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Past, future collide for one Michigan football family as Dr. Anderson scandal reverberates

  • June 22, 2021

The subject isn’t broached in their household.

Father and son consider it irrelevant in the current context of Michigan football.

Both agree the worst of it has been consigned to a bygone era and shouldn’t affect the current team.

But Deon and Will Johnson understand they can’t ignore it even though they don’t speak about it. The Dr. Robert Anderson sex abuse scandal rocking the University of Michigan has been met with awkward silence by a family now bridging Michigan’s past with its future.

Deon, a defensive back for the Wolverines from 1990-94, has brushed aside the controversial topic. Will, a five-star cornerback prospect from Grosse Pointe who committed to Michigan in February, isn’t focused on it.

“It hasn’t had much to do with me,” he told the Free Press.

So, Will hasn’t pressed his father about it, and Deon hasn’t been willing to discuss it when others have tried to solicit his thoughts.

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Deon said. “I don’t want to start talking about it.”

It’s a personal matter, after all. As a player, Deon said he was examined by Anderson, a longtime team physician who worked at Michigan from 1966 to 2003 and is accused of molesting hundreds of patients during his tenure.

whose legacy has recently been challenged by victims claiming he didn’t intervene when told of Anderson’s misconduct.

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Deon once shared the same locker room with former running back Jon Vaughn, an outspoken survivor who this past week called for the university’s leadership to cooperate with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel so that an investigation into Anderson’s transgressions can be conducted.

The controversy surrounding the late doctor has made headlines at a pivotal time for Michigan football, when a recruiting rush has unfolded in June following the end of a 14-month dead period that barred in-person contact with prospects. On multiple occasions during recent weeks, the Johnsons have made the short trek to visit Ann Arbor, where the Anderson scandal has reverberated everywhere but inside the program at the center of it.

“Nobody has mentioned it,” Deon said. “It hasn’t been a topic of discussion. I don’t plan on talking to anybody up there about it. I think it’s probably one of those things if you don’t bring it up it won’t be discussed.”

Will confirmed as much.

“I haven’t heard too much about it,” he said.

Ranked the No. 12 recruit in the nation by 247Sports, Will is the centerpiece of the 2022 class Michigan has begun to assemble. He could help lead a revival after the Wolverines stumbled to a 2-4 record during the 2020 season, and head coach Jim Harbaugh orchestrated an offseason staff shakeup designed to set Michigan on a different course.

WilmerHale law firm later said the school failed to act and stop a serial abuser.

“That was something that was a different era,” Deon said. “You had different people in charge about what was going on. I think today, something like that wouldn’t be able to happen. … I don’t think they’ll let it happen again.”

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Vaughn is determined to ensure it doesn’t.

“I tell you what, we are going to effect change before his son gets out of there,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “We are going to do everything we possibly can in this fight to protect his son, and I will see to that personally.”

Vaughn and Deon crossed paths briefly during the 1990 season when they were teammates, but haven’t kept in touch.    

They have different perspectives on the Anderson scandal and its residual impact. Deon is convinced the university is different now than it was then, noting there is new leadership. Vaughn is not, citing the recent fallout from the sexual misconduct that led to provost Martin Philbert’s ouster.

Deon backed Will when he chose to follow in his footsteps at Michigan. Vaughn said he supports their decision and would never dissuade anyone from seeking an education at Michigan, but if he had a child who was currently recruited by the football program, he wouldn’t allow him to play for the Wolverines.

“No,” he said. “Not with what I know right now. Not with what’s going on right now. … As things stand today, not at all. Without question. Because I don’t think things have changed at the university.”

His ex-teammate disagrees.

“That situation was not the same as it is now,” Deon said.

For that reason, Deon continues to stand behind the program his son is set to play for next year.

“I think they are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Going forward, instead of backwards — which is how the Johnsons prefer it in a household where the focus is on Michigan’s future rather than a past exhumed because of scandal.

Contact Rainer Sabin at Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin

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