He was driving his mother's car, making a loop around town, visiting neighborhoods he hadn't been to in years. A slow-moving winter storm was dumping rain on Shreveport, La., but the day looked just fine to USC quarterback John David Booty, home for a few days before he had to return to Los Angeles and yet another year on the bench as Matt Leinart's backup. ¬∂ Booty, a 20-year-old redshirt sophomore, stopped at a traffic light and looked out past the wipers raking his windshield. "I love being here," he said on an early January afternoon, little more than 48 hours after the Trojans' 55--19 win over Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl. "In L.A. you drive so much and you never know where you are. Here in Shreveport, nothing's strange. Every place you go, you've been there before."
The light changed, and he drove out to his old neighborhood. A few weeks before, Booty's parents had moved to a gated community on Shreveport's south end, but this was where they'd lived for the past 10 years. The house is a large brick Acadian on three acres, with a swimming pool, a barn and a coppice of fruit trees in back. Today it stood empty, the windows dark, the wet lawn littered with leaves. "My grandparents lived back there in a trailer," Booty said, nodding toward the barn. "Me and Josh and Abram and Jack," he continued, ticking off the names of his brothers. "We'd play football and baseball and Wiffle ball. We had a four-wheeler and a go-kart. It was good here. Our school was real close, over in that direction." He gave a look over his shoulder. "You want to go see it? Want to see Evangel?"
Booty put the car in reverse but then stopped. "Maybe I shouldn't be doing this," he said. "It's been a while, and because of what happened, I haven't been back. It really upsets me. I can't even go to my old school anymore. I can't visit my old teachers--it would put them in an awkward situation. I don't want to do that to them. Even more," he glanced again toward the school, "I don't want to do it to myself."
Booty waited a few moments, then finally started toward Evangel. He was driving faster now, and as he moved along the slick black street he named the families who'd been his neighbors, a couple of them connected to the Evangel team he'd led to Louisiana state championships as a sophomore in 2001 and again as a junior in 2002. Shreveport has long been a source of first-rate quarterback talent, having produced former NFL stars Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, David Woodley and Stan Humphries. And since fielding its first football team in 1989, Evangel Christian Academy has produced some great players at the position: Josh Booty, Brock Berlin--both starters at one time for a top college program.
The most impressive schoolboy quarterback in the city's history, however, was John David Booty, the third of Johnny and Sonya Booty's four sons. Although Leinart will be returning to USC this fall for his senior season, the Trojans' most gifted player at the position might be the Heisman Trophy winner's backup. "In terms of physical talent John's as good as anybody I've coached," says Norm Chow, the team's offensive coordinator until he left in February to join the Tennessee Titans. Booty, 6'3" and 195 pounds, is a faster, more dangerous runner than Leinart, and he has a stronger arm. Once he gets a little game experience, he's likely to help Trojans fans recover from the loss of Leinart as quickly as Leinart helped them get over losing 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer.
In high school Booty threw for 8,474 yards and 88 touchdowns in just two seasons. He left Evangel after his junior year and enrolled at USC, which explains his reluctance to visit the Evangel campus today.
As Booty approached the school's entrance he slumped lower in his seat and slowed. A visitor's station stood inside the fenced property, with a sign instructing guests to check in, but Booty turned quickly and shot past it. A young woman inside the booth came to her feet and stared at the passing car. Booty ignored her. "All they can do is ask me to leave," he said.
He drove around the building and stopped at a fence with a corner end-zone view of the school's football stadium. At the far end of the playing field stood a scoreboard with a large sign that said RODNEY DURON FIELD, named for the longtime senior pastor of Shreveport's First Assembly of God, the Pentecostal church that runs Evangel. The scoreboard acknowledges the school's championship teams--teams led by John David Booty and by his brothers Josh and Abram ... and by his father, Johnny, who tutored every quarterback who played there.
At least that was the case until the spring of 2003, when Johnny Booty and Rodney Duron's son, Denny, best friends for 30 years, ended their relationship in a dispute that both still refuse to discuss in detail. "I'm going to have to be mum on what happened," says Johnny. "I don't want to hurt anybody--Denny Duron or anybody else. I worked with a lot of those men and women at Evangel, and I loved them, but I've got to stay true to my values; I don't care how many championship rings you get to put on your fingers."
"I'm in the grace business," says Duron, the chancellor at Evangel, in response to a question about his split with Booty. "I serve a Jesus who says I'm to bless those who curse me and do good to those who spitefully use me, and I'm to pray for my enemies. I can't get into what happened to me and Johnny Booty."
