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Demetrious Johnson, former NFL player who helped thousands, dies at 61

The St. Louis native who played for five seasons in the NFL and in retirement helped thousands through a charitable foundation that bore his name, died at 61.

ST. LOUIS — Demetrious Johnson, the St. Louis native who played for five seasons in the NFL and in retirement helped thousands through a charitable foundation that bore his name, died Saturday. He was 61.

Family members said Johnson died of an aortic dissection, a rare condition in which a tear occurs in the inner layer of the body's main artery, at a St. Louis hospital.

"His family and friends are saddened by this loss. His big heart and love for his community will never be forgotten," his daughter, Ashley Chin, said.

Johnson was born on July 21, 1961, the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother in the Darst-Webbe Public Housing Project south of downtown St. Louis.

Following a stellar high school career playing for McKinley High School, Johnson earned a full athletic scholarship to attend the University of Missouri. Johnson graduated with a bachelor's degree in education.

As a defensive back for the Tigers, Johnson was named a Big Eight Conference All-Star. He went on to be drafted in the fifth round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. After four seasons, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he played during the 1986–87 season.

Johnson founded the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation in 1993 to help better the lives of underprivileged children and families in the St. Louis area. The organization was often most visible around the holidays when it hosted numerous food and toy drives and giveaways.

Tributes to Johnson started pouring in Saturday afternoon on social media.

"There may have some who donated more money to our town then my friend, Demetrious Johnson, but nobody donated more heart. We will never have another one like him," 5 On Your Side sports director Frank Cusumano said.

Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay called Johnson an "outstanding St. Louisian who did a lot for (the) community."

Mizzou head football coach Eli Drinkwitz wrote that his heart is heavy.

"He was a friend, mentor and servant to so many. Prayers for his family and loved ones this holiday season. I'm going to miss my friend," he said.

"I was honored to be involved in numerous fundraisers for his charitable foundation and to have him on my Sunday night show. (Demetrious) never forgot his (St. Louis) roots. The man did a ton to improve lives in his community. Rest in peace, DJ," said former St. Louis media personality Steve Savard.

On Christmas Day, Johnson's family continued his mission of giving back to the community by hosting a toy giveaway in north St. Louis.

“My dad really left a legacy, an inspiration, to always put giving back at the center of what we do," Chin said.

“We’re going out to provide toys, to provide different supplies to make Christmas amazing for these special families that have been selected," another daughter, Taylore Johnson, said.

The annual giveway has an even deeper meaning.

“When he was a child, he had people who came in every Christmas Eve to support and provide gifts for him and his family. Because of that, he wanted to give back and do the same," Taylore said.

After retiring from the NFL, Johnson also worked as a national sales manager for Covidien (formerly Sherwood Medical Company) and hosted shows on St. Louis radio station WHHL-FM (Hot 104.1) and Detroit radio station WFDF-AM. He also served as the agent for Mizzou receiver Luther Burden III's name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsement deals.

In addition to his daughters, Ashley and Taylore, Johnson is survived by several other family members, including his high school sweetheart and wife for 36 years, Pat Johnson; daughters Alexandria, Lakisha and Sydney; and son, Jalen.

Pat said there will be a memorial open to the public to celebrate Johnson's life. At this time, details about the memorial service are still being finalized. 

Guests will be allowed to speak for two minutes to pay tribute to Johnson. 

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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