Down near the docks in Port Arthur, Texas, a once rowdy seaport and refinery town that has seen its day, sits the public library. It's a source of local pride not only for its staunch, clean appearance amid abandoned buildings on deserted streets, but also because it serves as the town's museum. Near the rows of books are tributes to the region's best-known citizens, mostly musicians and athletes, with their sheet music and high school yearbooks and game jerseys on display. From Tex Ritter to the Big Bopper, from Bum Phillips to Tim McKyer, a wonderful menagerie of free spirits who dreamed bigger dreams than Port Arthur, even in its heyday, could handle are celebrated there. Two of the more prominent exhibits are busts of Janis Joplin and Jimmy Johnson, former schoolmates at Thomas Jefferson High, class of 1960 and '61, respectively.
A smart girl and a smart boy, equally driven but in different directions—each was somewhat disgusted by the other's burgeoning talents and antithetical personality. Janis, a painter of some merit and a folk singer in those days, had the look of a beatnik and was called Beat Weeds. Jimmy could solve algebra problems at a glance and write term papers worthy of A's the night before they were due. He was a football lineman with the scars of childhood street ball showing through his burr haircut and was called Scar Head.
By a quirk in scheduling, Janis and Jimmy once had to put up with each other in a history class for an entire school year, she seated behind him. He would tease the weirdo, "give her a hard time, irritate her," he remembers; she would scoff at the jock and ignore him as best she could.
Worlds apart sat adjacent that way in Port Arthur. At one end of Procter Street, the main drag, stood the whorehouses, the gambling joints and the brawling saloons—all flouting Texas law for merchant sailors' cash. At the other end of Procter was a populace conservative in thought and speech, living on quiet, tree-lined streets and faithfully attending church. Port Arthur was a Texas boomtown, sprouting refinery pipelines and freighter masts, and as it was just 50 miles from the Louisiana line, it was also a Cajun town, with signs for boudin and the strains of twin fiddles. Port Arthur was segregated, but there was a middle ground where working-class whites and blacks lived so closely that their children could come home from "separate but equal" schools and learn to know each other well.
"Jimmy never thought there was any difference between him and the blacks," C.W. Johnson, Jimmy's daddy, said recently while driving through the old middle ground, where the Johnson family lived until 1962. "And he didn't like it when anybody said anything about it, either."
In their disregard for racial barriers, Beat Weeds and Scar Head were alike. They came to understand how life worked on the other side of the middle ground, and they took that insight with them as they continued on their divergent paths. Janis took it into a blues-singing frenzy, only to drop dead of a drug overdose at 27. Jimmy took it into football, where his savvy for massaging the human spirit in all its ethnic patterns would become an invaluable coaching tool.
After a vice cleanup in the mid-1960s and then the oil bust of the '80s, Port Arthur turned into a sleepy town with few signs of youth or ambition. But the unscarred library and its treasures inside stand as testimony to a brighter day. The bust of Janis is five-headed, the sculptor's interpretation of her multidimensional personality. The bust of Jimmy is conventional and features his trademark coiffed hair and hint of a smile. His face is portrayed as calm and unflinching, as it was when he arrived at the University of Miami in '84 to a cool welcome—he succeeded the beloved Howard Schnellenberger—and then set his players' spirits free, won a national championship and narrowly missed two more. It is the same smile he wore when he went to Dallas in '89 and was greeted by flat-out loathing—he displaced the legendary Tom Landry—and went about the task of tearing down a rotting facade and rebuilding the Cowboys. But like Janis, Jimmy has a personality that is multifaceted.
"It'll be quite a story, when all is said and done," says Cowboy running backs coach Joe Brodsky, 58, a Johnson skeptic in 1984 who became such a Johnson convert that he up and left the Miami area after 55 years to follow Johnson to Dallas. "How could a guy come in and take shotgun blasts in the face in two different programs and win a national championship with one and the Super Bowl with the other? Now won't that be a pisser?"
A Pretty Good Wizard For Johnson the hay is pretty much in the barn, as they say in Texas. At 49 he's got things just about the way he wants them—at last. "I'm doing what the hell I want to do," he says, meaning coaching football, drinking beer, eating ribs and living alone in a big house with four aquariums teeming with saltwater fish. There are no loose pets, no wife and no kids around. His sons Brent, 28, and Chad, 26, are more like friends of his now; the three of them are closer than they've ever been. Jimmy's former wife of 26 years, Linda Kay, has gone to Venezuela to find a new life, waived, you might say, when Jimmy reorganized his own life three years ago to best suit the way he wanted to go about coaching the Cowboys.
