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North Carolina A&T Aggies

For former Aggies Mac McCain and Darryl Johnson, life in the NFL is a dream come true

Former North Carolina A&T teammates’ families and friends celebrated at Carolina Panthers-Philadelphia Eagles game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just as North Carolina A&T claims its homecoming as the Greatest Homecoming on Earth, perhaps the McCain and Johnson families and the Aggies community could claim Oct. 10 as their own greatest homecoming in Charlotte.

More than a sprinkling of Aggies were present Sunday to see the Carolina Panthers fall 21-18 to the visiting Philadelphia Eagles.

It was the first professional appearance in Charlotte for Eagles defensive back and special teams player Franklin “Mac” McCain III, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native who is the grandson of N.C. A&T alum Franklin McCain, one of the original Greensboro Four who took part in the sit-in at Woolworth in 1960. He grew up in Charlotte.

The matchup also gave the younger McCain a chance to face off against former Aggie teammate Darryl “DJ” Johnson Jr., whom the Panthers acquired during training camp in a trade with the Buffalo Bills.

The McCains brought close to 100 friends and family members, according to his father, Franklin McCain Jr.

Johnson’s parents, Savannah, Georgia, residents Johnson Sr. and Marsha, who have attended every home game this season, were among a group of 10, including three of Johnson’s sisters and one of his brothers.

Both McCain and Johnson were inactive for Sunday’s game, but that did not take from the moment for their families and the N.C. A&T community.

Counting their blessings

“I say, all God, everything God,” said Vicki McCain, McCain’s mom. “Mac has truly been blessed in this process. Even when Mac doesn’t get to dress out, he doesn’t complain.

“That’s the thing about my son — I’m learning from him. He might just say, ‘I’m not dressing out,’ or ‘I’m not going to play this time.’ That’s all he says. He’s just going with the flow.

“And I say to Mac, ‘What is God saving you from, and what is God preserving you for?’ ”

McCain, 6 feet, 175 pounds, was signed at the end of the 2021 NFL draft day by the Denver Broncos. He was released on cut day but later signed to the practice squad. He was then claimed off the Broncos practice squad by the Eagles. He played special teams in the Eagles’ 41-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

“God took an undrafted player to a practice squad across the country and then brought him back home,” Vicki McCain said. “You count that to God.”

Johnson’s mom echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a blessing just seeing my son doing these great things,” Marsha Johnson said, “graduating from college and being a great young man. Outside of the NFL, my son is a great man, and I love the growth.”

Both players earned their degrees before leaving N.C. A&T. McCain holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural business, and Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in sports science.

An Aggie in the end zone

Despite the two inactive players, one Aggie did reach the Panthers’ south end zone on Sunday to a rousing ovation and national television audience. Victor Solomon, who was a finalist on NBC’s The Voice singing competition and a current N.C. A&T senior from Peoria, Illinois, stirred the crowd with a soulful rendition of the national anthem.

Solomon’s footprints might have left some magical pixie dust in that end zone, as the Panthers scored their first 10 points on that end of the field — a 48-yard Zane Gonzalez field goal and a 5-yard Sam Darnold-to-Tommy Tremble touchdown pass for an early 10-3 lead that led to a 15-6 cushion at intermission.

The host Panthers lost in the end, which improved McCain’s record to 2-0 in football appearances in Charlotte.

McCain’s best college football memories also originated in 2017 in the Queen City. He intercepted two passes and returned both for touchdowns, including the game-winning 74-yard pick-six in the Aggies’ 35-31 upset of the Charlotte 49ers.

That ignited a career that saw McCain become a perennial All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference performer and a two-time FCS All-American.

A chance for some Bojangles

Charlotte is also home to Bojangles (and no, he did not get a Bo-Berry biscuit, as Aggie freshman JR Smith did recently). The McCain family, who visited with McCain Sunday when he came to the stands after the game, provided him with Bojangles Chicken Supremes, fries and honey mustard sauce.

McCain said it “feels great” to play in Charlotte, “especially since I grew up a Panthers fan and watched them go to a couple of Super Bowls. Now … playing against them is a dream come true.” He says the biggest difference between the NFL and college football is “the playbook is 10 times bigger; it takes more football IQ. … You’re playing against vets who’ve played a long time, so they know the ins and outs of the game.”

McCain’s original team, the Broncos, didn’t have the Panthers on their schedule, so the trade to Philadelphia created the opportunity for reunions such as the one on Sunday.

“It gives me a chance for my family to come see me,” McCain said, “and I’m excited to see them because I hadn’t gotten to see them for a while, because I’ve been so busy with practice, training camp and stuff like that.”