"Denny Duron was raised an only child; Johnny Booty was the brother he never had," says Dennis Dunn, Evangel's football coach since 1992. "Denny was the p.r. man for all the Booty boys, and he still loves those boys with all his heart. Furthermore, Denny still loves Johnny with all his heart. I've never known a man to be more devoted to another than he was to Johnny."
Until the dissolution of their friendship, the two men were as great a force on the national high school football scene as they were in leading souls to Jesus. In Louisiana the name Evangel means championships, nine of them state titles and one, in 1999, a national title. At a time when most Louisiana colleges were lucky to draw 20,000 spectators to a game, Evangel, which has all of 250 students in grades K--12, attracted 41,878 to a '99 matchup with rival West Monroe. As the Evangel football team flourished, so did First Assembly. In his Sunday sermons Duron often invoked football analogies to help illustrate the path to righteousness, and the preachers who also were coaches for Evangel believed that God had mandated every victory.
Those in Shreveport who don't know Denny Duron as a charismatic preacher and globe-trotting evangelist may still recall his days as a football star. Duron played quarterback at Captain Shreve High and Louisiana Tech, throwing to future pros Pat Tilley, Roger Carr, Mike Barber and Billy Ryckman. After college he played for two years with the Birmingham Americans of the World Football League, then briefly with the Washington Redskins. In 1976 he left the Redskins' training camp after, he says, he received a calling from God to pursue the ministry. Evangel, founded by his father four years later, would become his pulpit.
It was Duron who led Johnny to Christ, in 1973, shortly after Johnny, a former all-state quarterback at Shreveport's Woodlawn High, transferred from Arkansas to Louisiana Tech. The two had known of each other growing up in Shreveport but didn't become friends until they were teammates at Tech. According to Johnny, Duron possessed a "rhetorical genius" that made him a compelling leader who was impossible to resist.
Years later, when Duron's mother, Frances, then the headmistress at Evangel, told her son that she wanted the male students to enjoy a "football experience," Duron approached Johnny about helping him build a program. That was 1989. For over a decade Johnny had seemed content in his roles as associate pastor and quarterbacks coach, ministering to families and turning out one record-breaking All-America after another. Johnny says that changed when he received his own calling from God in the spring of 2003, near the end of John David's junior year.
Johnny envisioned a ministry for "the common man," he said, welcoming cowboys and car mechanics and any other blue-collar type tired of traditional churches. He wanted people to gather in small groups, usually of no more than 30, and worship in homes rather than in a church. Our Home Fellowship, he called it.
As Johnny began to build a following, his longtime friend was not pleased. According to friends of both men, Duron couldn't fathom how Johnny thought he could serve both First Assembly and Our Home Fellowship. He thought Johnny was demeaning the church from which he was still receiving a paycheck by promoting his vision of how to worship. After a discussion that April, which Johnny describes as no more heated than any other the two friends usually had, Duron relieved him of his duties with both the church and the football team. And in so doing Evangel lost the most impressive young quarterback the state of Louisiana had ever seen.
Friends and teammates, including Denny's son and John David's close friend since childhood, wide receiver Denny Rodney Duron, encouraged the young quarterback to remain at Evangel. But John David says loyalty to his father gave him no choice but to graduate early and move on. Some questioned why Johnny didn't insist that John David play his senior year and finish with his class. Johnny says he left that decision up to his son, believing he was mature enough to make the right choice.
Once John David announced that he was leaving early, he says, "I'd walk the hallways, and nobody hardly looked at me anymore." He needed only an English class to graduate, and he completed it that summer before leaving for California.
"John David gave up his whole memory of Evangel for his father," says Dunn. "It should've been about two adult men moving on with their lives. But it didn't work out that way."
In his mother's car now, parked outside Duron Field, Booty turned in his seat and had a look back, to see if anyone had spotted him. "I guess I've learned how to block out what happened," he said. "But there were so many days and nights when I was really confused by it. I didn't get my senior year, you know? Something I'd looked forward to forever."
John David put the car in drive. No one on the Evangel campus seemed to have noticed Booty until he was close to completing his loop around the school grounds. A group of boys stopped and watched him drive by, and one suddenly offered an enthusiastic wave. Booty pointed his index finger at the boy, then punched the accelerator, splashing through a puddle.
"You want to know something else?" he said. "I still love the Durons. If it wasn't for the Durons, I don't know where we'd be now--my dad, me, my whole family."
it was still raining the next day when Johnny Booty, fresh from leading a men's prayer group, went on his own driving tour of Shreveport. The Booty name is an anglicized treatment of the French name "Boutte," and Johnny says he was never teased about it until the disco era came along and KC and the Sunshine Band released the dance hit (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty. Whenever one of his sons complained about being teased, Johnny had him pull out the dictionary and look up the word. "Booty is treasure," he told them. "It's treasure taken in battle. Remember that if anybody tries to tell you otherwise."
