Freedom football twins Owen and Kyle Johnson went from Haitian orphanage to stardom – The Morning Call

During the 2021 high school season, movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made a video that pleasantly surprised the Freedom High football team, where he was once a team member.

The special production included a donation of new equipment and a colorful pep talk that featured Johnson’s hope that the Patriots would win its next game against Allentown Central Catholic.

Johnson was happy Freedom won the game, and probably even more thrilled the team went on to win the District 11 6A championship.

But there’s another happy ending involving Patriots football that the Hollywood star might be interested in — one that might be worthy of the big screen.

It involves twins Kyle and Owen Johnson who went from a Haitian orphanage (where they were malnourished) and brought to the Lehigh Valley by a Lehigh University sociology professor. The educator not only took care of her adopted sons but raised them to be outstanding young men. Both now flourish on the football field.

The story of Kyle and Owen Johnson — who will be key senior members of the defending District 11 champion Freedom football team this fall — and their mother Heather, is heartwarming and shows the power of persistence in doing what you want to do in life and doing something few would ever want or think to do.

For as long as she could remember, Heather Johnson wanted to adopt children.

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “But from as far back as I can remember, I wanted to adopt children. Everybody who knew me as a child would attest to this. I wanted to adopt and I had no interest in bearing children. There was no epiphany, no inspirational experience. I always had in my head that I wanted to adopt. It’s irrational, but I was very driven to do this.”

Johnson earned a Ph.D. in sociology and became a professor. As she gained tenure, the desire to adopt intensified.

“I started really researching and figuring out what to do,” she said. “Everybody was telling me, ‘You’re crazy. Why would you want to do that?’ And they would say they felt sorry for me because they thought I couldn’t have my own children. But I told them it was a life choice. They said ‘Oh, you’re going to write your ticket to heaven.’ But I tried to explain it wasn’t about that. I just felt it was my purpose in life.”

Johnson began the adoption process and called at least 20 agencies that always had plenty of questions for her.

Do you want a boy or girl? Do you want a child from this country or somewhere else in the world? Would you adopt a child that’s not white? An Asian child? A Hispanic child? A Black child?

“They asked me if I would adopt a full Black child, something I had never heard of before,” she said. “I kept saying yes to what they were asking me. Then they said, if you’re serious about this, would you be willing to go to Haiti? I heard of Haiti but didn’t know anything about it. I asked why Haiti. They said because there’s so much need for adoption in Haiti and so few people want to adopt from Haiti.”

Johnson pursued a Haiti adoption and found an agency in Montana that handled Haitian adoptions.

A long, often tedious process began that stretched for months, but Johnson wasn’t deterred.

“They told me right up front that it will be a boy because nobody wants boys,” she said. “If you’re willing to take a boy, you’re going to get a boy. I said, ‘Great, get me a boy from Haiti,’ and I said, “As young as possible.’ They asked more questions: Would I be willing to take a child with special needs? With disabilities? Would I be willing to take multiples? I said, ‘What’s that?’ They said, ‘Twins.’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ ”

On May 8, 2004, the two boys who would be named Kyle and Owen Johnson were born in Cité Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, which Johnson described as one of the worst slums on the planet.

“Their birth mother had them in a clinic and she was determined to have them adopted,” Johnson said. “It’s extremely rare because the culture in Haiti is to do everything you can to try to raise your own child. Mothers go to great lengths to keep their babies and will die to raise them even though they are often malnourished themselves. They cannot produce their mother’s milk because they’re malnourished and the babies begin to starve of malnutrition.

“Kyle and Owen’s mother knew she wanted her babies to go straight to an orphanage.”

Unfortunately, orphanages in Haiti often aren’t equipped to handle newborns, especially not twin newborns. Johnson got a call from the agency telling her about the twin boys and asking if she’d take them.

“I didn’t even think twice; I said yes,” she said. “My mother thought I was crazy. There was a lot of drama, but I said I was doing it and I thought it was great because I didn’t have to adopt again because I always wanted the one to have a sibling. To me, it was perfect.”

But the process was far from perfect.

Johnson had to wade through all kinds of paperwork and red tape and finally, in Jan. of 2005, she went to Haiti and got to meet her sons, who were almost nine months old.

“When I first saw them they were very malnourished,” she said. “They were only 13 pounds each and they had a lot of physical problems related to being malnourished. But they were alive. And they were the cutest things I had ever seen in my life.”

As she brought Kyle and Owen home to Pennsylvania, Johnson’s priority was to find a doctor who had experience with orphanage care.

“They were not physically well and they had never received medical care,” she said. “So I had to find the right doctor and incredibly, I found Yulia Aleksandrova, who had done her residency in Russian orphanages and she agreed to take this on even before seeing Kyle and Owen. I talked it all through with her and prepared her so that when we hit the ground in the U.S., the next morning we were at her office, and Kyle and Owen had a whole medical team assessing them.”

After a three-hour evaluation, Aleksandrova said she had good news and bad news.

“The good news was that they were going to live, but the bad news is they were likely to have stunted growth and a lot of physical and developmental delays,” Johnson said. “I was happy they were going to live, but they were going to be these little, tiny malnourished kids. Mathematically, that’s what they were supposed to be. I was fine with it and thought they were going to be in the chess club or debate team. I’m a professor, so I thought this is perfect for me.”

