Living the Bike Life How one man found redemption in dirt bikes

By Leila Atassi, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio - They were once seen as misfits among their inner-city peers -weird, motorcycle-obsessed kids (from a weird, motorcycle-obsessed family), who spent every free moment tinkering with their dirt bikes and racing them through hidden acres of Cleveland's city parks.

But decades later, cousins Johnnie and Dwayne Burton are central figures in an urban dirt biking culture that has become a phenomenon so viral, it has prompted Mayor Frank Jackson to propose building a dirt bike track to give youth a safer and city-sanctioned place to ride.

While that proposal works its way through the bureaucracy of City Hall, the Burtons, both certified motorcycle technicians, serve as gurus of bike repair for dozens of wheelie heroes, whose tricks and death-defying stunts on city streets have earned them national acclaim on social media.

The cousins' recently formed non-profit, the Bob Burton Foundation -- an homage to their grandfather -- is dedicated to teaching basic bike maintenance to inner-city youth and promoting the sport as a gateway to a career in racing, engineering or event marketing.

Plainly put: A path to a better life. An identity. A defense against poverty, gangs, violence and drugs, forces that can undermine a young person's best intentions.

And in that regard, perhaps no one knows the sport's potential quite like Johnnie Burton, who lost his 20s to a poor decision with tragic consequences - and found redemption in dirt bikes.

The early days of a dirt bike obsession

Like the lore of many families, exactly who initiated the Burton family motorcycle obsession depends on whom you ask.

Johnnie Burton's father, Johnnie Sr., says it was him, and most family members tend to agree.

Johnnie Sr. said it all started one day in 1965. He was hanging out on East 105th Street ("It was popping back then, a main drag"), when a pack of motorcyclists cruised by.

"They were doing fancy stuff," he said in a recent interview. "Spinning their wheels, going in circles. I said, 'I want to look like that.'"

He learned on a Honda Dream 50 - then taught his friends, his parents and siblings. The Burtons describe catching the obsession the way one might catch a cold - inevitable, once contact is made.

"I got my whole family into it," said Johnnie Sr., who, for decades, has lived in a house next door to his parents' home on East 93rd Street. "My mom and pop, nieces and nephews. ... It brought joy to our family, and it kept us going."

When he returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam, he resumed riding and upgraded to a Harley Davidson. The family planned every weekend around their passion for motorcycles. And when Johnnie Jr., Dwayne and the rest of the younger Burton generation came along, they joined in. They'd pack coolers and camping gear, load bikes onto trailers and haul them to the countryside or to the races.

Baby's first wheels 

Johnnie Burton Jr. can't remember a time when motorcycles weren't a part of his life. By the time he and Dwayne were 8 years old, they were riding full-sized bikes -- though Johnnie jokes that they needed to stand on a crate to get on the seat and couldn't stop the bike until someone caught them.

Dwayne's dad would take them riding, and eventually the boys would walk their bikes down to a park near Daniel E. Morgan Elementary School a few blocks away, where they would rocket down straightaways. For Johnnie, the freedom was in how fast he could fly.

But at that time, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Johnnie Jr. and Dwayne were the only ones among their peers who rode motorcycles. And Johnnie, who lived with his mother and stepbrothers in East Cleveland, could only indulge his passion when he visited his dad and grandparents.

Johnnie had turned 8 when his mother began suffering with a chronic illness, and he felt a duty to care for her. But it was a lot for a boy to take on, and he remembers acting out to escape the responsibilities that had been heaped upon him.

That stress was compounded by the pressures of the street and the fact that Johnnie was small for his age. Always forced to stick up for himself, Johnnie became a champion of the underdog, jumping into action when he saw bullies picking on others in the neighborhood.

He also began carrying a gun.

Johnny Burton talks about his past. (Photo by Mark Naymik/cleveland.com)

A poor decision, a tragic turn of events

Johnnie Jr. graduated from Shaw High School in East Cleveland in 1995. But soon afterward, he made a split-second decision that would cost him more than a decade of his life.