His family attended one preseason game in Denver, but the weekend ride on Sunday from Greensboro was just a 90-minute drive.

“Any team is a blessing; I’m just glad to be in the NFL,” McCain said, “but it was good to know I’d be back on the East Coast, closer to home.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive lineman and the 2018 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, was a 2019 seventh-round selection of the Bills, with whom he played for two seasons. He is a native of Kingsland, Georgia, and his family now lives in Savannah, a drive of a little more than three hours.

Johnson said he knew a trade might be imminent when the Bills drafted first- and second-round defensive linemen.

From left to right: Darryl Johnson’s dad, Darryl Johnson Sr.; Verdell Johnson, his grandmother; Simon Johnson, his grandfather; and Marsha Johnson, his mother.

David Squires

When the moment came, he called his father, who was wearing a Bills hat.
“I told him, ‘You have to take that hat off,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘We going to Charlotte.’

“Ten minutes later, he was wearing a Panthers hat.”

Johnson has appeared in two games for the Panthers after playing in 31 games over two years with the Bills.

The two players, who each recalled talking about NFL futures while playing at N.C. A&T, met before and after Sunday’s game.

“We were telling each other that we were proud of each other,” Johnson said. “He said he might move to Charlotte in the offseason so we could train together.”

The McCain ‘village’

“Many parents tell their kids, ‘If you work hard, you can achieve anything,’ ” McCain Jr. said. “And to see your child truly do that is a blessing within itself.

“We’re just eternally grateful to the village that he has behind him to help him get to this place,” McCain Jr. added, “because we know that he did not get there solely on his merits or our support, but the support of his greater community.

“His village is big, you have to remember, both his mother and father and paternal grandfather are all Aggies.

“So that Aggie nation is strong — and then the village of Greensboro, who have been his educators and coaches and family friends. They have all supported him — my fraternity brothers [Omega Psi Phi], my wife’s sorority sisters [Delta Sigma Theta]. He’s just had a huge village.”

The elder McCain said the family “has been privileged” to know former NFL players such as Robert Porcher (South Carolina State) and former UNC Tar Heels William Fuller, Kelvin Bryant and Victor Harrison.

“All those guys have been very helpful to us in this process.”

Former Tar Heel Mark Oglesby has also been a longtime mentor to McCain.

“All these people have helped us to make the right decision, because, you think about it, many people had advised Mac to stay at N.C. A&T for another year,” McCain Jr. said.

But coming out in 2021 “ended up being the right decision for him.”

The 100-strong McCain contingent on Sunday was situated in various places in Bank of America Stadium, including some in a 300-level luxury suite.

They included McCain’s sister Taylor, who flew in from Miami, his uncles and aunts, and dozens of other friends and supporters.

The Johnson Family Reunion

Johnson had visitors in town all weekend, including his father, Johnson Sr., who came in Friday. He was later joined by mom, Marsha, and Johnson paternal grandparents, a brother, three sisters, and Edward Faulcon and Charlene Watson-Faulcon, an extended family who took Johnson under their wing during his playing days at N.C. A&T.

The family has followed Johnson religiously, going to about six of his Bills games, only to be slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which limited them to two games in 2020, one in Buffalo and one in Miami.

Of living the NFL dream, Johnson Sr. said: “It’s awesome; it’s really indescribable. You really can’t put it into words. You talk about it, but to actually see it, it just takes you away.”

The Johnson group who attended Sunday’s game sat in the north end zone, lower-level section 102.

They wore specially designed Panthers T-shirts: The front of the shirts had the Panthers emblem and the team’s slogan, “Keep Pounding.”

The back of the T-shirts read: “JOHNSON JR. 92” and included individual labels: MOM, AUNTIE, GRANNY, SISTER and WIFEY (his girlfriend).

David Squires

Johnson can always hear them from the sideline, whether he’s active for the game or not.

“They say, ‘We’re just coming to support you,’ ” Johnson said. “They were up there yelling my name. They were cheering as if I was on the field.”

After the game, the group gathered at Johnson place in Charlotte.

Keep doing what you’re doing

Each player knows what he needs to do to stay in the NFL.

“My dad pushed me and told me that I was not going to always be the most athletic, the biggest and fastest,” Johnson said. “I had to work harder. And that’s stuck with me every day. So, I take that in life and run with it.”

McCain believes the key to staying in the NFL is “durability and hard work.”

“You keep on doing what you did to get here,” he said. “You just keep putting in the work and don’t let up. It’s just staying relentless — every day.”

David R. Squires is a writer, editor and digital journalist who has worked for the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Petersburg Times. He's also a former editor-in-chief of BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine, a former Black Enterprise writer and editor and NUTribemagazine.com managing editor.