Pain too difficult to understand

Diontae Johnson doesn't have a lot of memories of his mother.

And it hurts. It hurts deeper than he even admits.

You can see it when he talks about her, when he tries to recall the moments with her.

But the moments were too few, and he was too young to even remember most of them.

Johnson lost his mother, Felicia Boyer, when he was only five years old. Boyer had a tough battle with breast cancer, a battle she lost at just 24 years old.

In both cases, they were too young. Boyer too young to lose her life, Johnson too young for him to lose his mother, to understand what losing his mother was even about.

And to this day, it's still tough to understand.

"I remember little things about my mom," said Johnson. "Even though she was sick and going through stuff, she would act like nothing was going on. She was a strong person.

"I asked how she passed as a kid, but I didn't go into depth about it because I was young and didn't understand it all."

While he might not have understood cancer, the impact it could have, he did see some of the effects it had on his mom. He didn't realize it then, but he does now, that she never let him know how bad it was, protecting and shielding her young kids.

"She was getting weaker and weaker. She was losing a lot of weight," recalled Johnson. "She was a diabetic too, so that took a toll on her. Her body couldn't take that much. She was so young and doing the best she could. She had a lot to deal with."

One memory Johnson does have is one he would like to forget, the day his father, Leo Johnson, had to deliver the news no child wants to hear.

"I was coming home from school one day," said Johnson. "My dad picked us up and told us our mom was gone. I didn't know how to react. Just hearing that hurt real bad."

Johnson paused for a moment, just thinking about the loss, a loss impossible to imagine for a child that young.

"It was real hard for him and his sister, Kianna, who was only three," his father Leo quietly shared. "They would wake up in the middle of the night crying. They would want their mom. Sometimes I would have to get off work because they would get emotional at school and want their mom. It was hard."

And it's still hard. There are still days Johnson yearns to have his mother around, days when he sees friends enjoying the simple things and big life moments with their moms. He would love for her to know her grandson, Johnson's young son, Diontae. He would love for her to see him play football. He would love for her to see the man he turned out to be.

"Now that I am older, and I look around and see my friends with their mom and dad, I wonder what it would be like to get that type of love from your mom," said Johnson. "She is still with me regardless."

He is thankful beyond belief for the role his father played in his life. He took on the dual duty of provider and comforter, of raising them to be who they are today.

"At any early age I watched my dad, learned everything from him," said Johnson. "I wouldn't be in the position I am in if it wasn't for him. He was the only person I had to learn from. I was around him 24/7. Watching how he got up every day and went to work, made sacrifices. It turned me into the person I am today. I want to be a leader like he is."

Johnson has never said much about his mother, never opened up about what he has been through until now. And he is doing it, because like his father, he wants to be a leader. He wants to help others who are battling breast cancer and other forms of the disease by raising awareness, bringing it to the forefront.

This week the Steelers will honor cancer survivors and those battling the disease when they host their Crucial Catch, Intercept Cancer game at Acrisure Stadium. And Johnson hopes his message helps, even if it's just one person.

"If you can catch it at an early age, it might help," said Johnson. "You never know what is going on with your body day-to-day, even if you feel healthy. You have to get checked. My mom got checked, but the cancer was there. It took a toll. But it can help to catch it early."

Johnson said it gives him perspective knowing that his mother went through so much and never complained. And he knows there are many out there battling the disease now, or who have battled the disease, and also never complained, always staying positive.

"I am learning more about it, learning more what people go through now," said Johnson. "You can walk around and not know somebody is going through something way worse than you are every day. You can have a negative attitude, and not know that person has it way worse than you do. You have to make sure people are all right. Ask people how they are doing. You never know what someone is going through. Somebody's situation can be way worse than yours.

"For people to be able to deal with what they go through, function every day in life, and have a smile on their face, I find that unbelievable. I don't know how to explain it, but a person is still going through something so difficult, and they have the strength to focus and keep doing what they love every day. It's a blessing."

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