The Parkside Warriors youth football team won back-to-back national championships in 2011 and 2012. But a deep sense of loss now consumes some of the pride Coach Dennis Harding feels when the Baltimore football program’s founder sees the team pictures.
The quarterbacks coach and his best friend since kindergarten, Bernard Richardson, was stabbed to death in November, the 300th killing in Baltimore last year. And last weekend, Cincere Johnson, the quarterback who led those teams on the field, was shot dead Saturday in the city.
“When I look at the team pictures, I see Bernard gone and Cincere gone,” Harding said. “Bernard and Cincere — they were the connecting forces to those two teams.”
Johnson, the only Baltimore quarterback to repeat as a Division 1 youth national champion, according to his former coach, was one of nine people killed over a violent Memorial Day weekend that prompted leaders to renew promises to try to stem the bloodshed in the city as summer approaches.
The 21-year-old had lived with his grandparents in Northeast Baltimore since age 7 and attended Northwood Elementary before graduating from Reginald F. Lewis High School in January after a year of virtual classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dwight Kerney, his grandfather.
The eldest of four, Johnson loved sneaking into the background of his younger siblings’ TikTok dance videos. Kerney recalled his skill at sports video games — and how he enjoyed his grandmother’s cooking and showing off his 6-foot-1 height by comically rubbing the top of his grandfather’s head.
“We really loved him here,” said Kerney, whom Johnson called “Pop-Pop.” “He made your day.”
At ages 10 and 11, he wasn’t the fastest or strongest player on the football field, Harding said, but he led his teams to consecutive 15-1 records with an ability to “cleverly piece together what we expected of him” and maintain his composure in crucial moments of the game.
Early in the 2012 championship game in Florida against a talented team from Michigan, Johnson threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, Harding recalled.
“But he settled down and made some big throws and made some great reads during the course of the game to put us in a position to go up,” the coach said.
“He got the most out of his abilities, just from his cleverness and his attention to detail,” Harding said. “The big stage would bring out the best in Cincere.”
Johnson hadn’t decided what he wanted to do with his life, his grandfather said, but his fond memories of playing in the American Youth Football league led him to consider pursuing a career in coaching.
“For the expectations of a young, Black male, he was doing pretty good,” Kerney said.
As an adult, Johnson had gotten into trouble, his grandfather acknowledged. He pleaded guilty to illegally possessing a firearm last July and was sentenced to probation, according to court records. He served eight months of house arrest, Kerney said, after police allegedly found a gun in a car he was riding in.
“He could not wait to get out,” Kerney said. “I was like, ‘Calm down. Slow down, buddy.’”
After the ankle monitor came off, Kerney said, he would text his grandson each night around 11 p.m. to beckon him home: “Cincere, you good? Get in here before I lock the door.”
“Every night, he would call me back and say he was on his way,” Kerney said. “This time, I texted him, waited a while, texted him again, and no text. A little bit after that, we got a call that Cincere had been shot.”
The shooting happened just after midnight Saturday in the 800 block of Stirling St. in East Baltimore’s Latrobe Homes, police said. Police have not announced an arrest in the killing, and homicide detectives have provided few details to the family, Kerney said.
“They think he was leaning in a car, looking in a car, and talking to somebody,” his grandfather said, “and people came from around the corner and shot my poor boy.”
Anyone with information in the case is asked to call homicide detectives at 410-396-2100. Services for Johnson are private.
His death has left a painful void in the home he’d shared with his grandparents for 14 years.
“This is going to be hard, him not coming out of that basement, not coming up to eat,” Kerney said.