From Trina to Taron: Buffalo Bills' rookie Johnson plays football in his mother's memory

ORCHARD PARK, NY (WKBW) - Taron Johnson recalls the day everything changed for him and his immediate family.

Life, up to that vivid memory, had an air of normalcy for the eventual draft pick and cornerback of the Buffalo Bills. Growing up in Sacramento, California, Johnson was a wide-eyed nine-year-old without any inkling of the loss he was about to endure.

Johnson and his sister Treana were taken to stay at their grandmother's house on their father's side. Still unaware, he didn't realize something was amiss until his grandmother on his mother's side, in town from Seattle, showed up.

"I'm like, 'Dang, why are you here? I haven't seen you in a long time,'" Johnson recalled from his childhood.

"I didn't know she was sick like that," he said. "I didn't understand it until I got older -- until she passed, actually."

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Johnson started showing signs of having not only the talent but the inner motivation to become a professional athlete early on.

His father, Baron, fondly recalled the moment he knew there was something special about his son. The Johnsons -- Baron, his wife Trina, daughter Treana, and young Taron -- went to a picnic together.

"I remember Taron at three years old," Baron Johnson called to mind. "All the little kids were out there racing and running around."

At the time, his daughter, older than Taron, was a track athlete and was faster than everyone else at the picnic. But that didn't stop the three-year-old Taron from trying to make his mark against all the older kids at the event.

"At that time, they were faster than him. But at three years old he was out there racing these kids and was determined to beat everybody he could," Baron Johnson said. "And you could just see the drive; you could just see the talent that he had even at three years old."

His mother, Trina, came from a family of athletes known as the Broadways, and the Broadways had a reputation for it around Sacramento. Her father was heavily involved in football, her three brothers played football, her and her twin sister, Tina, were well-known track athletes, and Trina even was a cheerleader, too.

Her background as a cheerleader is what initially paved the way to football for her son Taron. She eventually became a coach of the same cheerleading squad she was a member of in her youth, and it was then that she urged her son to try something new.

"When I turned six, she wanted me to play football. My dad thought I was too small and too young -- which I was," Johnson laughingly said.

"My wife," Baron Johnson said before having to stop himself to laugh. "When he says she was the driving force for football, she was the driving force for football at that age."

So, how did he do?

"I did terrible," Taron said before he stopped himself to laugh, just as his father did.  "I was smaller than everybody. I was just getting mangled. I wasn't very good."

And while Baron Johnson admitted it was a bit scary seeing his young son go up against kids that were two-to-three years older than his son, he seems to remember it a bit differently than Taron.

"Even at that age, I was going into it thinking how did he do that? How did he know to do that? His instincts at age six, they were there," Baron Johnson said. "Although he was the smallest one of that football field... he did stuff on the football field that threw me for a loop."

They wouldn't have known if it weren't for Trina.

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Up until the fateful day in 2004 that changed everything for the Johnson family, Taron didn't have a single indication that something might be wrong.

His mother, Trina, was diagnosed with breast cancer. But it was right then and there that she and her husband decided that the diagnosis wouldn't define her or her family.

Baron and Trina went on as they always had, just with visits to the doctor for treatments sprinkled in between business as usual.

Trina spent hours on end listening to her kids, letting both Taron and Treana excitedly share their everyday thoughts.

"That's what she did. That was her mission. She spent time with her kids," Baron remembered. "I could say that happened because she was ill, but that's not the case. That's who she was."

All while fighting a life-altering disease, Trina continued to do everything around the house, she took care of the kids, she continued to coach the cheerleading squad that had Taron's sister Treana as a part of the team, and she didn't dare make her cancer into an excuse.

There were times where Trina received chemotherapy treatment on a Friday and was right back on the field Saturday giving her full energy and attention to her young cheerleaders.

"I didn't know. I thought she was... just mom. Just regular," Taron said. "I didn't know she was sick like that."

"If we were sad, we'd be sad in the room together versus with Taron and Treana," Baron Johnson said. "I'll just say this: it was such a tough time in our lives, but we were able to at least have the kids still have a great deal of normalcy without the cancer taking effect. Trina was a fighter."

And Trina fought, tooth and nail, until June 26, 2004. She was just 38 years old.

Just as she and her husband had wanted, their kids didn't have to go through the final days of her life fearing the one that was eventually coming. She gave them her all without a complaint.

When Taron saw his father and grandmother, and his mother wasn't by their side, that's when he knew.

"It was definitely a shock. It didn't seem real at the time," he said. "We had a lot of family at the house like every day after she had passed. It was just very weird, I'd say for a long time just off the fact that she wasn't there anymore and it seemed so fake. It seemed like a dream."

The family became even closer. His "auntie" Tina made sure she became a central figure in both Taron and Treana's lives. 

And just as they did when Trina was alive and fighting breast cancer, the Johnsons did just as she would have wanted. 

They found their strength in togetherness.

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Time went on for the Johnsons, and Taron began getting more and more involved in football. The inner drive and motivation that he showed as a three-year-old racing against all of those kids at the picnic turned into a competitive fire -- and that same talent he displayed when he was six.

He continued to get better and showed he was deserving enough to keep his football career going into college. Little did he know, that just added more motivation.

He went under-recruited out of Sheldon High school. The local college, Sacramento State, pulled their scholarship offer for an unknown reason. It wasn't until a college in Utah, Weber State -- pronounced "WEE-ber," and don't you dare say it differently in front of an alum -- came calling that he knew he'd be able to continue playing.

All he knew about Weber State was that NBA star Damian Lillard went there. That's all he needed to know.

"When I got to Weber State, I told myself I wanted to be the Damian Lillard of football," Johnson said.

They recruited him as a wide receiver. He ended up starting five games as a cornerback. After that, he was off to the races with his eventual landing spot being in Buffalo.

As Johnson now embarks upon life in the National Football League, his mother remains a central part of his life even if he doesn't realize it.

"I couldn't even tell you," Johnson said when asked for even one vivid memory he had of his mother.

"The sense of her not being around and him not remembering some of the stuff with her because he was so young... it came out in him, and he didn't even know her," Baron Johnson said. "His personality, his talkativeness, the way he laughs... some of those are physical traits, and those are just passed on, but some of them aren't. Those things, still, came out in him as he grew up."

In all his travels, from Sacramento to Utah, and now to Buffalo,  a piece of her stays with him. A pendant, with his mother's picture inside of it, goes with him everywhere -- and even against the odds.

"I've had it since she passed. I lose things all the time, but for some reason, I've never lost that," Taron Johnson said. "I do think there's a reason why I haven't lost it."

On August 9th, Taron will take part in his first NFL game when the Bills host the Carolina Panthers -- to which the family that banded together in the wake of his mother's passing will be at New Era Field watching him live out his dream.

And when he puts on the helmet and jersey on game day for the first time, his mother will flood back to mind -- dating all the way back to when he was six years old.

"She's inspirational for sure. She introduced me to the game, and I'm thankful for it," Johnson said. "I feel like I play for her."

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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