KENDRICK JOHNSON: Damnatio Memorae? Football Coach Remembers KJ on Field

Missing from most of what is available about Kendrick Johnson are the personal details, the characteristics which made him who he was. The anecdotes usually associated with almost any young person’s death are missing. A friend of mine from Texas who has been following the case wrote me one day, “DAMNATIO MEMORAE.”

He was puzzled that none of his classmates were talking about him, why everything and everyone seemed eerily quiet – and they were, are. My friend felt there was a reason, as many do – that something is being hidden, that the mentioning of Kendrick Johnson’s name would bring to light that which is concealed.

The people I was speaking with about the case outside of Georgia were exasperated trying to understand how and why a huge public high school with such a high profile seemed to be almost dismissive about Kendrick Johnson’s body being found on a Friday morning in January, right after students had returned from Christmas break. As if this were not a highly remarkable event, or that this was somehow not serious enough to warrant high alert, cancellation of classes, tireless examination of every single aspect of the crime scene, and interviews with the students who had last seen him – what everyone thinks (knows) is supposed to happen after the discovery of a body is made. Out-of-staters were baffled enough that they required schooling about South Georgia’s most dubious racial profile; forcing those of us who have lived here all our lives to look at ourselves and our home and our history in a new and harsh light.

The truths which began to be created from the ongoing and compounded deceptions were and continue to be shocking.

Who and why seems determined to wipe out KJ’s memory, keep his name off their lips?

Who had the motive?

Who had the opportunity?

Who has the most to lose if the truth is revealed?

What would be gained from losing KJ to history, by wiping his very existence off the world?

The Wikipedia definition of the Roman term is:

Damnatio Memoriae is the Latin phrase literally meaning “condemnation of memory” in the sense of a judgment that a person must not be remembered. It was a form of dishonor that could be passed by the Roman Senate upon traitors or others who brought discredit to the Roman State. The intent was to erase someone from history, a task somewhat easier in ancient times, when documentation was much sparser.

And further elaborates:

The sense of the expression damnatio memoriae and of the sanction is to cancel every trace of the person from the life of Rome, as if he had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed the social appearance, respectability and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the most severe punishment.

Little has been spoken, written about Kendrick Johnson, the person – only about his death, his body, the lackluster investigation which followed, the GBI’s dubious autopsy findings, his missing organs and the newspaper which replaced them.

Missing more than those organs is his character, his charisma, his personality, his friend’s stories, the common thread of mourning which stitches a tight seam all the way through the wake of a passing. KJ might’ve died, but he shouldn’t be gone. He should, in some ways, be even more available to everyone, not less. This is when everyone reflects on the time they spent with him – many of the 3,000 LHS students having spent the entirety of their school days with him.

Was he popular? We’ve heard yes, he was well-liked; but by whom, and in what way? What kind of feeling did you get in his presence? I recall his father saying in a rare interview (with a good interviewer who obviously felt as I do) that KJ loved hamburgers and when he was driving his truck he would often seek out good burger joints to share with his son. After a full year of investing myself in this person’s life – and death – I have failed to know him personally because of the absence of what is normal. Talk about him.

Yes, social media draws people into their devices, into the virtual environs created in this most unique innerverse of cyberspace. I love this place, as I know his friends do – and I realize that his friends and fellow classmates have not forgotten him. If you pay attention, you see KJ all throughout social media, but still there is a quiet, there are left out comments on the tips of their tongues, there are some sleepless nights for not just students, but staff members of LHS, of the sheriff’s department, the Lowndes County Board of Education. There is trouble afoot in this small community. The terrors aren’t left with morning and sun. The terrors are riding the quieted, the muzzled, and every now and then someone will blurt something out, step out of line….

And someone will say, “Man up,” or “Shut the fuck up,” and the voices will quiet back down for a while.

But it is changing.

People cannot keep a secret like this for long. Students will graduate and realize how unimportant what seemed important now actually is, and how they’d been conforming to an illusion which if they don’t deal with now they’ll no doubt deal with one day.

That’s just the way life works, like it or not.

