Here, in this living room with the high ceilings and earth-toned furnishings, the boy is on the move, weaving through a forest of women clad in blue and gold and camouflage.
He is shy, just like his father was when he was that age, before his father learned the profitability of movement in the presence of music and a crowd, before his father discovered the intoxicating sensation of making the air feel electric when he ran with a ball in his hands.
The boy offers a meek hello to a newcomer and darts out of sight, peeking from behind the legs of the many women in his life, flashing a toothy grin. Like his father, 6-year-old Aiden Matthews is elusive when he wants to be.
Nine women are present, a coalition of sorts — aunts, close family friends, a grandmother and a great-grandmother — and these aren't all of the women in Aiden’s life. These are just some of the women who were there to support Aiden and help make possible what could prove to be Southern University’s greatest athletic success story in a generation.
Aiden’s father is at once all around him — the pictures, the mementos and so many stories — and he is not there at all. And that is sort of the point.
Roughly 10 miles away from this living room, Danny Johnson — Aiden’s dad, their Chosen One — is devoting all his time and energy to wringing out every drop of his vast potential. And Danny is pure, liquid promise.
On the football fields of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, he appears as a virtuoso. He does not move so much as he glides, like he’s the only one unencumbered by the tug of gravity. His consistent, superb play as a defensive back has drawn the eyes of many NFL scouts.
Away from the field, he is a personable 4.0 student pursuing a degree in criminal justice, which he is set to attain a full semester ahead of schedule. He chose this field as a matter of social conscience, saying: “I want to learn more about my rights today — what I have the right to do and not do.”
Danny is this family’s physical embodiment of what is possible.
“He’s always been that type of person,” said Lisa Ferguson, Danny’s mother. “He wants better. He wants to make something out of himself. He wants to be great.”
He wants to be spectacular, which makes the mundane nature of when the world as he knew it came to a screeching halt so peculiar. A 16-year-old Danny was sitting on a couch watching television when his phone buzzed.
It was a text message from April Matthews. She finally let Danny in on the secret she had been too scared to let anyone in on for three months. She told Danny, a sophomore in high school, that he was about to become a father.
“Everything just froze to me,” Danny said. “I was in shock. I sat there for a long time: ‘What do I do now? What do I do now?’ ”
This is where all those ladies enter the picture.
What was Danny to do?
Exactly what he had been doing.
“Whatever you plan on doing, hold on to your plans,” Lisa told her son back then. “And we’re going to take care of the rest.”
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Asked about the possibility of facing another mobile quarterback this weekend, Southern defe…
“Did they tell you what (Danny) named himself?” said Shirley Ferguson, Danny’s grandmother. “ ‘Louisiana Pimp Dog.’ ”
Back to that in a moment. The ladies are all gathered around the bar in the kitchen, laughing as they share their favorite Danny stories. They are all in the uniform of the day, T-shirts plastered with images of Danny in his Southern football jersey.
These shirts are coveted. Danny’s oldest sister, Jaquanna Ferguson, comes up with a unique design for all the big games. She finds out what color the team will wear for the game — navy, gold, Columbia blue, camouflage for military appreciation day — and orders the shirts in that color.
She has been sending the designs to the same guy for every big game Danny has played in since high school. When the shirts are ready, it is usually Lisa who picks them up and distributes them — and that is a project in itself.
Team Danny rolls deep on game day. Jaquanna said she had to fill an order of about 100 T-shirts for last year’s homecoming game.
“At the last game, Jackson State, I was walking up the stairs and someone said, ‘Oh, I love that shirt, and I love Danny too,’ ” said Danny’s aunt, Melissa Hills. “I said, ‘Oh, thank you; I think we all do.’ ”
They don’t know how many shirts they've made over the years. It is easier to judge the final tally by closet space.
As a Southern alumna, Keashu King’s closet was already filled with blue and gold attire. But the number of T-shirts hanging in there struck her one day. She pushed everything else to the side, grouping just the Danny Johnson shirts together, and sent a picture to Lisa.
“I’m telling you, they take up probably about two feet in my closet,” King said.
