The Carolina Panthers needed somebody to fill the void legendary defensive end Julius Peppers left following the 2009 NFL season.
Enter Charles Johnson.
Johnson stepped up and became one of the best pass rushers in Panthers franchise history. In fact, his 67.5 career sacks rank second behind Peppers’ 97.0.
Johnson’s impressive play on Carolina’s defensive line earned him a big contract and eventually the nickname “Big Money.”
He was also instrumental in the Panthers’ Super Bowl run during the 2015 NFL season.
Although Charles Johnson never earned a Pro Bowl berth, this eleven-year NFL veteran’s loyalty to the Panthers’ organization spoke massive volumes about his character on and off the field.
Charles Johnson was born to parents Johnny and Jacqueline in Hawkinsville, GA on July 10, 1986.
Johnny Johnson worked in a small auto shop that was near his residence.
He had thirteen other children. He frequently visited Charles’ two sisters who lived across the street but not him.
Charles often saw his father’s truck pulled up in front of his sisters’ house. It was a frequent occurrence he saw from his grandmother’s residence.
Although Johnny Johnson sometimes greeted his son when he made his way to the basketball court at the local park, he was an absentee father for the most part.
“He didn’t really acknowledge that fact that I was his son,” Charles Johnson told the Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue (via WBTV.com) in the summer of 2017.
Despite his father’s indifference, he never held a serious grudge against him over the years.
Better yet, Charles Johnson became the father his own dad never was when he turned twenty-five years old.
Johnson started playing basketball and football when he was twelve or thirteen years old.
He told The Charlotte Observer that a local coach had to pick him up from his house so he could sign up for those two sports.
It turned out his mother Jacqueline couldn’t afford registration back then.
Fortunately for Johnson, many people in the Hawkinsville, GA area assisted him with camp fees, shoes, and other necessities so he could play.
Johnson attended Hawkinsville High School in his hometown.
He played football for the Hawkinsville Red Devils.
Johnson whittled down his college choices to the Auburn Tigers, Georgia Tech Yellowjackets, Georgia Bulldogs, and Florida Gators.
Johnson told UGASports.com’s Patrick Garbin in the spring of 2016 that he had originally committed to Georgia. However, he was thinking of switching over to the Florida Gators.
He eventually stuck to his original commitment to the Bulldogs because his inner circle was mostly Georgia fans: many people in the Hawkinsville, GA area bled Bulldogs Red and Black.
Many of Johnson’s teachers at Hawkinsville High School were also Georgia fans.
Although Charles Johnson eventually played just two years for the Bulldogs, he made his tenure in Athens, GA a memorable one.
College Days With The Georgia Bulldogs
Charles Johnson attended the University of Georgia.
He suited up for head football coach Mark Richt’s Georgia Bulldogs from 2005 to 2006.
Johnson played behind Bulldogs star defensive lineman Will Thompson during his two-year tenure.
Johnson had a decent sophomore campaign with 15 solo tackles, 4.0 sacks, and a defensive touchdown in 2005.
The Bulldogs won ten of thirteen games that year.
It was the fourth consecutive season that Georgia won at least ten games.
Unfortunately, the eighth-ranked Bulldogs lost to the eleventh-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, 38-35.
Johnson took his game to unprecedented heights the following season.
He had 36 solo tackles, 9.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, and three forced fumbles as a junior in 2006.
Johnson promptly earned Second-Team All-SEC honors at the end of his junior campaign.
— GENO (@GenoPowell) July 10, 2017
He credited his success to a new mindset.
Johnson admitted to Garbin a decade later that he was frequently late for his classes and wasn’t consistent with his study hall habits during his sophomore year in 2005.
Bulldogs head football coach Mark Richt eventually got wind of Johnson’s shenanigans.
Richt made Johnson do daily morning runs at 5:30 to teach him a harsh lesson.
“The running instilled work ethic into me,” Johnson told UGASports.com in 2016. “That – an attitude where I felt like I was starting to become a man, and that I could do just about anything – continued into my final season.”
It was a mindset that served Johnson well during his college football career and beyond.
With a rejuvenated Charles Johnson in tow, the Georgia Bulldogs went 9-4 in 2006.
They upset the 14th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies in the then-Chick-Fil-A Bowl (now known as the Peach Bowl), 31-24.
Charles Johnson decided to forego his senior season with the Bulldogs and declare for the 2007 NFL Draft.
He told Garbin the main reason he skipped his senior year was because he didn’t consider himself “a school guy” back then.
When the opportunity to pursue professional football arose, Johnson grabbed it.
Johnson finished his college football career with 51 solo tackles, 27.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, one fumble recovery, one defensive touchdown, and four forced fumbles.
He fondly recalled a conversation he had with then-Georgia Bulldogs athletics administrator Carla Williams (she’s currently the University of Virginia athletics director).
Williams asked Johnson what he’d do if he didn’t make it to the NFL.
Johnson told her he’d become a janitor in his hometown of Hawkinsville, GA, per Panthers.com’s Max Henson.