All that remains for him to do now is to plug in another blue-chip player here and another real find there, win a Super Bowl or a few—"And we will win," he says—and then go off and lie on a beach, to be left alone for the rest of his days.
It was happy hour on a recent afternoon in a popular restaurant in Valley Ranch, the Dallas suburb that has the Cowboys' ultramodern practice facility and offices as its hub. Johnson was having a beer with Rhonda Rookmaaker, his girlfriend, but even more, "my buddy," he says. She's clever, and their relationship is largely a merry duel of wits and one-liners. They live three blocks apart, in a posh development about a Troy Aikman-to-Michael Irvin bomb from the Cowboys' training complex.
Yeah, Jimmy Johnson's got it like probably a lot of middle-aged American guys would love to have it. Some guys go through mid-life crisis. Jimmy is in mid-life bliss. "At least I'm not criticized for being phony," he says. "I'm just selfish." He pours another beer over ice and, acknowledging the black-hat raps, especially from his days at Miami, where he was perceived as the leader of a band of renegade players, says, "I'm not a bad man."
That, it is pointed out to Johnson, makes him sound like the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy pulled back the curtain, found a mere man there and said, "You're a bad, bad man," he replied, "I'm a very good man. I'm just not a very good wizard."
Johnson is amused by the analogy. "I won't even go so far as to tell you I'm a good man," he says. "But I am a pretty good wizard."
Earlier that afternoon, at the first day of minicamp, Johnson had spotted his Tin Man. ("Poor son of a bitch," Johnson says of the movie character, "didn't even know he had a heart till somebody told him. That's my job.") Rookie cornerback Clayton Holmes, a third-round draft choice out of little Carson-Newman College, was walking meekly off the Cowboy practice field, obviously awed by his surroundings. "Hey, Clayton, I saw you doing some really good things out there," said Johnson, out of the blue, from his seat on a bench near the locker-room entrance. Holmes looked up, surprised that Johnson even knew his name.
"Got a lot to learn, Coach," said Holmes.
"We think you can play here. We like you."
Well, you should have seen Holmes's face.
"Now," Johnson asks at happy hour, "how was he going to know he really can make this team unless somebody told him?"
Push enough buttons, and a pretty good wizard can go from 1-15 in his rookie season in the NFL to 7-9 and Coach of the Year the next season. Push a few more buttons, and the following year he goes 11-5, delivering on a preseason promise to Cowboy fans that Dallas would make the playoffs in 1991. Now Johnson is the toast of Texas, and "the people who were so ugly before, now they're licking his shoes, and you just want to go uh!" says Rhonda, pretending to smack someone across the face.
Tony Wise, the Cowboy offensive line coach, and Johnson go way back; they hooked up as assistants at Pitt in 1977 and have worked together almost every year since. Still, every few weeks, Wise comes up feeling like the Scarecrow did at the end of The Wizard of Oz. "Jimmy doesn't get in drills, and so many people have viewed that as a real chink in his armor—that he lets his people work," says Wise. "But he's fantastic at coming by, dropping hints, getting me thinking. Two weeks later I'll say, 'Jeez, Jimmy, I think we ought to do such-and-such.' And he'll say, 'That's a hell of an idea, Tony.' "
"Jimmy is a very shrewd man," says Irvin, who has played for Johnson in both Miami and Dallas and is the Lion of sorts in this scenario. "He'll make you do some things you don't want to do, and you know you don't want to do them, but for some reason you'll do them and enjoy it."
Irvin, who had an All-Pro season in 1991 with an NFC-high 93 receptions, was perceived at Miami as the quintessential Hurricane hot dog, who, among other things, ran right up into the Orange Bowl bleachers after a touchdown catch. Johnson was regarded as the guy who turned those hot dogs and other assorted hell-raisers loose on the rest of the country. The Miami players really stirred things up before the 1986 national championship game, in the Fiesta Bowl against clean-cut Penn State. Some Hurricane players wore camouflage fatigues as they deplaned in Tempe, Ariz.; all of them walked out of a steak fry honoring both teams; and during pregame warmups some Miami players swore at Penn State players and coaches. When Penn State coach Joe Paterno's "good kids" won the game 14-10, Middle America cheered.
