During seven seasons as a fixture on the Saints' defensive line, Joe Johnson's on-the-field accomplishments earned him selections to the NFL All-Rookie Team (1994), the All-NFC first team (2000) and a pair of Pro Bowls (1998 and 2000). In 2007, Johnson, who retired a Green Bay Packer in 2003, was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.
All of it comes second, he says, to what he's achieved since leaving the realm of professional football. Born in Cleveland, Johnson, now 36, started the nonprofit Built 2 Last Foundation in 1999, with the stated mission of furthering the development of youths in low-income communities. The foundation has conducted athletic clinics and provided mentorship programs in St. Louis and Atlanta. But the 2005 levee failures focused Johnson's efforts on New Orleans, where he lives part time.
"Over the last nine to 10 years, I've mostly dealt with the youth — mentoring, public speaking, clinics, camps, things of that sort," he says. "Since (Hurricane) Katrina, my eyes have been open more toward community development. Working with the youth, that work sometimes goes to waste, so to speak, if it's not being reciprocated at home, through the family. Once this child leaves the program, is the child going back home to a healthy environment?
"I've really honed in on New Orleans," Johnson adds. "That's where my heart is."
Built 2 Last's latest undertaking is a series of nine community festivals held in and around the city. The twice-monthly events launch in the Ninth Ward's Sampson Park (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday), then visit Gert Town, Uptown, Gentilly, the West Bank, Metairie, and Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, before concluding with the "United for Change" festival in City Park (May 23-24).
The underlying purpose of the festivals, Johnson says, is more than just fun and games. Alongside traditional attractions like live music, food and rides — as well as cameos from coaches and players — he has invited representatives from city, state and federal programs to provide free social and financial assistance. New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), Road Home and FEMA are among those expected to attend.
"You have people who hear from their auntie or their cousin on how Road Home should work, but they really don't know how Road Home is structured to work," he says. "I want the people to have the opportunity to learn how these programs work in reality."
Johnson also has shaped the Built 2 Last model as a replicable template for other athletes looking to positively impact communities in their post-playing days. "[I want to] show them how I've done it — the wrong and the right ways. ... They then can take that back to where they're from and implement a similar program.
"I feel if I can create that platform, I know of hundreds of guys who want to make a difference back home or where they currently reside," he says. "How to go after grant money. How to go after state money, federal money. Now you're not only changing the lives of people in the city, but you're changing lives [across] the nation."