Pat Kennedy had just returned home from a Garth Brooks concert in Charlotte in July when he received a phone call that still haunts him to this day.

It was bad news: His good friend Charles Johnson had gone missing in Raleigh, North Carolina.

By chance had Kennedy seen or heard from him lately?

Hold on.

Charles Johnson? Missing?

This was the same Charles Everett Johnson who always was so easy to find as a football receiver in his prime – first in college at Colorado and then in the NFL, where he played nine seasons for several teams, including Pittsburgh, the team that drafted him in the first round in 1994.

“People reached out to me to ask me if I knew where he was because Charles and I hung out all the time,” said Kennedy, the athletic director at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, North Carolina. “Everybody had concerns as far as what could be going on.”

Johnson also wasn’t the kind of guy who can easily hide. In recent years, when he worked with Kennedy at Heritage High as an assistant athletic director, people could always tell when Johnson was in the building.

“He just had an unbelievable laugh that still resonates down our hallway,” Kennedy told USA TODAY Sports.

Charles Johnson played for the Steelers from 1994-98.
Charles Johnson played for the Steelers from 1994-98.

Then there was that smile of his. It announced his presence nearly everywhere he went after he survived a difficult childhood in San Bernardino, California, including a mother who was addicted to cocaine, a father he never knew and a suicide attempt by Johnson to escape it all in high school in the 1980s.

So where could he have gone that he couldn’t be found? And why did he go there?

It’s a question that is still troubling the football and high school community in the Triangle region of North Carolina, where Johnson had touched the lives of so many students and athletes after settling down there with his wife after his NFL career ended in 2002.

“It’s just like a shock,” said Brian Pate, a realtor and former town commissioner in Wake Forest who also served as the public-address announcer at Heritage High football games. “I’ve had multiple former players contacting me and saying, ‘Hey, what do you know (about Johnson)?’ I’m like, ‘Guys, I don’t know anything.’ ”

What they do know is Johnson is dead at age 50 after his body was found at a Hampton Inn in Raleigh July 17, a day after he went missing. But they don’t know how or why.

Raleigh police said the case is still under investigation and have not released information about the suspected cause of death except to say "there were no signs of foul play."

Another friend from high school in San Bernardino said that Johnson told him several years ago that he was seeing a medical specialist to address symptoms associated with head trauma from football.

“It was the ringing in the head, maybe one too many hits,” the friend, Doneka Buckner, told USA TODAY Sports.

Whether that’s related to his death is still unknown. In the meantime, there’s been no memorial or public funeral for them to say goodbye and pay their respects. The only public remembrance that was allowed at Heritage High came with a moment of silence at the school’s first football game. Kennedy also wore Johnson’s old Colorado jersey No. 9 in his honor that day.

“The family is extremely private,” Kennedy said. “They did not even want a service, any type of large service or anything else for Charles, which was difficult because he was loved in the community. He had an amazing personality, right? There’s not one person you’d come across that said anything negative about him, and so it was hard for the community. It’s hard to come to that closure when there’s so many questions.”

Multiple attempts by USA TODAY Sports to reach his family, including his wife and mother, were unsuccessful.

“It’s tough,” Buckner said. “Closure is definitely not there.”

Instead there are only clues – sparse hints about how he died, along with a long trail of tracks about how he lived and loved.

The day before

His wife, Tanisha, called police to report him missing at 10:05 a.m. on July 16, according to police records. It was another warm summer Saturday in Raleigh, where they had bought a newly built home in 2015, more than two decades after they both starred as college athletes at Colorado – her as a record-setting sprinter, him as a record-setting pass catcher for the Buffaloes.

The police couldn’t find him, either, until they got a call to check on the welfare of a person at the Hampton Inn in northeast Raleigh, only about 6.5 miles from Johnson’s home. An occupant had not checked out of his room. Hotel staff and police responded to find Johnson’s deceased body inside.

“Mr. Charles Everett Johnson, 50, was reported missing on July 16,” said a statement from Lt. Jason Borneo of Raleigh police. “Mr. Johnson is no longer listed as a missing person."

