Remembering ‘T’

By Laura Barlament

On the last weekend of 2018, Tyamonee Johnson ’18 M’19 was at home with his family in Fort Washington, Maryland. It was winter break at Wagner College, where Johnson was working on a master’s degree in accounting.

He could have gone on a ski trip with his parents — skiing was a favorite Johnson family vacation activity. But, he turned down the opportunity.

Tyamonee Johnson celebrates earning his bachelor's degree at Wagner commencement on May 11, 2018. He was shot and killed in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on December 30, 2018.

“He told us he needed to stay home and work, because he had the best shift on his valet job that weekend,” recalls his mother, Adrienne Johnson.

At age 22, Tyamonee Johnson embraced the significant responsibilities in his life: He had a beloved baby daughter, Lauryn, and a fiancée, Diamond Lyles. His work ethic was driven by his desire to provide for them. “He wanted to get as much money as he could, in case the baby needed anything,” explains Adrienne.

But on Sunday evening, December 30, Tyamonee Johnson was shot and killed in nearby Oxon Hill, Maryland. The Prince George’s County Police Department described what happened as a “domestic-related homicide.” On January 2, the police arrested 21-year-old Rondell Fletcher of Washington, D.C., and charged him with first- and second-degree murder.

Exactly what happened that night remains under police investigation. But what is known without a doubt is that Johnson’s death tore a great hole in the hearts of his family and his many friends at Wagner College, and represents a tragic loss of life with untold potential for good.

Tyamonee was the second of three children in the Johnson family, which also included his older brother, Erik, and younger sister, T’Reyah. He was born in Washington, D.C. The family moved to Fort Washington in Prince George’s County when he was about 2. His parents, Thierno and Adrienne, work for the Prince George’s County Public Schools

Tyamonee went to a well-regarded and high-achieving private prep school in Potomac, Maryland, the Bullis School, from seventh grade through the end of high school. For six years, he commuted well over an hour each way to go to his dream school, which he begged his parents to let him attend after he visited the campus as a sixth grader.

Johnson rushes with the ball during a football game.
A 5-11, 170-pound defensive back, Johnson was a member of the Wagner football team from 2014 to 2018, competing for four seasons as a Seahawk after redshirting his freshman year.

Tyamonee ran track and played football, which attracted the attention of Wagner College during his senior year, in 2014. Malik Hall, who is now the head football coach at Bates College, was then an assistant coach at Wagner, and he made a recruiting visit to Maryland. He remembers meeting a “solid family” who wanted their son to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“They had a dream for him, and he had his own dreams as well,” Hall says.

Tyamonee and his parents soon made their own visit to Wagner, and they were sold on it right away because of the small size and friendly people.

At Wagner, Tyamonee quickly became known as, simply, “T.” Coach Jason “Hoss” Houghtaling remembers him as always filled with energy and enthusiasm. “He had a positive influence on everyone,” Houghtaling says. “He was caring. He was compassionate. He was competitive. He was loyal. He was respectful.”

All Wagner students take a First-Year Learning Community during their first semester, comprising three courses with the same group of students, taught by two professors who also serve as the students’ academic advisors. Tyamonee had an interest in music and arts management, and his First-Year LC reflected those inclinations, combining an art class with a theater class.

Students post in front of a mural of a woman with butterflies.
On a tour of Brooklyn street murals with his First-Year Learning Community, Johnson stands on the far left.

Theatre professor Felicia Ruff remembers him well. Among the theater students in the class, he stood out as being quiet and reserved, yet engaged and eager to participate and learn, she says. “He was up for anything,” she remembers. “He was just open.”

Later, his academic interests gravitated toward business administration and accounting, and he declared a major in that area. He became a hardworking and high-achieving student in courses taught by business professors Peg Horan and Ian Wise, among others.

Horan remembers him as “very smart student” who was quiet, but was ready with a clever quip when the occasion called for it.

She recommended him and another student for an internship with the Staten Island District Attorney’s office, where he was exposed to the field of forensic accounting. He loved the work and hoped to pursue it as a career. And his supervisors were enthusiastic about him. “The feedback I got was, ‘Love them, send me more students like those,’” says Horan.

On the football team, Johnson made an indelible impression and strong bonds, which expanded into other programs at Wagner as well.

Curtis Wright, then-dean of campus life and chief diversity officer at Wagner, was launching a new mentoring program for minority students in 2014, and he extended an invitation to Johnson to join. Johnson’s response was not just to participate in the program, but to ask that Wright include other football players as well.

Johnson, his freshman roommate and fellow football player Tim Jackson ’18 M’20, and five more team members became a tight and supportive group of friends throughout their four years at Wagner. They were among the key members of Wagner’s Black and Latino Male Initiative, as well as a summer program, MOVE Beyond the Bench, that focuses on career and leadership training.

“The lesson he taught me was to go for it,” says his friend, Tim Jackson. “He lived a complete life. He wasn’t scared to take chances.”

Seven men dressed in graduation robes and caps look at the baby in Tyamonee's arms.
Surrounded by friends, including Tim Jackson (third from left), Johnson (center) cradles his daughter, Lauryn, at commencement 2018.

Wagner alumni Henry and Beth Cruz helped to start and to run the MOVE Beyond the Bench program, and they became close with Johnson through this experience.

“The affection and respect that everybody had for Tyamonee was unmistakable,” says Henry Cruz. “He was a walking smile. He looked for the good in everything.

“I never doubted he would be successful, because he was curious, he was passionate, he accepted responsibility, and he never stopped smiling.”

Wagner’s football coaching staff also emphasizes Johnson’s unfailing good spirits, which made him an invaluable team member. Johnson went through some personal ups and downs with the football team, Houghtaling explains, but he always met these challenges with a positive outlook. “No matter the situation, he was always positive,” says Coach Houghtaling. “He just kept working. He was 100 percent committed to Wagner football. He did everything that you asked him to do.”

Houghtaling was especially impressed by the team commitment and personal dedication he saw in Johnson during his last year at Wagner. When Johnson graduated with his bachelor’s degree, he still had a year of NCAA eligibility to play for Wagner, because he had been a red-shirt freshman. Johnson knew that he wanted to stay at Wagner to earn his master’s degree and to keep on playing football for that last year — but Houghtaling had made the wrenching decision not to offer him a scholarship.

Johnson accepted this decision with grace, and rededicated himself to the team. By the end of the summer football camp, Houghtaling had reversed his decision. To the applause of the entire team, he offered Johnson a scholarship.

Johnson was set to work as a graduate assistant in Wagner’s Early Childhood Center during the spring 2019 semester, alongside his good friend, Tim Jackson. He would have finished his master’s degree in May, and he intended to move back to Maryland, get married, and settle down. His parents say they had invited him and Diamond to live with them, so that they could save money to buy a house.

“It’s like the only thing that could stop him would have been a bullet,” says Henry Cruz, choking back a sob.

“I’m proud of the man who he was becoming and had become,” says Johnson’s father, Thierno. “He took his responsibilities seriously. He understood there were consequences for bad choices. I’m proud of his work ethic, his hard work.

“Everybody just needs to know that he loved life. He was trying to live it to its fullest every day. And he shared that joy with everybody. There was no Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Tyamonee. He was just that one way.”

“Thank Wagner from us, because he had a wonderful four and a half years,” adds his mother, Adrienne.