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Samantha Johnson announced her retirement from professional soccer on June 28, 2019. Seventeen months later, the 29-year-old decided to lace her boots back up and return to the sport she's loved her entire life. Though Johnson's departure was short, the time spent during those months helped determine her true purpose: serving underprivileged children.
Johnson's accomplishments includes stints with the National Women's Soccer League clubs Chicago Red Stars and Utah Royals FC. Now, the defender has gone international with W-League side Melbourne City in Australia. No matter where her career takes her, Johnson's commitment to helping the lives of disadvantaged youths will always be a priority thanks to her work with CASS | BETTER.
The former USC Trojan spoke to Yahoo Sports about her decision to come out of retirement, the importance of Black women speaking up and using soccer as a vehicle to connect with children stateside and Down Under.
Yahoo Sports: You mentioned in an ESPN article that one of the reasons behind returning to soccer was because it aligned with your purpose on and off the pitch. Can you speak more about how combining both soccer and being an example to future players has been a positive impact in your return to the game?
Samantha Johnson: Ever since I began my career, I've been on a mission to further the lives of kids and I feel like very few really know the extent of my involvement with them, especially the lives of children in my hometown of Palmdale, California. My main focus is education enhancement and during my five years of playing in Chicago, I was connected with various organizations and really learned how minority children with a disability or behavioral concerns get thrown into a system that doesn't benefit them or provide the appropriate attention they deserve.
I use soccer as a vehicle to spark conversations with them and find common ground. It's important to consistently set that example and now that I'm in Melbourne, I've taken on the extra responsibility of mentoring children who want to pursue a career in soccer. I definitely went through the process of recognizing that there were few players who looked like me and over time you just get used to it. Now that we're much older and playing at the professional level, we understand the infrastructure and we're trying to change that.
YS: Your dedication to the game is very admirable and surely the decision to walk away the first time wasn't easy. Where do you find your source of strength when you begin to feel mentally or physically drained?
SJ: Whether it's retiring or coming back, it's not an easy decision to make. To be honest, playing can sometimes get tiring and mentally draining. It takes every ounce of you to show up with the same passion every day and at a certain point you can't pretend anymore. I left the sport because I was so in love with it that I felt like I was disrespecting it at the same time. Not soccer itself, but the economic structure behind it was not giving me what I was putting into it. I couldn't continue showing up for training and faking as if it were all good when I felt a different way. That's how I knew I was doing the right thing by walking away.
Coming back was easier, My mindset was clearer and I recognized intentions better both on the pitch and off the pitch and that has been rewarding. I'm not going to outlive the sport, but I never want to feel like I'm taking advantage of it because I have so much love for it.
I find a lot of my motivation in the children I work with and my plans to change the narrative behind the sport. I think it's easier for me to stay motivated because I have so much intention behind why I'm doing something. You can definitely look at the examples others have done in their professional lives to spark something in you but at the end of the day, you have to be yourself and avoid comparisons as well.
YS: As evidenced over the past several years, when Black women speak up against injustices, they are quickly shot down or ignored. How do you respond to those who make it their mission to invalidate their words?
SJ: Things are evolving before our very eyes and the narrative is constantly shifting. I can say one thing today and a certain group will love me but if I take a stand on something they disagree with tomorrow, a different group will try and cancel me. I refuse to alter my beliefs because it's not considered mainstream. How I'm going to spark conversation that translates into change is by being consistent and true to myself. I refuse to be controlled by anyone else.
YS: We’re seeing the impact of athletes using their voice and platform to inspire a new class of activists, especially when it comes to racial injustice. What do you say to those who continue to doubt your influence and also to Black women who look up to you yet also struggle to find their voice?
SJ: The world is so big with so many people and and even more who need help. It's not like: "Oh, someone already claimed they were the voice of women's empowerment so I'm not going to do it." Erase that mentality. Everyone is impacting everyone differently. You have to do what you authentically want to do. I know my purpose is to better the lives of kids I meet throughout my career, no matter where I play. Don't pass the baton to somebody else when your purpose is meant to be just that. Yours.
Pass Her the Mic is a series by Yahoo Sports that profiles Black women at the intersection of sports and race, discussing various topics ranging from racial injustice to athlete activism.