When Sarasota, a town in southwestern Florida, was rated America’s meanest city in 2006, Karan Higdon was just a nine-year-old kid who wore size nine-and-a-half shoes. He was a big kid, no doubt, who went to the Boys and Girls Club most days after school and sometimes met his friends for kickball outside in the neighborhood. He played Pee Wee football for the Port Charlotte Bandits, and even back then he was running over every tackler in his path.
Todd Johnson, though, spent that year with the Chicago Bears. Then in his late 20s, the professional defensive back was in his fourth season in the National Football League since getting drafted out of the University of Florida. After games, Johnson would pick up leftover football gloves and shoes from the Bears’ locker room to send back to Sarasota’s Riverview High School, his alma mater.
It was also the year Karan’s mother, Samantha Christian, decided the family should move out of Newtown. On the outskirts of Sarasota’s inner city, Newtown was a tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone, but it was also an area where you didn’t want to make a wrong turn.
Higdon, Johnson and Christian are just three characters in a bigger story of how one boy from Florida did what so many others couldn’t — get out. Higdon’s story is one of motivation, hard work and commitment. It’s a story about someone who made the right choices when others didn’t and stuck by them against adversity. It’s a story about a protagonist and a supporting cast that never left each other’s side.
This story begins in Sarasota.
Karan Higdon almost quit football when he was five years old. It was too hot, and they had him running laps. After one day of flag football with the Sarasota Redskins, the kindergartner decided it was enough.
One of the other boys’ fathers was the team’s coach, so that boy got to play running back. That’s how youth football teams usually worked — the coach’s son got to play a position that always got the ball, and if the coach had a nephew as well, then that kid might get a few runs.
The other kids, though, were usually just thrown in wherever. For Karan, that position was center.
Eventually, after Karan’s mother told him to “suck it up” and go play, one of the coaches noticed how fast he could run. So in the next game, Karan played running back, they handed him the ball and it was all go from there.
Karan was still young, but realized that running out in the Florida heat wasn’t so bad when he had the ball in his hands. He also realized that people were invested in him, and nobody more so than his mother.
Christian wanted to be Karan’s biggest fan and be just as involved in his life as her parents were for her, especially her mother. Christian’s mother never skipped her daughter’s sporting events, award ceremonies or parent-teacher conferences. She made sure her daughter had whatever resources she needed to succeed.
“To see my mother sitting in the stands as I’m playing basketball or see her in the stands as I’m running the 100-yard dash, it meant everything to me,” Christian said. “I didn’t care if nobody else was there to support me. I wanted my mother there.”
So when Christian became a mother to three boys, she approached parenthood the very same way: staying as involved as possible in her kids’ upbringing.
Growing up, Christian pushed Karan to be very active. She described him as bubbly, happy and always smiling. When he wasn’t in class, he was playing sports. He’d meet up with other friends in the neighborhood to play touch football, because that’s what most of the kids in Sarasota would do.
Christian had also grown up in Sarasota, though, and she knew all too well how easy it was for boys like Karan to get distracted. Newtown’s neighboring areas were fairly impoverished, and homelessness was a major problem for the city.
On certain streets, Christian always saw kids getting caught up by older guys. There were fights and drugs, and Christian knew how malleable a young boy growing up there would be seeing people flaunting around money with shiny jewelry and the newest pairs of shoes.
She didn’t want Karan seeing police officers handcuffing drug dealers or attending a school where he’d hear about “so-and-so’s parents getting busted” and going to jail. She didn’t want Karan to get the idea that stealing or selling drugs was a productive way to go through life.
“I didn’t want Karan to get hypnotized with the fascination of that illusion of what a man is supposed to be,” Christian said.
She’d grown up in the city and seen it all herself.
So when Karan was nine, Christian moved the family out of the inner city to North Port, a neighborhood much further south of the county.
She wanted to make sure that Karan didn’t become like some of the people she had seen in Newtown, because as he moved up into middle school, she was starting to realize how significant football could really be for him.
When Karan was playing Pop Warner football at the age of 12, his nickname was “Nightmare.”
“This kid was literally a nightmare on the football field on offense and defense,” Christian said about her son. “He was just unbelievable. He used to carry his team on his shoulders. They would run Karan so much, that I was like, ‘Hey coach, don’t you think you need to give the ball to somebody else? You’re running him so much!’ But Karan was able to carry that load. He would average at least four touchdowns a game.”
Karan, too, started to realize how good he was.
