Tom Johnson opens up about a burden he’s carried for 40 years
by WILLIAM WRIGHT, Lifestyles Editor
May 19, 2013 | 3209 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A time to heal
TOM JOHNSON, above left, president of Health Services of Cleveland, offered his friend and former high school teammate, Steve Bradford, right, a public apology while praising the first black football player at Bradley Central High School for setting an example that helped mold him into the man he is today. Johnson, 62, said he is sharing his experience in the hope of helping youths today stand up for what is right. Johnson and Bradford were all smiles as they reflected on the past and their longtime friendship. Banner photo, WILLIAM WRIGHT
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It takes a big man to say “I’m sorry,” especially when he didn’t do anything. But it’s because he didn’t do anything that Cleveland businessman Thomas Johnson is apologizing to a longtime friend, Steve Bradford, the first black football player at Bradley Central High School.

Johnson said he witnessed the mistreatment of his teammate at the hands of their head coach and regrets he did not stand up for his friend at the time. The owner and president of Health Services in Cleveland chooses not to repeat everything he heard and saw during those times, but “suffice to say it was disgusting.”

Although The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended racial segregation in the United States, racial tensions were still alive and well in many schools across the country in 1966, including Bradley Central, according to Johnson. How Bradford maintained his dignity as the first minority on the school’s football team in the face of unbridled bigotry had a profound impact on the man Johnson said he became and the life he now leads.

“At that time Cleveland High School had just started,” Johnson recalled. “There had been only one high school here and it was Bradley. It was a powerhouse. They were state champions. Cleveland High School was a city school. Most of the black youths in Cleveland would have gone there. But Steve didn’t. There was probably not four or five black students at Bradley at the time. We had a few black athletes who played basketball, but Steve was the only black player on the football team.”

Johnson, who went on to play professional football, sat in his conference room with tears swelling in his eyes as he thought back on what his friend had to endure.

“The way Steve was treated by the head coach at that time was unconscionable,” he said. “It just — it shouldn’t have happened! And the fact that I stood there and did nothing, said nothing and didn’t go to any people in authority and let them know what was happening — was terrible. It just wasn’t right to have gone along with what was going on! I didn’t mistreat him. I was nice to him. I liked Steve. But to have watched him being mistreated and not question why — that was wrong. It was one of those things that at the time I knew was wrong. I knew it was wrong later. The coach didn’t want him there as a player, he didn’t want him on the team and he didn’t want him around! The other players — I think they all liked Steve.”

Still Johnson admits that the verbal abuse inflicted upon a 15-year-old student by the head coach was “enough that at the time it even bugged me,” he said. “I had two parents that were very strong who came out of Chicago. They had a different attitude than a lot of my friend’s parents in the South. I didn’t go home and tell my mom or my dad. I could have gone to the assistant principal. There were a lot of things I could have done even in a protected environment — and I didn’t. And it bothers me even now that I didn’t.”

When Bradford was to be inducted into the Old Timer’s Hall of Fame at a banquet held at the Museum Center at Five Points on April 5, Johnson was prepared to deliver the speech on behalf of his friend and surprise Bradford with a public apology. However, circumstances beyond his control placed him in another city, and though he tried, he was unable to get back in time. Johnson said he was more than disappointed. Another opportunity was missed. Only this time he was determined to do something about it.

“You have things that happen in your life that haunt you, develop you or mold you, and that’s part of what prompted me to share this experience,” Johnson said. “Steve and I played football together at Bradley Central High School from 1965 to 1969. He was my friend. I was really looking forward to introducing him at the Old Timer’s Hall of Fame. I wanted to be able to tell that story and at least say to him how much influence he had on me. I ended up, because of business traveling, not being back here on time.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to get a chance to tell Steve how much I admired him and what it meant to me!’ I signed with the (Washington) Redskins after college and played two years in the World Football League. I played on teams that were at least 50 percent black. But the standard that was set for me on how to treat people and how to respond to adversity was set by Steve. I remember somebody saying, ‘Champions don’t talk, they perform. The world talks.’ Steve was the epitome of that. He didn’t talk. He just performed.”

Although he has not seen the movie “42,” Johnson said he would liken Bradford to baseball legend Jackie Robinson, whose dignity on and off the field in the face of insults and racial discrimination proved his mettle. According to Johnson, what Bradford did for football during his years at Bradley and what he did for any black player who ever wanted to come and play for Bradley “set a standard that almost was impossible to match.”

“How do you stand there and be better than the coach?” Johnson asked, “but he was. He was a better man than the guy who was running the program. He didn’t gripe, he didn’t wine, he showed up and did his job. All he wanted to do was to play football and he was good! He was one of those very consistent guys you could count on and he had a good attitude. He didn’t bad-mouth the guy who was bad-mouthing him, he didn’t ask for his rights or what was fair or just, he just kept showing up, doing what he was supposed to do.”

Johnson recalled that Bradford went into the military and served in Vietnam after finishing high school. He came back and worked as a fireman with the Cleveland Fire Department for several decades.

“I’m sure he did the same things there. That guy made a difference,” Johnson said. “He set a standard that the rest of us could live by. But he didn’t preach. He showed up and did his job. He was there every day and did everything he was supposed to do, in spite of how he was being treated. Every black player that came after him at Bradley should know his story and should be saying, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bradford.’ He’s a guy who should be admired.”

Johnson, 62, said he wanted to share his story for several reasons. In addition to expressing his regret and praising his friend, the father of three adult children and grandfather of four said he wanted to share his story as a life lesson for today’s youths.

“Whether they know it or not, they touch a lot of people,” he said. “They make a difference and change people’s lives. I can tell you, Steve did.

“To be able to say to young people ... ‘You’re going to have this chance, too. It may not be in the same setting, but you’re going to have a chance to make a difference and you are going to want to have done the right thing.’ ... It may be standing up for someone who is obese or gay or for someone being bullied — it’s the same difference.

“It’s important for youths to be able to say, ‘I can do something. I’m not powerless.’ Go to a person of authority, talk to your parents, go to the person being mistreated and at least let them know they are not alone — that they have a friend. Do something.”

The Chicago native was pleased to say, “I get opportunities now to make some of those things right. We have a lot of employees from diverse backgrounds, we have policies and programs in place that can assist and help all people. We also make contributions to worthy causes and the nursing homes that we choose to support are partly because of what I learned from Steve.

“I’m sure he has no idea of the far-reaching effects he had based on how he handled that situation. I don’t know what in his life made him that strong. He touched a lot of people — whether he knew it or not. He certainly touched me.”

Johnson and Bradford recently met and picked up where the longtime friends had left off — on good terms and with a special bond.

“Tom gave me my first pair of cleats,” Bradford recalled. “He said they used to be his brother Bob’s. I liked all the guys on our team, but Tom always stood out to me. He’s always been the same — just Tom. I really appreciate what he said. My wife and I both do.”