Johnny grew up in the Cedar Grove neighborhood of Shreveport, then a working-class district famous for producing quality athletes, now impoverished and crime-ridden. As he drove its wet streets, Johnny pointed to blighted houses and named former football stars who once had lived in them. Johnny's father moved his family to six or seven different rental houses while Johnny and his two siblings were growing up. Johnny stopped in front of one of them. "I'd prop a mirror against that house there and practice my five- and seven-step drops," he said. "I wanted to play pro football. That was going to be my life."
He stopped in front of another small, dilapidated house. Warped sheets of plywood had been nailed over the windows; a blue tarpaulin covered a portion of the roof. "Lived here too," he said.
He drove farther on and then pulled to the curb in front of an empty lot. "Used to be one of our houses here too," he said.
All that moving fed Johnny's dream of one day owning his own home. Cedar Grove lay adjacent to an affluent district called Fairfield, where the houses were large, beautiful and meticulously maintained. Johnny believed his football talents would be the ticket to a life in such a place. But after following Bradshaw and Ferguson at Woodlawn, and playing just as well as they had, Johnny couldn't find a college program that appreciated what he had to offer. This was 1971 and teams were abandoning the pass for veer and wishbone offenses, and no one would let him throw the ball. He bounced from Arkansas to Louisiana Tech and finally to Mississippi State before dropping out of school after his junior year and starting a ministry in Starkville, Miss.
Johnny often says he was blessed to have married a woman who didn't care much for material things. For years he and Sonya had no choice but to go without--Johnny made the frames for the boys' beds; he found a picnic table and put a sheet of plywood on top and used it as the family dining table. Their homes were comfortable but modest, at least until 1994 when their eldest son, Josh, then 19, received a $1.6 million bonus from the Florida Marlins, who'd selected him fifth overall in the amateur draft.
Josh told his parents the first thing he wanted to do with his bonus check was to buy them a house. He financed the construction of the spacious brick home near Evangel where John David spent much of his childhood.
In his four-year pro baseball career Josh, a third baseman, played in only 13 major league games. He could stand at home plate at any ballpark in the country and throw a baseball over the centerfield fence on a rope, but he had a harder time hitting the curveball.
In January 1999, with one year left on his contract with the Marlins, Josh, then 23, was given his release after he agreed to repay a portion of his signing bonus, and he returned home to play college football, exciting fans in Louisiana who remembered him as the big-armed phenom whom most college recruiters had ranked ahead of New Orleans's Peyton Manning when both were high school seniors in 1993. Josh could've signed with any program in the country, but he wanted to play with Abram, who had led the Tigers in receiving the previous fall, at LSU. In the fall of 1999, Josh's freshman year, the Tigers' receiving corps was so riddled with injuries that a reserve quarterback was occasionally called on to play in the slot. Josh finished the season with 19 interceptions, the most in the school's history. The next year, Nick Saban's first as the coach in Baton Rouge, Josh rebounded and was named to the all-SEC team, then declared for the NFL draft at season's end. Selected in the sixth round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2001, he was cut before the regular season began. The Cleveland Browns picked him up a day later, and he sat behind Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb until being released in September 2003.
Abram's post-Evangel career was also a disappointment. He still holds three national high school receiving records: career touchdown receptions (83), catches (302) and receiving yards (5,867). Although he enjoyed a promising start at LSU, Abram underwent back surgery after his sophomore year and lost both speed and confidence. He quit the team three games into his senior year, explaining that he'd grown disillusioned with his limited playing time. He transferred to Valdosta State in southern Georgia and played out his college career as a Division II backup.
If John David learned anything from the college careers of his brothers, it was that a player needed to be in the right system to succeed. He and his father began to study "quarterback lineages," as Johnny called them. And the lineage that impressed them the most was USC's. Offensive coordinator Chow had spent the bulk of his career at BYU, where he'd developed quarterbacks Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer, among others. He also coached Philip Rivers, the fourth pick in the 2004 NFL draft, for one year at North Carolina State, and under his direction USC's Palmer had become a Heisman winner and the first pick of the 2003 NFL draft.
Determined not to "sacrifice another of my sons to a running school," Johnny shipped game tape of John David to Chow in 2002, between the youngster's sophomore and junior seasons. That USC had fine players at his position didn't deter John David from choosing the Trojans over Miami and Michigan, teams with quarterback lineages of their own. John David returned home from a recruiting visit to Los Angeles in March 2003, one month before his father was fired from Evangel, and said to Johnny, "USC is the new Quarterback U, and I'm going to play there."
This fall, in addition to John David and, of course, Leinart, USC has a promising quarterback in Mark Sanchez of Mission Viejo, Calif., the high school national player of the year in 2004. "There's always somebody behind you who wants your job and who's a good player," says John David.
