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Mom has always known best for Buddy

Just over a week ago Mother's Day was celebrated all across America.

It was a time for giving flowers, treating mom to dinner, and spending time together.

For Buddy Johnson, it was a time to say thank you.

Michelle Stephens is more than mom to Johnson. She is the woman who kept him on the path that eventually landed him as one of the Steelers fourth-round picks in this year's NFL Draft.

"I didn't have a father around growing up," said Johnson. "My mother was my mom and my father. She did everything to make sure we had a roof over our head, food in our stomachs. It was me and my two brothers, and my mom, a single parent raising three knuckleheads. She did everything she could, trying to work. It was a great journey. Looking back, seeing my maturity, I know I got that from my mom."

Stephens was hands-on with her sons, someone who lovingly nurtured them, but had a strong will to protect them. Living in Oak Cliff, Texas, a neighborhood in South Dallas where the crime rate is high, Stephens knew the best way to protect her sons was to be there for them. She would be the one who would drive them to practice, take them to friend's homes, and be the person who was always there when they needed her, whether they realized it or not.

On August 31, 2014, Johnson wanted to go to the movies with his friends, no mom dropping him off, just all the friends going together. Stephens said no. Her son wasn't happy, but she didn't budge. And thank God she didn't. On that night there was a deadly car accident involving six kids, three of them Johnson's high school teammates, kids he would have been with.

"I just know, when teenage boys get together and there is no adult in the car, they have the music loud, they are loud, texting, on the phone," said Stephens. "I told Buddy no, you boys play too much. You can't go. There are more than four boys in the car, you can't go. Of course, he tried to rebel because he wanted to go and didn't understand.

"The next morning, we woke up and he was thanking me. He was crying, he said he was supposed to be in that car. I told him no you weren't, you were supposed to be at home. The hair stood up on my arms with that news. I was in shock. I couldn't believe it. It happened not far from our home. You don't have to be driving for something to happen. It was a sad moment.

"He has two older brothers, and I took them where they needed to go. If I didn't meet your mom, or guardian, whoever had control of you, they couldn't go. That was the kind of mother I was. You couldn't hang with anyone I didn't know.

"I instilled in him growing up to try not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, watch the company you keep. He knows. I am trusting in him. It's hard but he listened to me. He is a good young man. He trusts me and I trust him to make good decisions."

It might have taken some disagreements with mom early on, but yes, Johnson did make good decisions, including deciding on his own not to go to the area skating rink, a place where teens gathered, that ended up getting shot up one night he would have been there.

"Growing up, you don't imagine things like that happening," said Johnson. "When I was younger, I would get upset but then I would understand. It got to the point where I knew I didn't want to go to places anymore. I could understand as I got older, I could pull myself out of situations before she did. I understood the things she did. There was a lot of trouble I could have gotten into. For me to stay away from that, my mom did a great job."

Stephens, who is an EMT, knows what it's like. She has seen so much pain and suffering, and all she has ever wanted to do was protect her sons. And to have all of them understand why she did what she did, that makes her as proud as having her son being drafted by the Steelers.

"I am very proud. As a mother you talk to your children. It can go in one ear and out the other," said Stephens. "You think they aren't paying attention. But he started to listen and grow. I wasn't doing it to punish him. There was just too much going on. He took the responsibility early and that is what got him where he is today."

And where he is today is living his dream.

"My whole life I would think about the NFL and want to be part of it," said Johnson. "I was one of those kids who played football in the backyard. We used to play Pop Warner football. My teammates would come over and we would be in my backyard, tackling each other. We would drink water from the hose. I was always outside.

"It didn't hit me until I started to get recruited by colleges in high school that I could make the NFL. I knew I had to do everything I could, work hard all of the time and stay level-headed."

On Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft, when his phone rang and it was Coach Mike Tomlin on the other end, the hard work paid off.

"It's an exciting time, but it's like a big weight lifted off my shoulders," said Johnson. "It's a lot more than what people see. We do this our whole life and nine times out of 10 this is the ultimate goal. When you get that phone call it's one of the best feelings in the world.

"It was crazy just sitting there waiting. I knew I put in the hard work and it would work out in God's plan. I was excited. My family was excited because they knew the hard work I put in and it was a major goal.

"I am blessed to be in a situation like this. That is the biggest thing."