Ah, Lowndes. You remain as vapid as when I was a high schooler, when the biggest thrill on a weekend was to burn a tank of gas cruising up and down a bumper-to-bumper Ashley Street, hoping to catch the eye of whoever made you happy (or miserable – often the same thing back then)….

Valdosta, shake off this shroud, spit out the gag.

Stop pretending everything’s okay because judging from what I’m experiencing with a now international audience glued to his story, no matter what happens with the federal investigation, nothing will stop this demand. It has gotten too large, too loud, too focused, too interested.

Nothing will stop a person from paying attention when interested. Nothing.

At times I questioned whether he was a wallflower to the point that students forgot about him almost as quickly as he had exited their stages. But no, I know there were hundreds of people who attended his funeral, I see the gathered supporters protesting and gathering for marches, his parents and sister, grandparents and aunts, unflappably dedicated to finding out the truth about what happened to him.

Funny. No one outside the state of Georgia buys the freak accident theory. Everyone outside of Georgia knows he was the victim of either a murder or a very bad beating that went too far. This is logic.

Go check out examples of positional asphyxia with victims who had been in worse circumstances, for longer – you will not see a death mask (the first or the second, which has recently surfaced) that looks anything like Kendrick, who had been upside down for how long we don’t know since the GBI medical examiners nor the sheriff’s dept, Valdosta Lowndes Regional Crime Lab with all their “state-of-the-art” multi-million dollar equipment never established a time of death.

But I am getting off topic.

Kendrick Johnson, who are you?

Sometimes I marvel at how much material George Boston Rhynes has managed to create and post – 3,000 videos on YouTube, and before them, he wrote countless blogs. How has one man found the energy and conviction to follow the trail of his community’s injustice without faltering, without being “too tired” to make a rally, or a new crime scene and its survivors ready to talk to someone who would listen since the local media has repeatedly refused, without explanation.

Since there are so many videos in Rhynes’ YouTube channel list, I sometimes will reach into it like a box of chocolates and see what I get. And this morning I pulled out a one of my favorites so far.

It’s titled, “2 of 2. Kenneth Johnson K.J. Father Addresss students during their son’s funeral” and though Kenneth does speak, there is so much more.

One of his football coaches, who was also one of three school personnel who attended the funeral, took the mic and began to speak.

Finally, KJ came alive for me.

I remember that night in Tifton. I was sitting in my usual corner of the gym and I remember seeing KJ unreal scoring baskets, getting rebounds. After the game I went up to Coach Weston and said, ‘What in the world got into KJ? He was unbelievable.’ He could not miss a shot, didn’t miss a rebound. Just unreal. Then again, on Tuesday night (referring to a memorial presumably) I heard the kids chanting for KJ. I was in my usual seat. It was like KJ was on the court all over again. The team and the kids never missed a beat.”

The coach was clearly enchanted with the lost teen, and the filled-to-capacity church where the funeral was held began to loosen up, people who were moments before crying began to lighten as they remembered the living KJ.

I want to share a couple of stories about KJ as Kendrick as a football player, and Kendrick as a young man…Kendrick as a football player was a quiet leader. He didn’t have to open his mouth, didn’t have to say anything. But his passion for the game is what I’ll always cherish. He loved the game. He loved his teammates. He always wanted to play so hard. And after every play KJ would walk over back to the defensive huddle and kneel down. At first all the coaches would say, what’s up with KJ, we need to get help for KJ. And KJ would look up at us and let us know everything was okay. I think I finally figured out what KJ was doing, telling us….The coaches, we always talked about this story about KJ. We were scrimmaging at Piney Grove and I was standing back there and Pine Grove had the ball, and the quarterback dropped back….and it was like a flash just ran in front of me….(slight chuckles in crowd)…I was trying to grab my whistle because I knew what was about to happen….All the Pine Grove coaches started yelling – but it was too late….KJ had left his feet….and hit the quarterback so hard, hard as somebody can hit somebody. (much laughter now) The quarterback laid there and KJ went back – did what he usually did. He knelt down…I finally knew what KJ was doing…He was going to pray…’Lord please….'”

There’s more. I highly recommend listening to this if you, like me, want to meet Kendrick in the flesh. Here’s your chance.

Make him live.

Listen him to life.

Thank you George Boston Rhynes.

Shot out to Texas 😉


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