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THE RUNNING BACK, THE CHEERLEADER and what came after the greatest college football game ever

Dec. 28, 2009
Dec. 28, 2009

Table of Contents
Dec. 28, 2009

LEADING OFF
THE DECADE IN SPORTS: 2000--2009
THE YEAR IN SPORTS 2009
Departments

THE RUNNING BACK, THE CHEERLEADER and what came after the greatest college football game ever

The magic carpet ride began for Boise State with the unbelievable finish to the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, but what became of the heroic prince and the beautiful princess who waltzed into a nation's embrace that night? How did their fairy tale turn out?

This is an article from the Dec. 28, 2009 issue

Happily ever after. Yes, that's where all fairy tales end, and what follows is most definitely a fairy tale. This is the one about the football star and the cheerleader. It has everything you could want from a fairy tale—magical kisses, a whiff of danger, a prince who almost died, a princess walking in the snow and, yes, true love. And, of course, there's a happily ever after. The only difference with this fairy tale is that the story does not end with happily ever after. It begins there. ¬∂ Well, you'll see.

Once upon a time, a football player knelt in front of a cheerleader, camera flashes illuminating his face and his Boise State jersey. The last crumbs of confetti twirled in the Arizona air. The hoarse cheers of an exhausted crowd and the final strains of the school fight song echoed in the night. It was all too much. Everyone in that stadium had just witnessed the greatest college football game ever played, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Boise State was winning, then Oklahoma was winning, then it seemed over, then it wasn't.... This was the sort of game that made people across America spontaneously burst into tears of joy.

The football player, Ian Johnson, scored the final points in that game. Down by one in overtime he scored a two-point conversion on a play from another century, a play known as the Statue of Liberty, or, as they simply called it in Boise: Statue Left. Quarterback Jared Zabransky took the snap, dropped back, turned to his right and faked a pass in that direction. Only then, he slipped the ball behind his back for Johnson to take it. Johnson ran left—Statue Left—and all was clear, the Oklahoma defenders were as befuddled as Captain Hook facing Peter Pan.

Johnson ran into the end zone, and Little Boise State had beaten Mighty Oklahoma, and it was the perfect ending to the perfect game. Strangers hugged. First dates kissed. Johnson threw the ball into the crowd hoping it might reach his father—but Ian was too pumped up and overthrew his family. Then he ran to the corner of the end zone, and he talked to the Fox announcer Chris Myers about his team's courage in playing to win rather than playing not to lose.

"And," Myers said as the interview ended, happy sarcasm in his voice, "I know you're going to propose to your girlfriend now. Congratulations."

And then with the television cameras on him, Ian Johnson took a knee in front of Chrissy Popadics, the captain of the cheerleading squad. "Hold on, wait a minute, Tommy, he's really going to do this," Myers said suddenly to his Fox partner Thom Brennaman—and to America.

"Will you marry me?" Ian Johnson said, though crowd noise drowned out his words on TV.

"Yes!" Chrissy yelled a couple of beats later, after Myers tapped her on the elbow with the microphone to snap her out of stunned silence. Ian beamed even as he tried to look—well, what's a fairy tale word?—gallant. He stayed on one knee for an instant longer before someone in the crowd slapped his shoulder pads and shouted, "Yeah! Yeah!" With that, the football hero arose, the cheerleader jumped into his arms, and they held the kiss long enough to seal the moment.

"All right, Tommy. She said yes!" Myers shouted. "Ian Johnson proposing to the head cheerleader at Boise State. Does it get any better than this in college football?"

It did get better. The next day Ian and Chrissy were whisked off to New York, where strangers waved at them in the street and the couple was driven around town in a limousine and toasted in Times Square before an appearance on Good Morning America. Six months later The Rock would hug Chrissy at the ESPYs. Chelsea soccer star Didier Drogba—"My hero!" Ian shouted—would hug Ian. All the while they received tear-stained letters from couples, old and young, who said that they believed in love again.

"And may the football star and the cheerleader," Charles Gibson told his audience on ABC's World News during that trip to New York, "live happily ever after."

What happens after happily ever after? What do the prince and princess talk about in the castle? Does he remember what it was like to swim in the pond as a frog; does she ever wonder if she really woke up from her deep sleep?

Well, Chrissy Johnson could certainly use a little sleep now. It's 4:30 a.m. She dresses quietly so as not to wake her husband, but every creak of the floor sounds to her like a snowblower grinding in the parking lot. Even when she's cutting up an apple for lunch, the noise seems deafening. She looks in: Ian is still sleeping. She groggily rides off with a friend to the Mall of America where she stocks nighties and bras at the Victoria's Secret.

Ian sleeps a little longer, then stumbles out of bed himself. He goes off to lift weights, to sit in on meetings, to get lunch for teammates, to run on the treadmill, to practice football with the Minnesota Vikings. Technically, Ian is on the Vikings' team, and technically, he is not. He has a Vikings uniform and a locker. He gets paid weekly. He certainly takes his share of hits. One teammate, fullback Naufahu Tahi, pays him a little extra money to stay out after practice, pretend he's a linebacker and also to serve as a blocking dummy. The money comes in handy.

