APU Alumnus Challenges Football Team to Do the Right Thing
When Andre Johnson ’85 addressed Azusa Pacific University’s football team before their homecoming game in October, it brought back memories from his days as a Cougar. As a student, Johnson was a star cornerback, anchoring the defense while legendary running back Christian Okoyoe shredded other teams up on offense. Terry Franson, Johnson’s track coach at the time, reflected, “Andre was one of the finest defensive backs in APU football history. I cannot remember him ever getting beat on a deep pass. He recently spoke to our team on courage—he put his life on the line for others when no one else would.”
Franson, along with current football head coach Victor Santa Cruz, asked Johnson to visit campus and share his testimony in front of more than 100 players. Johnson told the team that life will present moments to each of them when they will need to make a choice. “I asked them, ‘Are you going to play it safe and stand on the outside, or are you going to charge into the situation, despite the danger, and do the right thing?’”
Johnson’s talk focused on one event that changed his life forever. August 8, 1998, was a night just like any other when the alarm began to sound at the California State Prison Los Angeles, located in Lancaster. Johnson, a veteran prison guard at the time, sprinted from his position in the yard to the housing unit where the alarm was triggered. As he arrived, he looked in and saw more than 100 inmates involved in a riot and a female correctional officer standing in the center of it all with no way out. While other guards waited outside the cell block for backup to arrive, Johnson charged in.
“The second I got through the rotunda doors, I was attacked by several inmates. They knocked me to the ground, injured my neck, and bruised my ribs and knee,” he said. Johnson stood up wearily, knowing he was going to have to fight his way out, and grabbed his baton. “A few inmates tried to take my baton, and I knew if they got it, that would be the end,” he said. “I held onto it and struck back.”
Eventually Johnson was able to clear the inmates away. He made his way to the female officer, who had also been attacked and was lying on the ground, incapacitated and unresponsive. Johnson picked her up with the help of an inmate. “By the grace of God, we got her out. She was in the middle of the riot, so I didn’t know if we would make it, but the inmates saw us carrying her and nobody attacked us,” Johnson said. Other officers called for emergency medical help while Johnson rushed back into the mess.
Johnson moved through the housing unit, securing it room by room. He made sure inmates got on the ground, like they were supposed to when the alarm sounded. After backup arrived, the other officers finally joined in, and they finished securing the housing unit together. “It only took 22 minutes to win the housing unit back, but it felt like hours,” he said.
A lot of things went wrong that night. The housing unit gunner, who was in charge of keeping the area secure with nonlethal rounds, failed to pull the trigger. “He had just come out of the academy, which is never supposed to happen. The inmates saw him panic and the riot started snowballing,” Johnson said. A number of officers chose to stay out of the cell block. “They didn’t want to risk getting hurt,” he said.
In the aftermath of the riot, Johnson’s adrenaline began to wear off and he started feeling severe pain in his ribs and neck, prompting a trip to the hospital where doctors determined he had a hairline fracture and a bulging disk in his neck, which eventually required surgery. Soon after the operation, Johnson received an industrial retirement from the prison.
For his heroism, the California Department of Corrections awarded Johnson a Medal of Valor, the highest award given to a California correctional officer. After receiving the honor, Johnson chose not to speak of the experience for the next two decades. “When I first began with the department, I would bring home all of the stories from the prison. It got to be too much for my family, so I stopped talking about my work and kept everything to myself,” he said. “Now, I’m ready to share my story in hopes of encouraging others.”
After Johnson delivered his testimony at APU, several players approached him to ask questions. “They were interested in the story. I’m glad they took something away from it,” he said. “My faith is strong and I will continue to try to do the right thing. I hope they will too.”
Posted: January 10, 2020