With their matching shirts, they are an easy group to spot at Southern games. Team Danny gathers and gets the chant going.
“Sometimes in the stands we’ll ask, ‘Who you rooting for?’ ” said Danny’s cousin, Chiandria Ferguson. “ ‘L-A-P-D!’ ”
Louisiana Pimp Dog.
A lot of people don’t know this, Jaquanna said, but at one point, Danny was shy like Aiden. Something changed when he got older, though. It may have been the music. It may have been the incentive. But Danny started craving the spotlight.
Louisiana Pimp Dog — L.A.P.D. for short — was born.
Lisa would take little Danny, maybe 9 or 10 years old, to family gatherings, and she said arguments would break out over who could out-dance who.
“They’d say, ‘Well, we've got someone who can beat them,’ and they’d call ‘Pimp,’ ” Shirley said. “But you’d have to pay him money to dance.”
This is how Danny learned to earn the things he wanted. When he coveted a pair of shoes, he’d get the money for them by dancing in front of a crowd. That turned into finding lawns to mow, or collecting heaps of aluminum cans that he could turn in for cash at the recycling center.
This was the beginning of the work ethic that has shaped Danny. His teammates and coaches marvel at the effort he pours into making himself better, adding substance to the flair of the L.A.P.D. persona that has also followed him to the field.
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“Danny — man, if you were to take his talent away from him, he would be the same person, just because of the work he puts in,” said his teammate, Aaron Tiller. “He works all the time, he works hard, he’s the best in everything he does.”
Said another teammate, Kentavious Preston: “Whether it’s days we’re practicing or whether we’re not practicing, you will always find Danny putting in the extra work, doing more than what everyone else is doing.”
Added fellow defensive back Demerio Houston: “He wants to be great. And the only way to be great is to work.”
There are the 6 a.m. practices and the weight-lifting sessions. There are the individual training sessions he does in the sand with family friend Ken Anio. There are the hours upon hours he has spent watching film, memorizing the little tells he can use to neutralize opposing wide receivers.
All of it has a cumulative effect. Danny wanted something, and he is well on his way to earning what he desires. In four years, he has built himself into a legitimate professional prospect, evidenced by all the men wearing NFL team logos that keep popping up at Southern.
“Every scout’s been through here, and they keep coming back,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “He’s one of those players that, from a character standpoint, he’s everything; you check off all the boxes. From a talent standpoint, you check off all the boxes.”
It does not come without sacrifice. For a father, time is perhaps the most precious resource. The minutes, hours and days melt away as Danny empties his tank back into himself.
It is his great contradiction: If the goal is to give himself the best opportunity to provide for Aiden in the long haul, he must relinquish that precious resource, time, in the short term.
This was the deal Danny made with his father and mother and sisters and aunts, who are all there when he cannot be. He is living up to his end by throwing himself headlong into being gone.
“We told him, ‘You’re going to go to school and you’re going to finish, and we’re going to help you,’ ” Shirley said.
“He knows he has a lot he’s playing for,” Tiller said. “He’s not just playing for himself. You can see it in everything he does.”
After a practice this week, Southern coach Dawson Odums, watching his players as they separa…
BEING THERE, BEING A FATHER
April Matthews thought she could hide a secret, but it was no use. It was April’s mother who approached her and said she knew she was pregnant. A visit to a doctor confirmed what 17-year-old April and her mother already knew.
Danny thought he could keep a secret, too. After receiving this life-altering text message from April, he largely kept the news to himself. He was a sophomore in high school with the world in his hands, and didn’t know how to talk to his family about such adult things as supporting a child.
So Danny went to basketball practice (Lisa always thought he would wind up playing basketball in college). He was in the middle of practice when Lisa barged in and removed him. April’s mother called Lisa and broke the news while Danny was at practice.
Danny, at first, tried to say the child was not his.
“She’s not calling your name for nothing. You had to do something!” Lisa recalled telling Danny.
After Aiden was born, there was no denying it. Jaquanna said he was a dead ringer for Danny’s father, Danny Johnson Sr. A paternity test confirmed what everybody already figured was the truth.