Fortunately for Carolina Panthers fans, that scenario never panned out.
Charles Johnson continued playing at a high level in the professional football ranks. He would eventually become one of the best defensive linemen in Panthers franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Carolina Panthers made Charles Johnson the 83rd overall selection of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Johnson revealed via an Instagram post in April 2020 that he threw a draft day party at his alma mater, Hawkinsville High School.
With family and media members surrounding Johnson, a man approached him when the second round of the draft kicked off.
It turned out the man was his father whom Johnson hadn’t seen in a long time.
Johnson promptly left the draft party and watched the remainder of the festivities at home.
He turned his phone off as the second round ended because he figured he wouldn’t get drafted from that point onward.
Johnson planned on going to the club and partying the night away.
However, just as he walked out his front door, his best friend Fernando Velasco (who eventually became the Arkansas Razorbacks director of player development) stopped him dead in his tracks.
Velasco somehow convinced Johnson to watch the next pick – the 83rd overall – before they headed out.
Lo and behold, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the Carolina Panthers had selected Johnson.
Charles Johnson was all of twenty years old when he first donned Carolina Panthers Black, Blue, and Silver in 2007.
Charles Johnson to Julius Peppers:
"You motivated me to get on my grind. I tried to mold my game after you. Just tossing 6-8, 350-pound linemen around." pic.twitter.com/9LmaPCdfce
— SidelineMike (@SidelineMike_) August 23, 2018
It turned out Johnson played the Carolina Panthers on the EA Sports video game “Madden” before he played his first down in the NFL, per Panthers.com’s Bryan Strickland.
Even back then, Johnson was already in awe of legendary Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.
He couldn’t believe they became teammates when he entered the National Football League in 2007.
Johnson remembered a time when Peppers showed him his game check amounting to roughly $1 million in the Carolina locker room several years later, per Max Henson of the Panthers’ official website.
That lit a fire in Johnson similar to how Georgia Bulldogs head football coach Mark Richt made him do those early 5:30 a.m. runs during his college days in Athens, GA.
Next thing you know, Charles Johnson became a premier defensive end for the Carolina Panthers. However, it wasn’t an overnight process.
Johnson also confessed to UGASports.com in 2016 that he had no money sense whatsoever when he broke into the professional football ranks nine years earlier.
Johnson simply went through the motions and splurged during his first four years in the National Football League.
That all changed several years later.
Johnson hardly took the field as a rookie in the 2007 NFL season. He saw action in just three games while playing behind Peppers and Mike Rucker at defensive end.
The Panthers had a sub-par 7-9 win-loss record and missed the postseason for the second straight year.
When Rucker retired following the 2007 NFL campaign, Johnson made a good account of himself with 6.0 sacks, seven passes defensed, and a forced fumble in sixteen games.
With Johnson’s emergence, Carolina improved dramatically – the Panthers won twelve games in 2008.
Regrettably, they lost to Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Divisional Round, 33-13.
Carolina took a major step backward after the 2008 NFL campaign. The Panthers averaged six wins and never tasted postseason football for the next four years.
Meanwhile, Charles Johnson continued his ascent in the National Football League.
When longtime Panthers starter Julius Peppers left for the Chicago Bears following the 2009 NFL season, it opened the door for Johnson to shine.
Johnson moved into Carolina’s starting lineup and racked up 11.5 sacks that season.
He amassed 52.5 sacks over a five-year period following his first year as a defensive starter for the Panthers.
Johnson signed his lucrative six-year, $72 million deal (with $32 million in guaranteed money) prior to the 2011 NFL season and earned the nickname “Big Money.”
He had also had a valuable eureka moment.
Johnson became more aware of other NFL players going broke and bankrupt. He realized he never wanted to end up like them.
Before long, Johnson met his current business partner Reggie Barner. They soon launched the JAN-PRO commercial cleaning company.
Johnson also hired a Minnesota-based financial planner who helped diversify his portfolio.
Several years later, he felt thankful for those two individuals who helped him straighten out his once-shaky financial life.
Once Johnson’s finances were in order, he and his then-girlfriend Ebony welcomed their son Charles, Jr. in 2012.
Charles Johnson was twenty-five years old when he became a father.
However, things were still far from perfect back then.
“There were times when I should have been a dad, but instead I was a young, dumb guy with money,” Johnson admitted to Rodrigue five years later.
The Panthers were a juggernaut that plowed through the opposition in the 2015 NFL season.
Carolina won a franchise-record fifteen games that year and made it to Super Bowl 50.
Unfortunately, Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos prevailed, 24-10.
For his part, Charles Johnson downplayed the hype surrounding his first and only Super Bowl experience. However, he tried to make the most of the opportunity.
“I tried to max those moments out because I knew those moments might never come back,” he told UGASports.com several months later. “Also, there are a lot of perks – you get a lot of free stuff (laughing). Other than that, it’s just a game.”
To the dismay of many die-hard Panthers fans, the organization released Johnson after the 2015 NFL season.
