Education was paramount in Craig Johnson’s home in Louisiana.
Craig’s mom, Lenora Robinson, graduated high school in just three years. She went on to college and embarked on a long career as a biologist and educator. She wanted her children to be just as successful.
“One of my mom’s favorite sayings was academics comes before athletics in the dictionary and in my house, and so it was never me having to choose between the fields and books. So, right after practice and before practice I was doing homework,” Craig said.
Craig was on the same trajectory as his mom when he was 15. He was a sophomore who aimed to finish high school early just like his mother, grandmother and four of his older siblings. He also wanted to go to a historically black college or university, which his mother had always urged him to attend since several members of their family were alums of the schools.
“You have to know who you are and where you are from before you can reach your true purpose and inspire others,” Lenora told her children.
Craig also excelled as an athlete. He was a member of the high school baseball team and was a standout soccer player, playing on the varsity team his freshman year and was named co-captain the following year. He wanted a soccer scholarship and worked hard toward that goal.
But at the start of the 2008 school year, his academic and athletic goals took an unexpected turn. During soccer practice, Craig was knocked down by a fellow teammate and hit the ground hard. He was in pain but got up and continued to play, even scoring a few goals. But the pain persisted throughout practice.
“When my coach brought me home, he called my mom and told her that I was feeling off after practice,” Craig said.
Lenora did not seem too concerned at first. She sent Craig to take a warm shower to soothe his muscles. He felt a lump in his abdomen the size of a tangerine and yelled for his mom.
“It seemed like when I screamed it got bigger,” Craig said. “I remember like it was yesterday.”
After a phone call with the family’s pediatrician, Lenora drove her son to his primary doctor and then a urologist the next morning. Craig was diagnosed with a hernia and a swollen and torn spleen. She then drove him to a local hospital in Baton Rouge where he was admitted. Several tests later revealed Craig had cancer. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer.
“I could have sworn that a train pulled into the station and ran over me,” Lenora said.
At first, Craig could not wrap his mind around having cancer.
“It was something we were not expecting at all,” he said. “I didn’t cry until they told me that I would be out of soccer for a while; that is when it really hit me and made it a reality.”
Craig was referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® in Memphis, about a five-hour drive from his family and friends. Lenora, who worked as the coordinator for a program in the East Baton Rouge school district, would later notify her employer that she planned to retire. She knew she had to devote her time entirely to her son and the cancer journey before them.
“I loved what I was doing at the time, but I realized that it was time for me to go,” she said.
Chemotherapy did not thwart early graduation
Craig began chemotherapy at St. Jude almost immediately. Some days were harder than others, as his body adjusted to the new treatment. But he said no matter how hard things got, he always stayed positive. It was easy to do at St. Jude, which offered him more than medicine.
“I always had something that could make me smile, something that could change my energy, whether it was going to the teen room or playing video games in the game room, there was always something to give my mind release,” he said. “And I always had hope, even when I didn’t know what the next result was going to be.”
In between doctors’ visits and chemotherapy sessions, Craig hit the textbooks and worked closely with teachers at the St. Jude Imagine Academy by Chili’s. The teachers helped him with calculus, chemistry and environmental science lessons.
“They can tell when you didn’t have a great day of chemotherapy … and they made sure to meet you where you were, and they provided multiple pathways for success as well as being advocates for you,” he said.
Craig’s perseverance never waned. At times, he sprinted to class on the St. Jude campus after receiving chemotherapy.
When the time came for him to take his college admissions tests and apply for colleges and scholarships, he said the teachers at St. Jude encouraged him every step of the way.
Despite sick days and setbacks in his treatment, Craig was able to attend prom back home and graduate high school a year early with regular visits to a St. Jude affiliate clinic in Baton Rouge. He was accepted to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he resumed playing soccer. St. Jude arranged for him to receive his last year of chemotherapy at Howard University Hospital on his college’s campus.
Craig finished chemotherapy in March 2011. He graduated college with a degree in elementary education and in 2018 earned his master’s degree in special education. He has been cancer-free for more than a decade.
He currently works at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, where he spent summer days as an intern and volunteer while in college. At ALSAC, he leads outreach efforts to the HBCU community, sharing the mission of St. Jude and its founder, Danny Thomas.
“I’m part of Danny’s dream, and I was one of those children that didn’t die at the dawn of my life, and in turn I want to continue his dream forward,” he said.
Mom gets her doctorate
Craig’s cancer also inspired his mom to go back to school.
Days after Craig received his last chemotherapy treatment, Lenora enrolled in a doctorate program.
Craig’s leukemia was one in an extensive line of health crises that children in Lenora’s family had faced. She said those experiences propelled her to want to learn more about the causes of childhood cancer, and other illnesses that affect kids, and how others can better help and advocate for them.
“If we can find out what the problem is and why the problem exists, maybe a cure could be right around the corner,” she said.
Lenora’s dissertation focused on the post-environmental impact Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav had on childhood cancer rates in Louisiana. She received her doctorate degree in January 2018 during a graduation ceremony in Florida with all her family, including Craig, cheering her on.
Today, Lenora works for Louisiana’s Bureau of Family Health as a manager for the family resource center assisting families of children with special healthcare needs throughout the state. She said all the tough times she faced, including Craig’s leukemia, gave her a new purpose and she is now using those experiences to help others.
“It was like I was groomed for this,” she said. “Through all my pain, all my tears, this is my reward.”