Johnson cuts to the bottom line when he talks of the resentment that built up against his Miami teams. "We had a lot of black players out front," he says. "I think a lot of the resentment came that way. The black players knew that, and the black players knew how I felt. I don't know that there was racism involved in the resentment, but there was some ignorance involved—people who have had few dealings with other ethnic groups. I mean real relationships, not getting somebody to clean your house."
Does Johnson genuinely have such a great rapport with his players? "With the blacks? Yes!" says Irvin. "He'll sit there and listen—I mean, really listen. You know he's in your corner, no matter how the media caves in on you. It takes the load off. Then when you go on the field and the man says, 'I want you to run down there, catch that ball and run into that wall,' who are you to say no? You say, 'O.K., Coach, you were there for me, and now I'm going to give it up for you.' And you run into the wall."
At Miami, Johnson was "such a father," says Irvin. "We'd have these Thursday-night meetings where he would go around the room to each individual, and you had to tell him what you planned on doing in 10 years. He wouldn't let you say football. And you had to tell him what you were doing toward that goal.
"Now it's just football," Irvin says of the relationship between coach and player in the NFL. "I know he loves football, but I think he misses being that fatherly figure to so many kids."
"I don't want to lose the feeling I have for players," says Johnson, "but the pro system almost causes you to be cold and insensitive, when you have to release players yearly."
But the tough personnel moves that have to be made in the NFL also offer Johnson an opportunity to work his wizardry. And never has he been more of a wiz than when he instigated the famous Herschel Walker deal in October 1989. While jogging with his assistants during a lunch break, "Jimmy was talking about what we could do to get this thing turned quicker," says defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who also hooked up with Johnson for the first time at Pitt. "What did we have of value on the club?"
The answer was easy: Walker, who rushed for 1,514 yards and caught 53 passes for 505 yards the year before, was the only Pro Bowl player Dallas had left. But Johnson doesn't believe in building an offense around one player. Besides, he sensed something in Walker. "Jimmy's into all that psychology baloney," says Wise, forgetting how well it works on Wise himself. "Jimmy said, 'I'm concerned about whether Herschel's heart is in it for the long run.' " And so to the shock of his assistants running beside him, Johnson decided he would try to deal Walker for a package of players and draft picks.
To their everlasting regret, the Minnesota Vikings made the trade Johnson dreamed up on that run. In return for Walker, Dallas got five players and seven high draft choices, two of which were first-round picks the Cowboys used to trade up so they could draft Emmitt Smith, the NFL's top rusher in 1991, and Russell Maryland, who became a starter at defensive tackle last season.
In all Johnson has made 44 trades since coming to the Cowboys, mostly wheeling and dealing draft picks to accelerate his rebuilding program. In the 1991 draft the Cowboys had seven picks of their own plus 10 picks acquired in trades with 10 other teams, for a total of 17 players drafted in 12 rounds. Johnson makes those picks pay off by joining his staff in probing college campuses for prospects. Johnson believes he and his coaches, as well as scouts, have to size up a prospect themselves, and when Johnson drafts the player, he turns him over to the assistants so they can do their jobs. "He truly gives responsibility," says Wannstedt, "but he expects results." That goes for practice as well as for games. Wannstedt runs the defense, Norv Turner the offense. Johnson takes in the big picture and the tiniest nuances.
"He was probably one of the most underrated coaches in the country when he was at Miami, but he wasn't there long enough for people to realize how good he was," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose team lost four times in five games against Miami while Johnson was the Hurricanes' coach. "I called him a defensive genius after they beat us 31-0 [in 1988]. I guess I always had a lot of secret respect for him."
Scar Head By the vacant lot where the Johnson house once stood runs DeQueen Boulevard, in Port Arthur's old middle ground. The boulevard has a grass median, 10 yards wide. "We'd play tackle football there—no helmets, no pads, with some local kids, the black kids," says Johnson. "I mean, we'd have some knock-down-drag-outs. I've got scars on my head because when you got knocked out-of-bounds you'd go into the street. They were guys I hung around with. Baby Joe and I.E."
C.W. and Allene Johnson and their first son, Wayne, moved from Clarksville, Ark., to Port Arthur in 1942, the year before Jimmy was born. The Johnsons moved into the house on DeQueen Boulevard in 1949, when C.W. left his job as an oil-refinery mechanic to become a supervisor at a local dairy. "It was a company house," says C.W., who could walk right out the back door to the dairy.
