online will tell you that in an instant. But his on-field demeanor, though, is as quiet as a Sunday morning.
During his last two seasons at Dudley, he was a captain for one of North Carolina’s best football teams. If a teammate blew an assignment, he’d approach them on the field and talk to them in a calm, steady voice.
“Hey man,” he’d say, “just make sure you do what you’re supposed to do.”
Landen knows he’ll use the lessons he learned from Dudley High football throughout his life. It’s the importance of teamwork, the need for discipline and the role that focus plays with every down.
From those lessons, Landen says, he found a brotherhood of friends.
“From football, I found out who I really am,” says Landen, who started the sport when he was six. “I matured. I’m a stronger person because of that.”
“Do It For Frankie”
It was 2007 when Landen’s dad, Michael, spent a year in Iraq. He was headquartered at Camp Anaconda in Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad, working in equipment recovery. He called home every chance he got.
“Are you doing well?” Michael would ask his oldest son. “Is your mom doing well?”
Landen always said yes. But he didn’t understand the whole concept of war. He was 6, a first-grader. He simply knew his dad was gone, he missed him and the parishioners at his church were praying for his father every Sunday.
Landen knew his dad would come back. He didn’t know when. He soon found out.
Landen was in sitting on the carpet in Miss Schlanger’s first-grade class at Southwest Guilford Elementary School and listening to her read a book when she stopped and said, “Landen, turn around.”
When he did, his father was standing in the doorway. Landen jumped up from the carpet, bolted toward the door and hugged his dad around his waist.
“Back then, I didn’t know what we were praying for,” Landen says today. “But now, I think that my dad could’ve died over there, and I try to push that out of my mind.”
Landen couldn’t do that with everything.
When he was a student at Southwest Guilford Middle, Landen became good friends with a boy named Frankie. They played football together, and like teammates in any sport, they became tight. When Landen was a freshman at Dudley, Frankie died suddenly.
Landen became one of Frankie’s pallbearers. When he started playing football as a freshman for Dudley, Landen would tell himself before every game, “Do it for Frankie.”
Landen’s tough life moments didn’t end there.
It was his sophomore year when Landen heard his maternal grandmother, the woman he called Nana Dot , was diagnosed with breast cancer. She eventually beat it. By June of that year, Landen heard that Nana J, his paternal grandmother, was struggling as well.
She was battling a variety of ailments associated with old age. She lost.
“She’ll always be your guardian angel,” his dad told him.
Landen leaned on his family for support. He also leaned on his teammates. That helped.
“I began looking at life in a different way,” Landen says. “I began looking at the positive, not the negative, and it put things in perspective. I wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, she’s gone.” I’d think ‘She’s looking down on me right now. She may not be with me physically, but she will always be with me in spirit.’”
“Why Not Me?”
Landen leaves Dudley High with a raft of academic accomplishments. He is a member of the National Honor Society and the National Technical Honor Society, and he served as vice president of Greensboro’s Sigma Beta Club, a service-learning and mentoring organization for local teens.
With Sigma Beta, Landen has marched in Greensboro’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade, helped organize clothing drives to help area homeless and participated in character-building sessions that helped members mature into responsible young men.
Last year, Landen was named the club’s Scholar of the Year. This year, he received the Sigma Beta of the Year award.
Landen is far from done. He wants to become a philanthropist, start a non-profit he calls Dream Centers and partner with organizations, community leaders and professional athletics to help people in need reach their potential.
“Going to Dudley, I’d see people from different backgrounds who weren’t as privileged as others, and I see people who have potential, and I want to make sure there is a level playing field for them to achieve,” he says. “I put myself in their shoes, and I’d want someone to help me.”
“I always say, ‘Why not me?’’’ Landen says. “Nobody is stopping me. Why would I hold myself back? I want them to be the best person they can be so they can fulfill their potential.”
“It’ll be bittersweet, but it has to happen,” he says. “To be the best person you can be, you have to progress.”