But things changed in a big way. In a span of about eight months, Kyle and Owen went from being in the bottom percentile for height and weight to the top percentile.

“They walked at 10 months and were running and swimming at 12 months,” Johnson said. “They were incredibly physically gifted from the time they were toddlers and everyone knew they were going to be athletes. But it was a complete miracle. It was nothing I anticipated or expected.”

Johnson said the boys loved every sport they tried and they excelled at each.

“I liked them playing, but the only sports I said no to were football, wrestling, and boxing,” she said. “From the time they were 5, they started begging me to play football. ‘Please, please, please we want to play football.’ But I kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ ”

Johnson said Kyle and Owen played basketball and were good at it. They played AAU ball for Chris Muniz, father of former Morning Call Player of the Year Jevin Muniz.

“Chris is the one who came to me and said I should let them play football because it would make them better basketball players,” Johnson said. “So, in seventh grade, they started playing at East Hills Middle School. It was immediately apparent that football was their passion. So I had to adjust my mindset to accept it. It was not what I would have chosen, but this is who they are and what they love and I was going to get behind them.”

By eighth grade, both boys were fully devoted to football and had decided they wanted to pursue college careers and as they approach their senior seniors, their dreams are close to becoming reality.

According to Freedom coach Jason Roeder, both are being recruited extensively. Kyle received the first college football offer for the Patriots this year. Owen has received at least five Division I offers with more likely to come for both as their final scholastic football seasons approach.

Johnson was married at the time she adopted Kyle and Owen, but in 2015 the couple divorced and she has been raising the twins as a single mom for the past seven years.

The boys say she has done an excellent job, and they haven’t lost sight of how blessed they are to be in this country and to have someone who cares about them.

“We’re the lucky ones,” Owen Johnson said. “There are so many kids in Haiti who never get adopted. and at a certain age, they have to live on the streets. There are so many others who get adopted and it doesn’t work out. So, for me, I think it was luck. Maybe it was fate. I strive to be someone special and kind of represent those kids who didn’t get the same opportunity we did.”

“Sometimes you have to stop and look around and I get three meals a day, sometimes even more because I have to stay strong for football,” Kyle Johnson said. “I have to get my body perfect to be able to perform. There are people from where I came from that don’t have that chance. They don’t have food. That’s why I try not to waste food because I think of the people in Haiti who don’t have what we have.”

Owen and Kyle Johnson were both All-Eastern Pennsylvania Conference South selections last year and big reasons why Freedom was a district champ. Owen, listed at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, was a first-team selection at wide receiver and a second-team choice at inside linebacker and Kyle joined his brother on the second team as an inside linebacker.

Roeder said that wherever they end up, they will enhance their new program.

“I’m very excited for their future … their senior year and beyond,” Roeder said. “They have all the tools to be successful. They are great kids, great students with AP [advanced placement] courses and a GPA above 4.0. They do all the right things and a lot of the credit goes to how they were raised. Their mother has done a fantastic job. Their story is amazing.”

Their story was something Heather Johnson was somewhat reluctant to tell.

“A lot of people have suggested to me over the years that I should write a book or do a documentary about their story, but I made a vow that I would never tell their story unless they wanted me to and would do it with me,” she said. “People say stuff that can be hurtful. They’ll say ‘Oh, you’re like Sandra Bullock in ‘The Blind Side’ or you’re like Angelina Jolie. I just never wanted to exploit their lives in any way.

“But Chris Muniz said to me that this is a story that should be told. It is a burden for Kyle and Owen to constantly tell their story. It’s nice to have it out there.”

Kyle Johnson said the older he gets the more he realizes how unique his story is.

“Adoptions have been a big topic in our house my whole life,” he said. “We were adopted and we’re not going to pretend that didn’t happen. We celebrate and talk about our story and I realize how special it is.”

Owen Johnson said that when he was growing up he didn’t think his story was unusual, but now realizes how special it is.

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“I know other people who were adopted, but I haven’t seen any story like mine,” he said. “Nothing even close. I’ve always said I was lucky to be adopted and I could have ended up in any part of the world. But I was lucky to get Heather Johnson here in the Lehigh Valley. It has started to dawn on me how special this is and you realize that getting to this point is kind of a miracle.

Heather Johnson doesn’t consider herself a miracle worker, just someone who wanted to do something good in the world, something she had in her heart.

Once she brought Kyle and Owen into her life, she had to balance a career and motherhood. She gave it everything she had, an approach that has rubbed off on Kyle and Owen, and now they are set up for great futures on the football field and beyond.

It will be an emotional moment this coming season when Freedom honors its seniors and Heather Johnson gets to walk out on the field at BASD Stadium with the cute little babies she found in the orphanage in Haiti. Meera Johnson, Heather Johnson’s biological daughter who adores her brothers will be leading the cheers.

“I think we’re all very grateful that things worked out the way they did,” Kyle Johnson said. “Mom’s grateful. We’re all grateful.”

“When you think back, everyone thought I was crazy,” she said. “I just followed my bliss and bliss has followed. These are my dream sons and this is the most amazing, blissful life we’re living. People think the boys are lucky, but I am the lucky one. I have the best, most amazing kids in the world and I’m on this incredible journey. I’m in the back seat and they’re driving and I’m looking out the window of an amazing ride.”

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