At the elementary school for white children, Jimmy's best friend was Jimmy (Max) Maxfield, who dubbed him Scar Head. In junior high Scar Head and Max became partners in a successful "tour" business. Smooth operators, they had gained entrèe to several of the better bordellos, whose keepers wouldn't let them partake of the hired help or allow them to drink but thought they were cute and let them look around. "So Jimmy and I would charge other kids 25 cents to take them in for a look at these evil places," says Maxfield, now a pharmacist in Houston. "The whores walked around in little nighties, and they'd come sit on your lap and the kids would go nuts. They were happy to pay the 25 cents for our little tour."
The quarters came rolling in for a few weeks, until one night Scar Head and Max were bringing in a tour group and never made it to the front door. Across the street, on the hood of a car sat C.W., who had suspected what they were up to and followed them. C.W. wasn't the kind of daddy to use the belt. Just the sight of him and a word would do. "I just said, 'Let's see how fast you boys can get out of here and get home,' " C.W. says.
Still, C.W. wasn't always so wise to his youngest son's shenanigans. Once when Wayne was nine and Jimmy was six, C.W. caught them smoking in a movie theater. He took them home, gave each one a big cigar "and made us light 'em up," says Wayne. "Now Jimmy knew how to smoke just as much as I did. But when Jimmy lit his cigar, he started blowing the smoke out the end, rather than drawing on it. Daddy said, 'Aw, Jimmy, you don't even know how to smoke. Wayne put you up to it.' Daddy made me smoke both of 'em, and I got sick. And Jimmy was lying in bed laughing. He knew what he'd done."
Jimmy had his parents fooled into thinking he wasn't a drinker in high school, until the night he forearmed one too many cars. At the time the forearm was the most feared weapon in high school football in the South, and Jimmy would practice his technique on parked cars. "Jimmy would forearm a car once every couple of weeks, just to keep his hand in," says Maxfield. "I once saw him forearm a '56 Chevy—the model that had the big 'V' under 'Chevrolet' on the trunk—and he forearmed it so hard the 'V' flew off, all the way across the street in the air."
But one night, "for some reason this girl kind of infuriated me," Jimmy recalls. "I'd had too much to drink. I went foom! and bashed in her door. She was so upset."
Jimmy went home to bed, but then the girl's father phoned. "When Jimmy came to the phone, he said, 'Hello,' and then 'aaagghh,' like he was going to throw up," says Allene. "That was when I knew he'd been drinking. I just sat down and cried."
Wayne, who hadn't even seen Jimmy earlier that evening, walked in on the commotion. "I said, 'I know the girl. I'll take care of it,' " says Wayne. "And Daddy turned and said, 'Oh, you're the one.' "
"Jimmy had convinced us that Wayne had made him drunk," says C.W.
"I never blamed Wayne," says Jimmy. "I don't lie. They assumed it was Wayne's fault, because there were very few times I was ever bad."
"Jimmy was a con artist. Probably still is," says Wayne, without malice. Now a refinery maintenance foreman in Baytown, Texas, Wayne speaks of his little brother with pride.
C.W. doesn't recall exactly what Jimmy's IQ test score was but says that "160 rings a bell." Jimmy made good grades and played his heart out as a guard and linebacker for Buckshot Underwood, an old buddy of Bear Bryant's, at Jefferson High. Once, in a game, "Jimmy was running downfield and pointed to his mouth and hollered that he'd got a tooth knocked out," says C.W. "Buckshot hollered back, 'Keep goin'! We'll get you a new one!' "
Maxfield thought Scar Head's speed and strength came naturally, but C.W. says that "all one summer, while he was working for me at the dairy, he wore lead weights around his ankles." Most of the Southwest Conference schools plus Alabama joined the chase for the squat-bodied kid with the shocking quickness and the ferocious forearm. But his parents were Arkansas folks still, and Jimmy went where he knew their hearts were.
Jimmy Jumpup On the practice field at Arkansas, a few teammates called Johnson, a 5'11", 195-pound noseguard, Jimmy Jumpup because "when he'd get knocked down, he'd be up so fast," says Jerry Jones, a Razorback guard who would not forget that trait in Johnson. Jones would go on to become an oil and gas wildcatter, which is as pure a high-stakes gambler as you'll find in business. Nobody plays hunches harder than a wildcatter looking for a lock, a hole card, a secret advantage in searching out oil deposits. Nobody is better at keeping his edge to himself until the right moment. It turned out that Jones was pretty good at it, and he became a multimillionaire by the mid-1970s.
When Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, he promptly fired Landry and played his hole card by hiring Johnson away from Miami. And he caught hell from the Texas media for buying a plaything for his old Arkansas roommate to coach. Says Jones, "To think that I would spend $140-something million—everything I'd ever worked for—and make a decision based on a friendship, is unfair to Jimmy, and it demeans me." What he had done was to keep track of Jimmy Jumpup through the years, the way a big investor tracks a promising little company.
In truth Johnson and Jones were paired in a hotel room on Friday nights before Arkansas road games, but that was about the extent of their rooming together. Both married as undergraduates and lived off campus. And they weren't nearly as chummy as they have been made out to have been. "We haven't done half a dozen things socially since we've known each other," says Johnson, who was a year behind Jones at Arkansas. And neither ever thought the other would wind up in football after college. Johnson, a psychology major, meant to take his people skills into business, as an industrial psychologist.
Johnson became a coach almost by accident. Coach Frank Broyles's Razorback staff often played host to groups of small college and high school coaches in miniclinics. Johnson so thoroughly comprehended the Hogs' defensive scheme—the whole thing, not just the linemen's assignments—that the Arkansas coaches would send him to the chalkboard to lecture. Louisiana Tech's staff was so impressed with him during one such visit that in 1965, when Tech's defensive coach had to sit out a season to recover from a heart attack, they talked Johnson, who graduated that year with a 3.2 average, into taking the post temporarily.
By the end of the 1965 season Johnson was hooked. But then he got knocked flat. In '66, Bill Peterson interviewed him for a job at Florida State, "but at the last minute," says Johnson, "he hired someone else." Jimmy jumped up, loaded Linda Kay and Brent and their belongings into a U-Haul, and went off to Picayune, Miss., to take a high school assistant's job. Because he didn't have teaching credentials, he had to monitor study hall. That's how badly he wanted to coach.
From there he plodded the assistant coach's trail from Wichita State to Iowa State to Oklahoma and back to Arkansas to work for Broyles, and there he got knocked down harder than he ever had. In 1976, Broyles decided to retire and "told the staff that he was going to make me head coach," says Johnson. But the last half of the season went badly, and Broyles, who was also the Razorbacks' athletic director, decided he needed a high-profile replacement. He hired Lou Holtz, who had been fired by the New York Jets with one game left in the '76 season.
Johnson was crushed. Jones, who was by then a prominent alumnus, could have lobbied Broyles on Johnson's behalf, but he didn't. Jones wasn't ready to invest in this promising property just yet. (Johnson now says that at age 33 he wasn't ready to be a head coach.) But Jones kept an eye on Johnson, who jumped up again and went to Pitt as Jackie Sherrill's assistant head coach.
Then, three years later, Jones made a personal investment in Johnson. An associate of Jones's in Oklahoma City, Kevin Leonard, was on the Oklahoma State selection committee that was looking for a new coach after the 1978 season. It was not a plum job, because the school was on NCAA probation and was facing additional sanctions pending the result of a new investigation. Moreover, the Oklahoma State coach had to recruit against titanic Oklahoma, then coached by Barry Switzer. The selection committee contacted Grant Teaff of Baylor, Hayden Fry of North Texas State and others, but Jones told Leonard, "The guy you ought to call is Jimmy Johnson."
Johnson took the Oklahoma State job mainly for the prestige that would come with proving himself in the Big Eight. Starting with about 50 scholarship players, as he recalls, because of probation limitations, he solicited walk-ons, patched together a team and won seven games in his first year. "It gave us some credibility," he says. But it wasn't that easy. His next three teams went 4-7, 7-5 and 4-5-2.
By 1983, after Oklahoma State had gone 8-4 and Johnson had signed blue-chip Texas high school running back Thurman Thomas, the program had turned a corner. Also in '83, Schnellenberger won the national championship at Miami and then left for the ill-fated USFL. The Hurricanes' athletic director, Sam Jankovich, went head-hunting at a coaches' convention and called Johnson aside for advice on some other coaches. Johnson said, "I wouldn't mind living on the beach, Sam."