It was a move that shocked Carolina’s fanbase.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a move on Johnson and offered him more money than other suitors.
However, he couldn’t bring himself to play for a different organization.
“Tampa offered me the most money, but it was just awkward,” Johnson told Strickland in the summer of 2018. “Once you show me love, I’m always going to show you love. If you show me loyalty, I’m going to show you loyalty.”
Johnson’s departure from the Panthers lasted less than a week. The two sides eventually reconciled and worked on a deal that allowed Johnson to finish his NFL career in Carolina.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 7, 2017
Johnson received bad news when he returned to the Panthers after that brief fallout.
Prior to a game against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2016 NFL season, he received a phone call informing him his grandmother had passed away.
Johnson broke down crying in the Panthers locker room. His teammates Fernando Velasco and Ryan Kalil consoled him, per the team’s official website.
Johnson had 14 solo tackles, 4.0 sacks, two passes defensed, and three forced fumbles in his final two seasons with the Panthers from 2016 to 2017.
Carolina averaged nine wins per season during that stretch and never made it past the NFC Wild Card Game under head coach Ron Rivera.
Charles Johnson underwent back surgery in the spring of 2017.
“I didn’t really feel it until February, when I just got out of bed, literally, and I could not walk for two weeks,” Johnson told Panthers.com’s Bryan Strickland.
Johnson, a few months shy of his thirty-first birthday, knew the time to hang up his cleats was drawing near.
The NFL suspended him four games for violating its policy on performance-enhancing substances in December 2017.
In a statement a remorseful Johnson issued on Panthers.com, he called it “an error in judgment” and took full responsibility for his actions.
Charles Johnson announced his retirement from the National Football League on August 22, 2018.
Johnson’s 67.5 career sacks rank him second in Panthers franchise history behind Julius Peppers’ 97.0.
He also had 228 solo tackles, 25 passes defensed, 17 forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries in his eleven-year pro football career.
Charles Johnson had three favorite games during his eleven-year NFL career, per Henson.
He remembered registering 3.5 sacks against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4 of the 2012 NFL season. None of the Falcons’ offensive linemen could block him.
Unfortunately, Atlanta prevailed 30-28 in the waning seconds on a 59-yard field goal.
That heartbreaking loss still gnaws at Charles Johnson to this day.
He told Henson watching live Falcons games was the only chance his family and friends who didn’t have cable could see him play.
As a result, Johnson wanted to beat Atlanta more than any other team in the NFL.
Johnson’s 2.0 sacks helped the Panthers defeat the Arizona Cardinals 27-16 in the 2014 NFC Wild Card Game.
The typically reserved Johnson stood on a table in the Carolina locker room to celebrate the Panthers’ first postseason victory in nine years.
Johnson also savored another victory against the Cardinals a year later.
Carolina beat Arizona in the 2015 NFC Championship Game in lopsided fashion, 49-15. Consequently, the Panthers advanced to their second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Charles Johnson and his wife Ebony have a 10-year-old son – his namesake Charles, Jr. (nicknamed “C.J.” or “Prince”).
Among his son’s favorites are baseball, hockey, the sea, Lego toys, and blue Gatorade.
According to Rodrigue, the younger Johnson participates in just about every Charlotte-area youth sports league: basketball, golf, swimming, baseball, and soccer.
The Johnson family loves to travel. They are particularly fond of sunny beach destinations.
Charles Johnson’s other businesses include his restaurant CJ’s 4th Ward Fire House, Once Upon A Child franchises, and a fashion apparel line LuxuryEgo.
Johnson spent approximately $3.3 million for his CJ’s 4th Ward Fire House, per AXIOS Charlotte’s Andrew Dunn.
In contrast, permits for nearby establishments cost roughly $750,000.
Johnson launched the Charles Johnson Foundation in 2012. Its mission is to help support underprivileged youth and single African-American mothers.
The Charles Johnson Foundation awards several college scholarships to deserving students in Hawkinsville, GA and Charlotte, NC every year.
“I guess I’ve accomplished a lot of great things, but what I’m probably the proudest of is putting kids through college,” Johnson told UGASports.com in 2016.
The foundation also organizes a free annual football camp in his hometown of Hawkinsville, GA.
Johnson’s alma mater, Hawkinsville High School, won the Georgia state football title in 2014.
He treated the members and coaching staff of the Hawkinsville Red Devils to 60 tickets and a charter bus to an NFL game pitting his visiting Carolina Panthers against the Atlanta Falcons in December 2014.
Johnson typically watches the Georgia Bulldogs’ opening game in the fall every year, per Garbin.
He’s also a regular fixture at Charlotte Hornets home games.
Charles Johnson is an avid golfer. According to ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter David Newton, he took his first golf lessons at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, NC.
Johnson has played at well-known golf courses such as East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, GA, Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, GA and the Firestone Country Club in Akron, OH.
Johnson told Newton in the spring of 2016 that he planned to visit more popular golf courses in the future.