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'I COULD HAVE BEEN SOMEBODY'

In 1992, Issac Johnson had his future in his hands - and let it slip away.

There are days when Issac Johnson is sick and tired of being Issac Johnson.

On those days, he will sit back, chill out and light up some ''herb."

That's his word for marijuana.

It's "my escape," Johnson said. "When I sit down and smoke a joint, I escape from my past.

"My past is a monster to me."

Some might say that Issac Johnson is the monster, that it is the past that cannot escape him.

- - -

In 1992, the Pasco High School Pirates did something no county football team has done before or since: win a state championship.

It was east Pasco's bright, shining moment - forever dimmed by the memory of the star quarterback in handcuffs, arrested on the eve of the title game.

The community rallied around Johnson, then 18. He was freed from jail and rushed to join his teammates for the big game.

It was the second chance of a lifetime. Since then, his has become a life of second chances - all of them wasted.

Everyone who knows Johnson's story knows that.

But could it be that, 16 years later, Issac Lutrail Johnson finally knows it, too?

"I could have been somebody," he said, "and now I have to live with that."

- - -

His dark eyes sag. It is the weight of time or maybe disappointment.

Last Thursday, Johnson sat quietly in the courtroom pews, patiently waiting his turn. He was there to answer to a 2007 charge of possession of marijuana.

Now 34, he is no stranger to the courtroom.

Johnson had an arrest record before he became Pasco High's starting quarterback. Then there was the 1991 robbery and beating of a pizza delivery driver. That violated his probation from his earlier arrests. Another arrest warrant was signed.

Somehow, authorities didn't connect that Issac Johnson to the Issac Johnson about to lead the Pirates into the state championship game against the Tigers of Tampa's Jesuit High School.

Then the Tampa Tribune called.

Johnson was arrested the night before the big game - and released the following morning. Johnson directed the Pirates' first scoring drive and threw a 72-yard touchdown pass on the last.

Pasco won 28-16.

It was the only time Johnson took a second chance and ran with it.

- - -

In 1993, Florida A&M University offered Johnson a scholarship. All he had to do was stay in school, stay out of trouble. But he still faced sentencing for the 1991 robbery.

Ten character witnesses took the stand on his behalf. They talked about the death of his stepfather and his mother.

Johnson's shot at a college helped convince Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper to spare him from prison.

She suspended his sentence and put him on strict probation. But within five months, Johnson had blown it again. He skipped classes and tested positive for marijuana. That violated his probation, and he was sent to prison.

Then-FAMU President Frederick Humphries said the school would help Johnson when he got out.

"When I got out (two years later) they said 'We don't know him,'" Johnson said after his court appearance on Thursday.

Later that day, Tepper learned of Johnson's latest visit to the Pasco County Courthouse and asked:

"Does he still blame everyone else for his problems?"

- - -

Johnson has been in and out of jail, for failing to appear in court and failing to pay child support.

The system, he said, is designed "to keep a good man down and a bad man bad."

He is not a pot dealer, Johnson said. But he is a user.

"I don't drink alcohol," he said. "I don't take pills. I don't shoot heroin.

"That's my escape. I don't grow it. I just smoke it."

He has five children, three that live with him and his wife, Victoria, on 2 acres in Zephyrhills.

It's not an easy life, he said. This latest charge will cost him his driver's license for a while. He was starting a fence-building business to support his family, but he cannot balance a compressor on the back of his bike.

He finally grasps what he threw away all those years ago.

"I didn't go to college," Johnson said. "I'm a felon."

- - -

For that, Tepper said, Johnson can blame only himself.

"He was offered a chance to go to FAMU," the judge said, "and he threw it away because of his refusal to stay in school and stay off the drugs."

But Tepper added: "It's never too late to change."

And here, maybe, is what has finally changed about Johnson after two decades.

He agreed.

"I know what I did wrong," he said last week.

He pleaded no contest to the possession charge on Thursday. It carried a five-year prison sentence. But as usual, Johnson got a break.

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa sentenced him to two years of probation.

He asked Johnson if he needed 30 days before his first drug test, to clear his urine of marijuana.

"Oh yeah," Johnson said. "I need 30 days."

"It doesn't bode well," the judge said.

"At least I'm honest," Johnson said.

If he messes up again, Siracusa vowed, Johnson will go back to prison.

Outside the courtroom, familiar faces offered handshakes, encouragement and advice.

They told him to stay clean.

They told him to do it for Josh.

- - -

Josh is his oldest son. He is a 17-year-old who is every bit the football star at Pasco High that his father was - and a few things his father never was, like a good student.

Ask Issac Johnson what he has learned after all these years, and it is this: If he squanders this chance, his children, those he loves most, will pay the price.

"It's like a domino effect," he said. "I've been setting up all these dominoes, and if I do something to make them fall, when my children are in the middle of the dominoes, they're going to get knocked down, too."

Johnson said he knows he must give up marijuana.

"I'm trying," he said, "to grow up."

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