It was more like hitting the beach. He walked into gale-force hostility from the media and the public, which resented Miami's hiring a country boy from a school that fell short of being a football power. And worse, he met resentment from Schnellenberger's old staff, which he was required to keep for one year. With the coaches divided, Miami went 8-5 in 1984 and lost its last three games notoriously: The Hurricanes led Maryland 31-0 at the half and fell 42-40 when the Terps staged what was then the biggest comeback in NCAA history; next they were beaten by Boston College 47-45 on Doug Flutie's famous Hail Mary pass; and finally they lost to UCLA 39-37 in the Fiesta Bowl.
After the season Johnson began to revamp his staff, hiring Wise and, later, Wannstedt, and Miami went 44-4 the next four years. Then the Cowboys came up for sale, and Jones finally played his hole card. "This was heart surgery for me," Jones says of buying the foundering pro team, "and I wanted to find the best heart surgeon." Friendship was a factor in hiring Johnson, but only in that Jones planned to be a hands-on owner. "I knew we could get back-to-back and work together," Jones says.
But mainly, Jones adds, "Jimmy was brought here because he'd been through adverse situations and jumped up and handled them. When we finished our first year together, I knew I'd made the right decision. I saw something during that 1-15 season that I couldn't have seen if we'd gone to the playoffs or walked into a honeymoon in Dallas."
Solitary Man Visitors to Johnson's big house in Valley Ranch have to stay on the balls of their feet, with their knees slightly bent, to keep up with him. His first move is to check on his aquariums. "See that spotted brown one right there?" he says. "He eats a lot of fish. He's going to go hide now. He's shy. That's a marine beta. Here's another anemone, and there's a clown in there. Look at this damn thing hiding in there, 'cause these other tomato clowns will get after his ass." Johnson is partial to the tomato clowns, ferocious little defensive linemen. All-out rushers.
"And over here...I put these pencil urchins in here to eat some of these algae. There's some tube worms in here, and he [an anemone] was heading over here, and I didn't want him to eat the tube worms, so I picked him up and put him back over there." Coaching. Always coaching.
"And over here...." This looks like a designed route to the TV room, and if a visitor breaks in that direction right away, he might be able to cover. Don't buy the shoulder fake; Johnson's just picking up a speck off the spotless floor—"my raisin bran from last night"—because he's a neat freak of the first order. "Have you seen this movie?" asks Johnson. "Terminator II?" And there is Arnold Schwarzenegger's head, filling the big screen, and the floor and walls begin reverberating when Bad to the Bone pours through the sound system. Johnson is intense, waiting for Schwarzenegger to deliver the big hit. There it is: "Breakin' bones!" Johnson says with a gleeful giggle.
TV timeout! As Schwarzenegger kicks butt on the screen, Johnson settles down a bit. "This is kind of my world," he says. "My world is here, and over there." He gestures toward the Cowboys' complex. Both of his sons live in Dallas, and occasionally they come over. "Last Christmas we stopped by and watched football on TV and ate some ribs," says Chad, a stockbroker.
"Any special occasion we go get about a hundred dollars worth of Tony Roma's," says Brent, a lawyer turned short-story writer, "and everybody eats until they're sick."
Just some grown men kicking back together. "I think we're so much closer now than we had been," says Chad. "It's probably because I'm older now, and he can relate a little easier to me."
"I've had some of the best times with them in the last few years," says Jimmy. "We can do things and talk, and it doesn't have to be fatherly advice. It can be as a friend."
At the time Jimmy came to Dallas, Chad was just graduating from college. "The watershed time" in deciding to get a divorce, says Jimmy, "came when Brent and Chad were responsible for themselves. It was a combination of the boys' having grown, and my going into pro football, and my being to the point in my life that I ought to be able to do what the hell I want to do."
"Coming to Dallas, my mom and my dad were both kind of alone and left with each other, and they discovered that it wasn't what it once was," says Brent. The parting "wasn't traumatic, but it wasn't really easy for Mom. For 26 years she hadn't known anything else. I think she just didn't know what she was going to do. But once she figured it out, she was fine."
Last Memorial Day, on the porch of his cabin at Crystal Beach, Texas, Jimmy is looking out to sea, thinking of Linda Kay. He's drinking a beer, and he's gazing toward the southeast, past the offshore oil rigs on the Gulf of Mexico's horizon, in the direction of Venezuela. "It changed her life-style," he says of the parting. "Mine didn't change. I'm still coaching football. Still coming to the beach. Still drinking beer. Still laughing and cutting up with my family. And her whole life was centered around my job. And that's the thing I feel worst about."