“I was pretty big as a kid, compared to other kids, so I would just run through a lot of people,” he said.
High school coaches started paying attention, too. It became clear that wherever Karan went for school, he would go straight to varsity.
Riverview High School was always the likely candidate to land Karan. Christian had gone to Riverview herself, and Christian’s nephew, D.J., had played football there, so she and Karan often went to see his games. Karan was just 13 years old when Riverview coach John Sprague approached him and Christian to talk about his future.
Sprague had followed Karan through Pop Warner, and wanted him to come join the Rams.
“Send him to Riverview, Sam,” Sprague had said. “We’ll take good care of him.”
Riverview always had a great football program, and its coaches knew how to get their players ready for the next level. They helped players put together film for recruiting and did everything in their power to get players recognized by colleges.
Karan was the kind of running back Riverview needed, and Riverview was the kind of school where he could thrive. The coaches there, as Christian learned, cared more about their players than just their football talent.
“Everyone in the community knew, if you wanted your child to get a football scholarship, you need to send your child to Riverview High School,” Christian said.
Despite being pursued by almost every school in the area, Karan enrolled at Riverview.
The other schools didn’t stand a chance. They didn’t know Karan. They just knew him as a football player, and that’s all they cared about. Manatee High School, which won the 2011 State Championship, heavily recruited him. It seemed like all the aspiring football players wanted to go to Manatee, and Karan had the offer waiting.
But he wasn’t interested, according to his mother, because what Manatee cared about most was putting another kid on a roster to try and win a championship. Karan’s academic and career goals couldn’t take a back seat. His dreams of being an orthopedic surgeon would get blanketed by all the pressure to put football first. That wasn’t what Karan wanted — Karan wanted to prioritize his education.
At Riverview, Karan and Christian knew they had that opportunity.
Even when Sprague retired from his longtime head-coaching job, where he had been for three decades, the plans never changed.
Sprague stepped down in March of Karan’s eighth grade year. He wouldn’t be on the sideline to coach Karan through high school, like he had done successfully for so many players, but Christian knew their decision was still the right one. Sprague’s replacement, after all, wanted the same thing for Karan as she did.
Over that span, as Karan moved through middle school, Todd Johnson was finishing up his NFL career. After his fourth season with the Bears, he signed a four-year contract with the St. Louis Rams. He had 29 tackles in 2007, and 23 the next season as a backup safety. The Rams waived him from the roster in 2009 and, after a short stint in Buffalo, he returned home permanently to Sarasota.
Moving back meant Johnson would be much closer to Riverview High School, where he graduated from in 1998. As a kid, he dreamed of playing for the Riverview Rams, so when he went away to college and the NFL, he always made sure to come back to his roots. He’d work out with Riverview players in his offseasons and stayed connected with his former coach, Sprague, who had been with the school since 1981.
Unfortunately, Johnson saw the same challenges that Samantha Christian had seen. He noticed them before he left Sarasota. He noticed them when he came back.
“I saw a ton of kids that were talented and gifted that could go on and do great things but didn’t make good decisions, made poor choices and therefore lost out on moving on,” Johnson said.
Whether it was falling behind in grades or getting in trouble with the law, it seemed that every year another great football player could do everything on the field, but did something wrong off it.
So when the opportunity opened up to get more involved at Riverview, Johnson threw his hat in the ring.
And in April of 2011, Riverview named Johnson its new head coach. Johnson’s NFL career hadn’t been over for even two years before he was right back in the mix at the place where it all started for him. In his first press conference, he spoke about how important it was to mentor every individual, giving them the positive environment they needed to be successful.
He wasn’t taking this job just to win football games on his old stomping ground. He took it for the chance to give back.
As the summer went on and Johnson transitioned into his new job, more schools continued pursuing Karan. He was a popular, likeable and sought-after football player, and the cutthroat Florida high school competition wanted to seize him up.
Eventually Johnson approached Karan. Rumors of more schools’ interests had circulated around, and Johnson wanted to check in, so he asked Karan what was going on.
“Coach, I’m a Ram from now until forever,” Higdon told him. “I will never leave here. I started here, and this is where I’m gonna finish.
“I told you that I’d be here for four years, and that’s not going to change no matter what.”
Nothing waivered for Karan. When other schools wanted to talk, Karan had none of it. He had given his coach his word, and stuck by his decision.
So Karan was committed, Pee Wee football was long gone and Pop Warner had passed. He was the star in those leagues, but if Karan wanted to succeed — which he so badly did — he’d have to be the star in high school.