“Ever since then, he’s been an awesome dad,” April said. “We talk every day, have a great relationship. Anything about Aiden, we can talk about it. When Aiden is having problems in school or he’s having problems with homework or something, I always call Danny and inform him that Aiden needs help with this.
“We do it together. We co-parent really well.”
Aiden spends school nights with April’s family, which also skews heavy to the feminine side. She has four aunts, all of whom have daughters.
On weekends, he visits with Danny’s family. He enjoys the manly pursuits he explores with Danny Johnson Sr., like cutting grass and operating the weed eater.
“He’s a small kid with an old man’s soul,” Jaquanna said.
Aiden travels with a flock of women in matching T-shirts — Danny’s sisters, nieces, aunts, and mother — to all of Danny’s games, particularly enjoying the road trips where he can burn energy running up and down the hallways of the hotel.
He goes to all the family functions, where people ask him if he can dance like his dad used to.
There is this huge web of support, a community all its own finding a way to be all in for Aiden all the time.
“One hundred percent, they’re behind Aiden all the way,” April said. “Anything Aiden needs, they’re one phone call away. Any function he has at school, they’re all there to support Aiden.”
Danny said: “It kept me from going under. I stayed on top of everything: I stayed on top of my school work; I stayed on top of football; I made sure I worked out, even if he had to go with me.
“Being a father, being there for him — that was the biggest thing.”
Danny’s family made a pledge to be there for him and for Aiden, not only so Danny could make something out of himself, but for Danny to make something for Aiden to emulate. That is how Danny is there, even when he physically can’t be.
He wears No. 1 for Southern — and that, too, was earned. That number is reserved for the player on the team with the highest grade-point average.
“Football can be taken from me any day,” Danny said. “You can’t take that degree from me. That’s something I worked for. That’s something I want to give my mom and say, ‘I made you proud.’ That’s something I want my son to see to say, ‘My dad graduated from college.’
“I’m praying Aiden follows his footsteps, so Danny can see what he produced,” April said. “Because Aiden watches him every weekend. I want Aiden to follow his dad’s footsteps, so Danny can see, ‘Hey, I produced that; that’s my kid.’ ”
Southern linebacker Kentavious Preston pops a number of pain pills.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE?
The shy boy has finally been coralled from within the forest of women. He sits on Jaquanna’s lap and cautiously eyes the reporter who wants to know about his dad.
Who is the better dancer, Aiden? You or your dad?
“Daddy,” Aiden said.
At this, Jaquanna whips out her cell phone and pulls up a video. It was taken at one of Danny’s football games. The Human Jukebox is blaring in the background as Aiden, in the center of the frame, cuts loose with a spontaneous dance.
All the women agree: Aiden is so much like his dad.
“Aiden is Danny all over again,” April said. “He dances like Danny. He’s real smart like Danny — a straight-A student, just like Danny. He loves sports just like Danny.
“He’s going to follow right in Danny’s footsteps.”
Danny is not able to be there every day. It is part of the pact made between him and his family: You don’t let your promise shrivel, Danny; you go out and make the most of it, and we’ll ensure Aiden is taken care of. He sees Aiden when he can, often on the weekends.
But Danny is still there. Every night, he’ll hear the familiar ring of a FaceTime call from Aiden. He answers and sees the smaller version of himself staring back at him, talking about how he aced his spelling test.
Danny likes to ask Aiden a certain question, because he likes to see the way his son’s youthful mind is imprinted by the world around him.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
The answer varies. Sometimes, Aiden wants to be a baseball player. Other days he wants to be a truck driver.
“The biggest thing is, I just want to see him do good in life, be better than I was,” Danny said.
In working toward making this goal a reality, the trade-off is that Danny frequently has not been physically present for Aiden. But that was part of the plan.
All these women in Danny’s family, this coalition — his son’s mother, his own mother, his grandmother and aunties and sisters — all made and kept their promise to support Danny. They were there when he could not be because he was fulfilling his own promise.
On this day, surrounded by all these important women in his life, Aiden is asked again: What do you want to be when you grow up?
“A football player,” he said.
A cornerback, he adds, just like Daddy.