This then summarizes what is publicly known: He went missing, then was found dead a day later in a local hotel room, but police do not suspect foul play.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Pate, who also was a friend of Johnson. “He always was happy. He always was smiling.”

Any health problems that might have developed from head trauma in football also were not apparent to Kennedy, who had scheduled a tee time to golf with Johnson the week after he died.

A CU news release about his death noted a long list of accomplishments and friendships he had earned after a rough and sometimes homeless life before college. Many years ago, he told reporters about how he had recovered from a suicide attempt as a teenager in California. Back then, he was hopeless. But then he found so much happiness.

Unstable upbringing

Sports Illustrated summarized Johnson’s troubled early years in an article before his senior season at CU in 1993. It described an unstable family life in San Bernardino County with him living in 15 different places in four years, including welfare hotels.

One night he wrote a note to his mom and sister, telling them goodbye and that he loved them.

He then proceeded to take “a cornucopia of prescription drugs” and other medicine he found belonging to his mother. He said he didn’t know how many he took. “I lost count at 42,” he said in the article.

His sister found him and helped him survive.

“When I tried to commit suicide, it just didn’t seem like I had any future,” Johnson said in the article. “So I thought, forget it. That was the first time I ever attempted something, failed and was happy about it.”

Buckner’s family took care of him after that. Then his fortunes soared. At CU, he lettered in track and set records in football, including 12 games with at least 100 yards receiving, a mark that still stands. He also earned his marketing degree in three years and was the No. 17 overall selection in the NFL draft by the Steelers, who gave him an initial four-year, $4.5 million contract.

By the time his NFL career was over, he had caught 354 passes for 4,606 yards, including 24 touchdowns. He also played for the New England Patriots when they won a Super Bowl in February 2002.

Yet the next chapter of his life still might have been the best. It was also his last.

‘So easy to love’

After the NFL, he established roots in the Triangle region, having learned from Steelers teammate Dewayne Washington that it was “a great place to raise a family,” according to Kennedy. Washington, a former star at North Carolina State, became the football coach at Heritage High, which was founded in 2010. Kennedy also got hired as the athletic director there and brought in Johnson, whom he had known from their time coaching at nearby Wakefield High.

At Heritage, Johnson’s duties included being a teaching assistant, administrator and assistant football coach on a staff that also once included former NFL and N.C. State star Torry Holt.

Johnson “always had a smile on his face,” former Heritage and current N.C. State receiver Thayer Thomas told USA TODAY Sports. “Never anything wrong at all.”

In March 2018, Johnson was honored as a “hometown hero” for serving as a community role model in high school athletics. Kennedy said at the time that Johnson had been tutoring students on his own time, helped a senior student pass classes to help him graduate and even took the student shopping for graduation clothes.

“The students and parents adore his kindness and professionalism,” Kennedy said when honoring Johnson then.

Stories like this abound in the halls of Heritage. Another example is Thomas, who joined N.C. State as a non-scholarship player but since has caught 21 touchdown passes, second in school history after Holt.

“He always believed in me,” Thomas said of Johnson. “A lot of people might have not. He gave me an opportunity. He was loyal and believed in my abilities and saw something in me. He was always there.”

Their time together dates when Thomas attended a youth football skills academy led by Washington and Johnson, followed by Thomas’ middle-school years, when Thomas often hung around the gym.

“He would always turn on the lights for me when I was a middle-schooler so I could shoot hoops and get workouts in,” Thomas said.

After Johnson recently retired from his job at Heritage, Thomas said he came back to help honor him earlier this year. It was the last time he saw him.

“It really doesn’t make any sense to me,” Thomas said of Johnson’s death. “I respect his kids and his wife and my condolences go out to them. It doesn’t make sense to any of us.”

Johnson is survived by his wife and two children, who also played sports at Heritage. His son, Charles Jr., went on to join the football team at Western Carolina. Daughter Cydney plays basketball at North Carolina’s High Point University.

“He was so easy to love because he loved people so easily, you know what I mean?” Pate said. “It really sucks that he’s gone.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Charles Johnson’s mysterious death baffles friends of ex-NFL player