HUDSON — After having his neck and back injured in a training accident in the Marines Corps, Eric Johnson spent two years learning to walk again in rehab. After two years, the permanently disabled vet was discharged with a new career path in mind — teaching.
Since receiving his masters degree from the University of South Florida in 2003, Johnson has reached out to thousands ofyoung people, many with a similar low-income upbringing as himself, to show them that college is an option for everyone if they work hard enough.
Last Thursday night during a home game, the Tampa Bay Lightning awarded Johnson the Lightning Community Hero Award for his exceptional and exhaustive work with local students. The award comes with $50,000 Johnson will distribute to local charities he has selected to help families and students during the holiday season and coming year.
“It’s always nice to know that both my students and myself are being recognized for our hard work,” Johnson said. “They were so excited when they found out we won.”
The award is //”more of a reflection of how amazing my students are than it is of myself,” he said.
The Fivay High School social studies teacher’s journey to the classroom was not the traditional route. The former Special Operations U.S. Marine injured his back while stationed in Japan after stumbling off a cliff during a routine training exercise. He’s one of eight kids and the first in his family to graduate from high school.
Because of his experiences growing up poor in rural Hillsborough County, Johnson has a special place in his heart for students with similar backgrounds. He’s well-known for getting low-income students into colleges or helping them jump-start their careers.
“I have seen kids cry as they see for the first time that college is a possibility,” Johnson said.
Florida History Teacher of the Year 2013 and Nobel Distinguished Educator are among many awards bestowed upon Johnson. He teaches U.S. history, dual-enrollment U.S. history and Advanced Placement human geography. Johnson has taken students on educational trips to a variety of places over the years, including Washington, D.C., Gettysburg, Pa.
Johnson, who has been teaching at Fivay since the school opened four years ago, was nominated for the Community Hero Award by a student’s parents. In the beginning of November, he was notified as a finalist and right before Thanksgiving, found out he won.
The $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, will be donated to Trinity College of Florida, where Johnson got his bachelors degree, Habitat for Humanity of East and Central Pasco County, Pasco Education Foundation, Sertoma Speech and Hearing Foundation of Florida and the Center of Independence.
The Pasco Education Foundation will use some of the money to establish a four-year scholarship for a Fivay student, Johnson said.
“It could be a kid I know and to see that would be very rewarding,” Johnson said.
The Lightning Community Heroes program was launched in 2011 by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, to distribute $10 million dollars to deserving heroes throughout the Tampa Bay community over five years. .
Johnson’s plans for the future include teaching, but he also hopes to purse a doctorate in U.S. history. The only set-back is finding the funding to do it on a teacher’s salary. His current research, which could turn into a dissertation for his doctorate some day, includes researching black soldiers in the confederate army. For now, he lives for the moments successful students reach out to him with gratitude.
“This broken down old soldier is blessed to get a chance to help kids change their lives,” Johnson said.
For more the Tampa Bay Lightning or to nominate a Community Hero, visit http://lightning.nhl.com/index.html.
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