Reached by phone in Caracas, Linda Kay says of her new life, "It's kind of wonderful." She teaches fourth grade at an American school for English-speaking children of well-to-do Venezuelans and foreign dignitaries. Now she travels wherever in the world she pleases. Of Jimmy's world, she says, "I don't miss it. When you're in football, you think everybody is interested. When you're out, you realize the circle is really small. You realize there's a group of people who are just as interested in ballet."
"To this day I care for her a lot," says Jimmy. "But I did what I had to do."
"It just happened," says Linda Kay. "I can't tell you why. Or when. I don't recall a discussion." Any resentment on her part? "Absolutely not," she says. "Never. Not from the beginning."
Sweet Li'l Ol' Boy Johnson's hair is a mess, whipped every which way by the stiff winds blowing into Uncle Billy Sharp's yard at Crystal Beach. A family party—the Johnsons call get-togethers like this "cuttin' up"—is well into its third day, but there are still mounds of crayfish, pots of gumbo, pans of boudin and three brands of beer to be consumed. Jimmy is cuttin' up, telling loud stories, laughing louder, teasing his mama and daddy about how that lil' ol' dog of theirs will probably die any day now. C.W. and Allene don't drink, but otherwise they're right in the middle of the cuttin' up. Allene figures the ratio of dog-to-human years and says, "Well, Jimmy, when you get to be 119, you'll probably teeter and totter a little bit, too."
"Mama, if I get to be 50, I'm going to be extremely happy," says Jimmy. "And if I get to be 52 or 53, I'm going to be ecstatic!" He chuckles, but nobody else does. They know the strain of his work, know of his drive.
Uncle Billy brings the moment back from the brink of seriousness. "You can't kill these Johnsons," he says of his sister's family. "His bloodline'll take him to 90 at least. And when they get to be 110 you have to take a 20-pound hammer and beat their liver to death. Then you bury them, and you can still see the ground above them moving."
Jimmy so rarely comes home to the Gulf shore. Maybe once a year. He never remembers birthdays—"I'm not really sure when Mother and Daddy's birthdays are," he admits—and his Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas phone calls might come days after the holiday. He doesn't send Christmas presents.
Last year, a few days after his mother's birthday, she found a big box sitting on her porch. "I thought, Oh, Jimmy's remembered my birthday," she says. "I opened it, and there were power tools." Jimmy's TV show in Dallas was sponsored by a hardware chain, which had given him gift certificates. It was only a coincidence that he had sent the tools around the time of her birthday. "I called him and thanked him for my 'birthday present,' " says Allene. "Later, he did send me a present." She holds out her right hand to show a diamond cluster ring.
"I've been surprised out of the blue a lot of times," says Jimmy's girlfriend, Rhonda. "I appreciate that more."
"I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it," says Jimmy. Then he takes a serious tone, and he tells the family, "I don't mean to be the way I am, but there's some things I got to do." The others go silent. "And there'll come a time," he says, as tears well in younger sister Lynda's eyes, "when I won't do 'em anymore." It's a promise to his family to come home for good.
"That'll be next year," says Uncle Billy, "when you get to the Super Bowl."
"I might go lie on the beach in five years," says Jimmy.
C.W. Johnson thinks back. "We went to a game in Dallas early in his first year," he says. "Of course, they lost. After the game, Jimmy said, 'Daddy, I don't want you to be hurt. But this year I'd rather you and Mother wouldn't come up here until we start winning. Let me suffer through this alone.' "
"Jimmy," says his mother, "is just a sweet li'l ol' boy." But she knows all about the bad raps. "The week he took the Cowboys' job, a lady from Dallas called our house. She said, 'You can just have him back down there in Port Arthur, because we don't want him in Dallas.' She said, 'They're saying this is going to put Port Arthur on the map. But I want you to know it's going to wipe Port Arthur clear off the map.' "
Port Arthur is still there. "You oughta see my bust in the library," says Jimmy. He sips on his beer and then holds his head up in a mock pose. "I got a bust, right there with Janis Joplin."
"They've got a display case," Rhonda cracks, "with Beat Weeds' panties in it."
"Beat Weeds' panties," Jimmy scoffs. "She never wore any panties." And to raised eyebrows all around, he adds, "From what I understand."