“Listen here, son,” Christian once told him. “You are going to have a hundred Karan Higdons in high school. The level of competition, that bar has been raised now. You are really going to have to fight and show what you can do.”
Just as she predicted, high school brought about new challenges. Karan hadn’t been big on weightlifting, but in middle school football, that didn’t matter. He was so fast and naturally big that he could bulldoze through everyone he played against. But against bigger and stronger high school players, that wouldn’t be the case.
His natural talent was enough to put him on varsity, but it was in the weight room where he began to really learn.
“There comes a point where you got to grow,” Karan said. “You’ve got to learn how to perfect your craft, and I knew that there was going to come a point in time where some guys I’m going to have to make miss and some guys I’m going to have to run through.”
High school was that point for him. Johnson and the rest of Riverview’s staff worked on everything with Karan, and he ate it all up. They taught him how to juke his opponents, how to lift right and how to be more explosive.
Sometimes he’d use less weight when he bench-pressed, bring the weight down slow, and then explode up. For squats and leg presses, he did the same thing.
While other kids were out elsewhere, Karan was in the weight room. When he wasn’t there, he was on the football field. If he wasn’t there, he was studying. He was doing it all, and doing all of it really, really well.
By the time his first varsity game came around, Karan, Christian and Johnson all knew that he was ready for this next step.
Everybody else quickly found out.
In a game between Riverview and Booker High School, the coaches called a run play for him.
Karan took the ball and darted forward before lowering his shoulder to truck through Booker defensive back Ricky Jones Jr.
Jones, a senior All-American who went on to play as a wide receiver at Indiana, was knocked flat onto his back. He was one of the area’s top recruits, and Karan — a freshman — ran him straight over, and everybody had seen it. It was in that moment that everybody knew this freshman belonged on varsity.
Karan’s upward trend only continued. He carried a 4.0 GPA in high school and dominated on the football field. With Johnson’s guidance and his mother’s support, he was thriving at Riverview.
One of his teammates, though, couldn’t say the same.
“There’s always one kid in the bunch,” Christian recounted.
This one kid was a wide receiver on Karan’s team, and as Christian said, “probably could’ve gone anywhere in the country to play football.” Too many people got caught up wondering where he’d play Division I or what NFL team he’d get drafted to, and nobody paid attention to what was really going on.
Come time for graduation, the receiver’s grades had tanked and his SAT scores weren’t sufficient. He had to attend community college in an effort to boost his grades, but that year passed him by, and eventually his motivation waned.
“It went from, ‘I can go to any school in the United States and play Division I football’ to ‘Now I go to a community college for remediation. You know, forget school, I’ll never see myself on the football field again. I just want to be a rapper,’ ” Christian remembered about Karan’s teammate.
It was an unfortunate trend, and one Christian had seen time and time again. Parents got too focused on getting kids to the next level that they didn’t recognize when a child struggled to barely make minimum grades.
“It’s sad,” Christian said. “It’s very sad to see that happen to some of these children. They get lost in the system.”
But Karan wasn’t one of them. In a system that could’ve held him down — a system where giving into his environment would’ve been such an easy choice — Karan kept moving up.
“It was very apparent that Karan wasn’t going to let anything get in the way,” Johnson said.
That’s because Karan just kept plugging away. He kept being friendly to people, making good choices and living the life his mother was dead set on creating for him.
He became the ambassador for a football program that had given so much for its community.
And after high school, Karan came to Michigan. Three years later, now, he still thinks about all those people when he runs for 100 and 200-yard games for the Wolverines.
He plays for his family, his former coaches and Riverview teammates, all of the people that haven’t made it out of the system and all the kids back in Sarasota who someday hope to be just like him.
“I’m running for more than just myself,” Karan says. “It’s more than just me when I play this game.”
He rushes head on at tacklers because he has a legacy to carry. He goes back to Sarasota and hosts football camps, because he wants to see those kids have the opportunity to succeed. Karan runs so hard, because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be where he is today — a junior at Michigan, and the Wolverines’ leading running back.
And Karan does it all for his mom, because if she hadn’t believed in him, he might not have either. If not for football and the support he found at Riverview, Karan might have been no different than those people his mom pushed him so hard to surpass.
“In Florida, it’s the way out,” he said. “I just take that each and every time I take the field.”
He runs harder than everyone else because he has bigger goals and bigger dreams. Karan Higdon wants to write his own story, and so every play, he runs a little bit harder, because his story isn’t over yet.