George Johnson ’11 was used to being the person who others came to for help. He grew up in northside Richmond, and through his work ethic and entrepreneurial savvy, he built multiple successful businesses by his early 20s that employed his friends and family. Several of those businesses are mental healthcare providers that serve low-income youth in Virginia, Texas, and Missouri.
It wasn’t until Johnson went through the most painful challenge of his life – being hounded by federal prosecutors in a years-long saga, during which he was betrayed by members of his own family – that he considered seeking mental health services for himself.
“I’m a prideful guy,” Johnson said. “I’m the one who everyone comes to asking for things … I never thought about myself needing this assistance.”
Johnson has chronicled his life: his childhood in Richmond, his success as a young basketball star, his meteoric rise as an entrepreneur, his federal trial, and the healing he’s found through therapy, in his self-published memoir, Double Crossed, which came out earlier this year.
He first started writing as a therapeutic form of journaling while on house arrest last year. After two months, he had filled two notebooks, and began to consider sharing his story with the world. He thought about the “lack of education of mental health awareness” that he’d seen growing up in a Black, inner city community.
“I knew who I’d be appealing to,” he said. “I look a certain kind of way. I sound a certain kind of way.”
Now he’s spreading the word even further, through conversations on podcasts and Instagram live and in articles. And people are responding.
“I get a lot of people, every day, saying, ‘Man I never shared this,'” Johnson said. “Because I shared my story, it’s helped young kids and adults … all over the world.”
Before the book, before the trial, and before most of the businesses, Johnson was already making waves as a basketball player. Readers may remember his pivotal role in Eastern Mennonite University’s most decorated basketball season, when the Royals advanced to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight in 2010. Coach Kirby Dean had recruited him from the Miller School of Albemarle, where Johnson had enrolled for his senior year of high school.
“He was just a really sharp kid … he was really articulate and had a lot of personality and was easy to talk to,” Dean said. “We just had a good chemistry from the get-go.”
Johnson said that learning to navigate uber-wealthy circles at the Miller School and Mennonite culture in college – especially when he faced disciplinary consequences from the administration for having a child with a classmate, out of wedlock – taught him how to communicate with, and earn respect from, just about anyone.
Being able to “graduate and do everything I did on the basketball court – it was, early in my life, basically an example of what I needed to do when I left EMU,” he said.
After graduating in 2011, Johnson was preparing to play professional basketball overseas when he was mugged and beat up (one of the many stories he shares in his book). His injuries kept him in the U.S., and he played semi-professionally in Richmond for two years before joining his brother’s mental health company as an office manager.
Living and working with his brother proved to be untenable, though, and Johnson struck out on his own, offering administrative services to mental healthcare providers. As he started other businesses, he brought on friends and family to work for him.
Despite his success, Johnson feels he was “operating out of fear,” similar to others he grew up around, he said. Where others might cope with anxiety and PTSD with drugs or alcohol, Johnson coped through workaholism – which made him a good financial provider, but took a toll on his relationships.
“That balance is a daily struggle still, but I do have a better outlook of how important these relationships are,” he said. “I’m more conscious of that. My daughter is around me a lot. I go back home more now.”
Johnson was immersed in the grind, living in Houston, when he heard that his brother – the one he’d had a falling out with – had been charged with fraud and tax evasion. And before long, his brother tried to implicate him in his crimes. Johnson entered a hellish two-year whirlwind of FBI interrogations and accusations. They only stopped once his brother’s attorney admitted in court that they couldn’t produce any evidence of Johnson being a so-called “co-conspirator.”
About a year later, though, his lawyer called to tell him that the lead prosecutor had picked the case back up, but with entirely different charges: subscribing to a false tax document.
“I asked him why,” Johnson writes in Double Crossed. “I had thought it was done, thought we had won. He told me, you can never really ‘beat’ the federal government. They either decide to stop pursuing you or they don’t. And if they don’t eventually, one way or another, they will win. They always win. And something about me had triggered something in them. They weren’t going to stop until they won.”
Another of Johnson’s brothers, his oldest, had prepared his taxes for years. Johnson and his attorney discovered that he hadn’t reported income from two different companies over four years – income that the brother knew about, but hid from the IRS.
Johnson decided to sign a plea deal, and explained to the feds that he hadn’t known about the omission, but would pay back the taxes owed from those four years. His sentence was to be set in October 2019, and Johnson hoped for leniency for his honest mistake. The prosecution, however, pushed for the maximum sentence possible, because Johnson’s brother – the oldest brother Johnson had trusted throughout this whole ordeal – was going to testify against him to save his own skin.
Johnson asked friends, mentors, and colleagues to write to the judge attesting to his character. Word got around, and even more letters were sent than he asked for – almost 20 in all.
The judge “had never had such a wide range of people reach out to him,” from a high school athletic director to a retired mayor to incarcerated men who he’d counseled, Johnson said.
Kirby Dean was one of those writers.
“I wanted him to know that George was a good kid,” he said. “He had been a great kid in high school. He had been a great kid in college, and he’d spent his whole life doing things the right way … he deserved some grace.”
In the end, the judge was somewhat lenient – Johnson was to sell off his most lavish possessions, be on house arrest for a year, and pay back the government over $100,000 in back taxes. Thankfully, though, he was not given any time in prison.
Finding strength through vulnerability
It was on house arrest last year that Johnson finally put pen to paper and set out to express all the trials – literally and figuratively – that he’d been through.
“With everything I was dealing with for three or four years, I never had a chance to just sit down and breathe,” he said. For the first time, “I could literally just decompress.”
Now that he’s free once more, Johnson said he’s “hit the ground running” in the business world. But with both the book and a heap of emotional healing under his belt, he’s doing it with his mental health and relationships as priorities.
“I think he’s on the track now that he was on originally, to do really great things,” Dean said. “It’s how you respond to adversity that defines who you are.”
Johnson has chosen to respond with self-healing, and by working towards forgiving his brothers.
That vulnerability “didn’t make me less of a man. It actually made me stronger,” he said. “I can’t express how powerful that is.”
First published 9/3/2021