Within minutes, Tyson Pratcher was racing toward the Johnson’s apartment in Harlem after hearing the news there was a fire.
Standing outside was 11-year-old Rahmir Johnson, who six years later would be a Nebraska commit in its 2019 class, in just his boxers with a handful of football trophies in his hand.
“When we go over, he’s basically naked,” Pratcher told Land of 10. “All he has is his football trophies and he’s complaining about the fact that he couldn’t get his Bergen Catholic t-shirt from camp.”
That’s pretty much how Johnson remembers the fire, as well.
“It kind of happened fast, I want to say,” Johnson told Land of 10. “It was my only reaction.”
Barefoot in the street, Johnson’s goal was to retrieve as many Bergen Catholic t-shirts from the house as he could. He stood pleading with firefighters to let him re-enter the building’s premises when Pratcher arrived.
The blaze was actually more of an inferno, Pratcher said. Hardly beyond elementary school, Johnson had the wherewithal in the aftermath of a post-football-practice shower to evacuate his younger siblings and his mother, only taking what he could. Evidently, that was what was most important to him: football and Bergen Catholic.
To calm him down, Pratcher assured Johnson that Bergen Catholic head coach Nunzio Campanile could get him another shirt soon.
“He’s been pretty bought into the place,” Pratcher said.
Six years later, the 4-star running back will use the upcoming summer to prepare for a senior season at Bergen Catholic, a regional powerhouse in northern New Jersey. For Johnson, the fire story symbolizes how much Bergen Catholic means to him.
“I was young at the time,” he remembers.
He couldn’t put into words how much it meant to him at the time. Johnson has hard time doing so now.
Johnson’s connection to Bergen Catholic began when Pratcher and the Harlem Jets, the youth football organization that Johnson joined and Pratcher volunteered in, formed a relationship with Campanile through his Harlem contacts.
The Jets are a solid program that sends its teams to Disney World every year for national youth championships. Once kids in the program reach high school, they want to continue playing against elite national competition, Pratcher said. Johnson has been playing for national championships since he was 10.
“Guys wanted some place where they could do that, but also have a pretty rigorously academic place,” Pratcher said. “But, really, more important, a place that approaches it the same way we do — no superstar culture, everyone just kind of earns their keep. We think that’s how you are ultimately successful for life.”
Johnson started attending Bergen’s football camp every summer at 10 or 11. The 5-foot-10 Johnson fell in love with the culture.
“Especially back then, that’s what I told people. I was like ‘Yeah, that’s where I’m going to school,'” he said. “Even though I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t going there yet. I was like ‘Yeah I’m going there, regardless of what happens.’ It shows how much I really care for the school. Being at Bergen Catholic now, it’s a great place to be at. I’m glad I’m at Bergen Catholic. I’ve made a lot of friends with everybody since I’ve moved.”
Speaking of that move. Johnson dealt with a move from Harlem to Brooklyn and will be dealing with a two-and-a-half-hour commute. Pratcher had temporarily relocated in northern Jersey close to the school. Pratcher and his family remained and intend on doing so until Johnson graduated from Bergen Catholic in a year, housing him during the week.
“That meant a lot. It’s hard to travel from Brooklyn to Bergen Catholic.” Johnson said. “I do it in the summer. It is a very tough travel, because sometimes trains won’t be working and stuff. It’s a lot. It means a lot. I really appreciate that.”
Pratcher said he was willing to do that for a kid of Johnson’s caliber.
“One of the things that I think ultimately makes him pretty special is that he’s willing to do the things for his own personal success that maybe other kids aren’t,” the mentor said. “It would have been much easier for him to just play here in New York.”
Turning down in-state Rutgers, where Campanile was named the running backs coach in February, ruffled some feathers in Johnson’s camp. But remaining at Bergen Catholic, a placed he yearned for, and living basically full-time with the Pratchers was even more difficult than picking a college.
“There were a lot of people who were somewhat critical of it. But he had a real view of who he wanted to be and what he saw himself being academically and as a football. And he was like ‘I want to play against the best. And I want to go to a great school — the best one I can.’ I think it’s really similar in his decision to go to Nebraska. It’s a long way from Harlem. A lot of people say, ‘What’s a guy from Harlem going to do in Nebraska?’”
The decision-making process was an example of maturity, Pratcher said. That kind of processing was evident years earlier when he set his sights on Bergen Catholic.
“[He] just want to be in the place that I think is going to be the best fit for [him]. That [he’s] going to be comfortable at. That [he thinks] can get a degree. [He thinks] that’s Nebraska.
“He’s just a guy willing to go against the waters a little bit and do what he thinks is best without giving into any peer pressure.”
Right into the fire, again.