On July 11, 1996, just days before his 19th birthday, Johnnie and a friend had gone to visit a female acquaintance on East 111th Street. When they arrived, they found that she had been beaten, and that the man she accused of attacking her, 18-year-old Dionysus Dowd, was still on the scene. Johnnie said he and his friend came to the woman's defense. While the men argued outside the house, Johnnie recalled, a group of Dowd's friends arrived, high on PCP.

What happened next is something of a blur, Johnnie recalled. Neighbors said they heard shouting, then gunshots and found Dowd lying alone on the driveway. One neighbor attempted CPR, but Dowd barely had a pulse and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Johnnie said he fired his gun once -- then ran away. The bullet hit Dowd in the back.

Johnnie initially faced the death penalty. But he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and felonious assault with a weapons charge and was sentenced to 13 years behind bars.

'Never give up on yourself'

Several years into his prison sentence, Johnnie decided that he wanted to be nothing like the men around him. Most aspired to little outside the prison walls. And he never wanted to return there - a place where you instantly relinquish your modesty, your name, your rights and your humanity.

"You are nothing of value there," Johnnie said, reflecting on his years in prison. "And eventually, if you begin to think that, your habits begin to act as if that's true. My job was to make sure that didn't happen to me.... I couldn't let that be my story."

So Johnnie spent his free time reading books and taking classes. He became a certified machinist (though he recognized that finding work with a felony on his record would be its own hurdle.) And in the final four years of his time served, he joined a group of inmates who traveled to area high schools and spoke to students about the importance of harnessing their life's potential.

His message: Never give up on yourself.

Years later, Johnnie said, he has taught motorcycle repair to students who told him that they were in the audience during one of those motivational speeches, and stayed out of trouble as a result.

Dwayne leads Johnnie back to the path

When Johnnie left prison, he was 32 years old and without a notion of what kind of life awaited him on the outside.

But he was greeted by his rock-solid family -- and his cousin, Dwayne.

In a recent interview, Johnnie was moved to tears when he remembered the day he returned to his grandfather's house on East 93rd Street, walked into Dwayne's bedroom and found that a framed photo of himself, wearing his riding jersey on his dirt bike had been hanging prominently on the wall for 13 years.

A symbol, not of wasted time, but of potential that was still lying dormant.

Dwayne, who works as a chef at an assisted living facility, kept his cousin on the straight-and-narrow in those first few difficult months, always pushing him toward an honest day's pay. Johnnie worked odd jobs, and shared a newspaper delivery route with Dwayne.

Then one day, Dwayne heard an ad on the radio for the PowerSport Institute, a branch of the Ohio Technical College that had opened in 2007 within the skeleton of the old JCPenney department store at the defunct Randall Park Mall.

It would be a chance to formally learn the trade they had taught themselves as kids, a chance to earn certifications and perhaps launch a career doing the very thing they loved most - building and repairing motorcycles.

Dwayne told Johnnie about the new school, and they both enrolled in 2009.

Johnnie excelled in the 12-month program, while he simultaneously helped to build the unfinished sections of the school.

When he graduated, the PowerSport Institute offered Johnnie a teaching position.

Johnnie's supervisor, Ron Radeke, said in a recent interview that Johnnie has a talent for motivating others around him, making him a natural fit for the teaching staff. And Johnnie finds ways to relate to every student he meets - youth from the inner city and rural areas alike, Radeke said.

"He took his hard knocks," Radeke said. "And he has turned them into being able to motivate and educate the youth that come in. And with Johnnie's experience with the dirt bike scene, a lot of students tend to gravitate toward him."

Dirt biking catches fire

And Johnnie's following extended beyond the PowerSport Institute.