In January when Leinart announced his decision to return, Johnny called John David to find out how he was taking the news. With Leinart gone, the starting job would've been John David's to lose. "John David was shocked," Johnny says. "It took him about 24 hours, and then he realized there wasn't much he could do about it except get right back to work. And that's what he's done.
"He called me a few days later," Johnny says. "It was early in the morning, and he said he'd already had a weight workout and met with the quarterbacks coach. People might say he's going to get frustrated and transfer, but that isn't going to happen. John David is a steady-as-it-goes guy. He's ready. He said, 'Daddy, in two and a half months when spring practice starts I'm going to be the best quarterback on that field.'"
John David was true to his word, putting distance between himself and Sanchez with a spring performance that earned raves from the Trojans' coaching staff. An effortless passer who is equally comfortable throwing on the run as from the pocket, Booty reminds his coaches less of Leinart--who sat out spring practice recovering from left elbow surgery--than Palmer, now the starting quarterback for the Bengals. "He can make every throw in the book," says Steve Sarkisian, USC's quarterbacks coach.
"John David could be our starting quarterback right now," says Trojans head coach Pete Carroll. "There is no question that he is ready to play."
it's his last day in Shreveport before returning to L.A., and John David decides to spend the morning worshipping with his father's congregation. Every so often Johnny calls everyone in Our Home Fellowship together for a "mass meeting" at some building he's rented for the day. Today that building is the Hot Wheels Skating Palace, a barn-sized metal structure painted red and white and decorated with castlelike turrets. Outside, a large sign says S-K-A-T-E. Another declares WE DO A GREAT BIRTHDAY PARTY $48.
By 10 a.m. the parking lot is crowded with trucks and SUVs, several of them sporting bumper stickers declaring love for the three most popular people in North Louisiana's Bible Belt: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Jesus Christ.
After Denny Duron fired him, Johnny accepted a job as athletic director at Calvary Baptist Academy, a private K--12 institution with 900 students. The football team went 4--6 last year, its first in organized play. In 2005 it promises to be much improved, but one game in particular, scheduled for Oct. 14th, is certain to give the Cavaliers trouble--a district game with Evangel. That matchup already has much of Shreveport abuzz.
A small commotion goes up when John David, handsome this morning in jeans and a light gray sweater, enters the skating rink. Dazzled boys and grizzled men want to shake his hand, and women young and old laugh nervously as they go up on their toes and kiss the air beside his ear.
There are doughnuts and coffee in back for those who missed breakfast. On the counter where Hot Wheels rents skates, there stands a lone cowboy boot with cash and bank checks stuck inside. LINE UP HERE FOR SIZES 5--7, says a sign just above it. The boot, a size 11, belongs to Johnny; it was pulled from his closet one day during a fellowship meeting at his home by one of his church members who said they should use it in lieu of a collections basket.
John David sits in back next to Abram and his family, and just a few chairs over from Sonya and Jack, who is developing into a college prospect at quarterback. The 5'9", 150-pound Jack, who will be a sophomore at Calvary, is still waiting for the growth spurt that will help him see better over his offensive line. "I'd better start growing soon if I want to play in the NFL," he says.
After a spirited round of singing, Johnny turns to face about 200 people sitting on folding chairs in a semicircle. Behind him a guitarist strums an artful tune as Johnny prays with one hand clutching a microphone, the other open and raised as if to pull something from the air. "Jesus is about to break out," he begins, "not only in this country but around the world."
From the congregation comes whispered amens. John David, eyes open, lowers his head until his chin is resting on his chest. He listens intently as his father's words fill the building.
"Lord, give us more love in our hearts," Johnny prays, his voice growing louder. "Let the spirit of God move me and take over. Once again turn America back to the living God. Gotta get back in the household, gotta get back in the family, gotta happen right here at home. Dear Lord, we ask you to do what we can't do. Breathe on our families. Breathe on them, Lord, and strengthen us together. I pray that each man here today will devote himself to being the patriarch of his family. I pray that our children will love their mothers and fathers and honor them. I pray, oh God, that your will be done, oh God. May they honor their fathers, oh Lord. May your children honor them, dear God. May they love them and honor them all the days of their lives...."
If John David learned anything from the college careers of his brothers Josh and Abram, it was that a player needed to be in THE RIGHT SYSTEM to succeed.
Whenever one of his sons complained about being teased, Johnny had him pull out the dictionary. "Booty is TREASURE," he said. "It's treasure taken in battle."
Once Booty gets a little game experience, he's likely to
help Trojans fans recover from the LOSS OF LEINART as quickly as Leinart helped them get over losing Palmer.