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On track: Sports keep Johnson family connected

Youngest daughter Nikkia Johnson (from left), 14, father Thomas Johnson Sr. (46), oldest daughter Netikie Johnson (18) and son Thomas Johnson Jr. (16) stay close and grounded through sports. (Photo by Kelly McElroy/Staff)

For more than a decade, Father's Day in the Johnson family has always been celebrated at the same place — a track and field complex somewhere in Louisiana.

As the founder and coach of the local AAU track and field team the Houma Jets, Thomas Johnson Sr., his wife, Sonjia, and his three children, Netikie, 19, Thomas Jr., 16, and Nikkia, 14, have shared the day together in competition.

"Every Father's Day since 2000, we are at the AAU state championships. It seems like on that day my kids really perform well. It's like they are giving back to me," Johnson Sr. said. "They always perform really, really well on Father's Day. It's been a joyous time for me and my wife."

A former track athlete and football player at Louisiana-Lafayette (then Southwestern Louisiana) Johnson Sr. said sports have helped mold him, and he has passed the structure and discipline he has learned through athletics to his children.

Netikie played basketball and ran track at Ellender before graduating in May. On Thursday, she signed a national letter-of-intent to run track at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Thomas Jr. is a football player and member of the Patriots track team and will be a senior next school year, and Nikkia, who will be a freshman at Ellender, also competes in track and basketball for the Lady Patriots.

"By them being in athletics, it's a vacation for me and my wife during the summers going all kind of different places," Johnson Sr. said. "The kids have won (AAU) national championships. It's been wonderful. The main thing though is seeing the hard work they have put in and the dedication they have. That is something we teach in life, period. You have to learn to work hard and be dedicated, and you will succeed. We constantly set that example for the kids. I am proud of all of them. They all do well academically as well as with athletics."

Johnson Jr. said he appreciates the time his father puts in with him and that the family is extremely close.

"You wake up in the morning, and you are going workout," Johnson Jr. said. "You have kids out there who are doing something worse than working out or who are behind bars. So I am just blessed to have a dad who takes me to workout. Instead of having to get a job or something, I am out there working out, and hopefully I can get a scholarship. I'm blessed to have him and my family."

For Netikie, she knows her father is always pushing her to do her best.

"He is always going to push you because he knows what you are capable of doing," Netikie said. "He just wants the best for you. Sometimes it is difficult when you are practicing because he can't be Dad; he has to be coach. You can't look for the easy way out. You can't look at him as Dad. You have to look at him as coach. You might expect him to be soft on you sometimes, but he has to be hard on you so you can be the best you can be. It was harder to understand when I was young, but as I matured, I began to understand that my dad will always be there for me."

She added the support of both parents is something she does not take for granted.

"Some kids wish they can have their parents there to support them all the time. We have that," Netikie said. "That's what kids need."

Nikkia said her dad means the world to her.

"My dad means a lot to me," Nikkia said. "He stresses a lot of stuff to us, like school. He means a lot. I love having him as my coach because we practice more. Some people can't spend as much time with their parents as we do. I love that, and I love my dad."

Johnson Sr. is a native of Gibson who moved to California in his youth but came back to Houma as a teenager after learning of AAU track out west.

The lessons he stresses to his kids through athletics are not always easy, but he said they build strength.

"Over the years I have found with track that it helps the kids not just physically, but mentally. It toughens them up," Johnson Sr. said. "Whatever their endeavors are, they take a certain approach to it — that toughness approach. They are not giving up easily."

Johnson Sr. also said he and his wife always make time for the needs of the children, whatever they may be.

"Times have changed from when I was a teenager. They are exposed to more things now, and I find a difficult task for most teenagers today is finding their self-identity in our society," Johnson Sr. said. "Sports is a great structure, and having that parental support is very, very important. Time is important to me and my wife. We have committed to where we will not let finances or our jobs interfere with the time we need to put in with our kids."

Johnson Sr. added that communication and self-reflection are key.

"You have to be able to talk to them about anything. I talk," Johnson Sr. said. "We may sit there for an hour talking about the reality of life and the many different situations they are going to face. You just have to be real and identify who you are with everything else going on in life. Take some time to reflect back on the things that you are doing. The youth today are so used to being in a group, and the kids are identifying with popular figures as a group, but you can forget about yourself. We try to keep them grounded and give them time to reflect upon themselves. The best things for you are not always the things that the group is doing."

As large of a role as Johnson Sr. plays in the lives of his own children, he also leaves some space to act as a father figure to many of the young people he coaches as well.

"That's exactly it," Johnson Sr. said. "That is the feeling you have when have been dealing with kids so long. You feel more like a father figure to other kids as well. That's the way I treat them. I am here for them for whatever they need, not just on the track. If they need somebody to talk to, I can do that. I'm seasoned. I'm experienced, and I have done a lot of things myself, especially through athletics. I have learned a lot, and I have always wanted to share that knowledge, especially with the youth."