He had come to realize that while he was behind bars, dirt biking had grown in popularity among youth in Cleveland and major cities nationwide. Without dirt tracks nearby, riders took to performing stunts in the streets. But their bikes - and what they were doing with them - weren't always legal.

And despite the burgeoning popularity of the sport, bike retailers and repair shops were scarce in Cleveland. So Johnnie began fixing bikes for those involved in what had become known as the Bike Life movement.

Today, apart from his day job at PSI, Johnnie runs his own side business - a bike pick-up and repair service out of his home in Bedford, where he now lives with his fiancee, Corrine, and their 3-year-old son, Justus. He divides his free time between that shop and the garages behind his father's and grandfather's side-by-side homes on East 93rd Street, where he and Dwayne service bikes for Cleveland street riders.

And each summer, continuing the tradition their grandfather began decades earlier, the cousins organize a campout for dozens of dirt bike and ATV riders and their families. At the summer retreat, held in the countryside, riders race and practice their tricks without fear of arrest.

Many of the riders have found a true passion in dirt biking, Johnnie said. The sport has broadened their view of their own capabilities, and they've become interested in learning more about the mechanics of their bikes and possible career paths related to the sport.

But first, they need a local, legal place to ride.

"I always knew that someday, someone was going to come through that door and hear my message," Johnnie said. "And I just happened to be in the place where they were looking."

Then, in walks the mayor

One day, while Johnnie was between teaching classes at PSI, the mayor showed up with Community Relations Director Blaine Griffin and asked if anyone there could talk with them about Cleveland's dirt bike culture and what could be done to legitimize it with a bike track.

All eyes went to Johnnie.

Driving the track plan is the expectation that Bike Life is about much more than a hobby, the mayor explained. It has the power to unify youth from warring neighborhoods, to curb violence among members of an at-risk population, and then, to set them on a path toward possible careers in power sports. The park would include a bike repair facility and classroom.

The proposed investment: $2 million, well spent.

Out of that meeting, the mayor and Griffin assembled a committee of sorts - a group that represented talented riders, mechanics and marketers behind Bike Life - to help design a track with the hope of drawing riders off the streets and into the facility.

The group met with the mayor and his team of in-house planners to come up with a conceptual sketch of what a facility, located at what is now the Marion Motley Playfield at East 73rd Street, could entail. Johnny roughly sketched out a circuitous dirt track, practice areas and, most importantly, a quarter-mile stretch of pavement to satisfy the street riders. The city's planners adopted the design into the city's conceptual renderings.

The group appeared in August before City Council. But some council members pushed back against the proposal, arguing that the city does a poor job of maintaining its existing recreational facilities. Other members characterized the dirt bike riders as lawless kids, destroying city property and terrorizing the neighborhoods.

To break down that stereotype, the city sponsored a Bike Life festival in the city's Muni lot last month. The event was attended by Jackson, whose grandson is an avid rider.

Leading by example

On a recent afternoon, in the dappled shade of their grandfather's backyard, Johnnie and Dwayne tended to the bikes of two customers, who waited eagerly for their rides to get fixed.

It was the carburetor and a loose chain that were causing the trouble with 25-year-old John Speed's bike. (And yes, he says, that is his real name.)

"Some guys think that if they loosen their chain, it improves their wheelie game," Dwayne said, tightening the chain to its normal tension.

"But it's all in their minds," he added with a smile.

It's the kind of subtle, teachable moment that Johnnie and Dwayne are known for, and they believe there can be more of them.

Johnnie says he wishes he had known earlier in life about the potential for a career in motorcycles. A project like the one the city has proposed could be that missing link for many rootless Cleveland youth.

"I don't know where I would be today if I had gone straight to motorcycle school after high school," Johnnie said. "There are a bunch of kids out here who don't know the same things I didn't know. And now that I'm out here, it's my job to tell them. ... You know that old saying, 'It takes a village to raise one individual.' Well, we've got an actual village. And if the Burton family has to lead by example, that's what we're going to do."

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