But on Sundays, when 46 of his teammates go off to play football, Ian goes to church with Chrissy. They stop for bacon as thick as an iPhone at the Original Pancake House. Then they rush home so Ian can sit on a rented couch and watch the Vikings' game on a rented television. He shouts out the names of the plays as they develop. All the while, he imagines how he would look on the field.

This is the strange half-life of an NFL practice-squad player. They were called taxi squads because Arthur McBride, the old owner of the Cleveland Browns, would keep a handful of emergency players on his payroll as taxi drivers. The taxis are gone, but the idea hasn't changed. Practice squads are how NFL teams stock up to eight emergency players—and so in cities across the league there are men who believe they play in the NFL but aren't quite sure how to describe the job to their parents.

The money sounds pretty good—$5,200 a week for every week, up to 21, you survive—but there's no security. Ian and Chrissy have a month-to-month lease in a two-bedroom apartment that they cannot quite afford year-round in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. They live with rented furniture they can return easily. Every plan in their life is conditional, in case the call comes. The call can be good news ("You're moving up to the active roster!") or bad. ("Sorry, kid, we have to release you.") Either way the call can come at any time, and so Ian and Chrissy feel both excited and panicked whenever the phone rings.

"This is our great adventure," Ian says.

"We have a lot of faith," Chrissy says.

"I know I'm going to play in the NFL," Ian says.

"We still get letters from people who say that we inspired them," Chrissy says.

Happily ever after. Boise State did not recruit Ian Johnson, at least not at first. The coaches noticed him while they scouted someone else, Patrick Chung, a wide receiver and free safety from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Chung went to Oregon, where, as a defensive back, he started more games than any other player in the school's history. But before he left for Eugene, he told Boise State that, yeah, Ian Johnson was worth their time.

Johnson was only a sophomore during that magical 2006 season, as unknown around the country as Boise State football. He was a campus character. He made a few extra dollars selling beanies and scarves that he crocheted himself; he also worked as a plumber's assistant for a time. Then, in his second game that year, he ran for 240 yards and scored five touchdowns against Oregon State. He wound up leading the nation in touchdowns. Boise State went 13--0, won the WAC and hit No. 9 in the BCS standings, earning the berth in the Fiesta Bowl.

Everything about that time for Ian and Chrissy was dramatic, curiously so, as if their lives were directed by James Cameron. The two had met on Waikiki Beach a year earlier. Boise State had beaten Hawaii on an October night in 2005, and the beach was crawling with happy people from Idaho. Chrissy heard Ian singing a Keith Urban song, the one in which the guy tells the girl to take the cat and leave the sweater. Chrissy loved that song. He did not know she was a cheerleader, and she did not know that he was about to become a football star. They walked with the crowd. They talked about things that seemed important then, but things they could not even remember a few years later. After a while, without their noticing, the crowd evaporated and they were alone, and the moon hung low over the water, and they found themselves swimming, right out of the movie From Here to Eternity.

They were boyfriend and girlfriend all though the 2006 season. Late that year—this is where the prince-almost-died part of our fairy tale comes in—Johnson ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns at San Jose State. Only he had felt a pain in his chest during the first quarter. He was certain that he had broken a rib. After the game, though, when a team doctor touched the tender spot, Johnson felt all the breath rush out of him and he collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors at first could not find anything wrong. Johnson remembers walking out of the hospital when one doctor called him back. Johnson needed emergency surgery—he had a collapsed lung.

"If I had gone on the plane back home...," Ian says.

"... he could have died," Chrissy says, finishing his sentence.

Everything worked out, of course. That was the fairy tale year, after all. Two weeks later Ian scored three touchdowns against Nevada. And a month after that, he proposed to Chrissy in front of America.

The threats started coming just hours after happily ever after. First they came to members of Chrissy's family. Ugly voices. Hideous letters. ("I can't believe that you'd support this kind of wedding.") No one wanted to tell Ian and Chrissy about them—nobody wanted to intrude on their dream. But the letters and phone calls kept coming. The message was always the same: Ian was black, Chrissy was white.

After about a month, fearing that the lives of their daughter and Ian might be in danger, Chrissy's family finally told the couple about the threats. Chrissy was angry and scared in equal parts, but Ian, who is half black and half white, didn't seem angry or scared ... or anything else, really.

"Sometimes," Chrissy recalls thinking, "I just want to shake Ian and say, 'What are you feeling in there?'"

"I guess it's just that I had dealt with this my whole life," Ian says. Ian's father, Sterling (a longtime firefighter in the Los Angeles Fire Department), had grown up in L.A., and his mother, Colleen (a paraeducator), had grown up in inner-city Chicago. They moved the family to a Los Angeles suburb to create a better life for Ian and his two siblings. Ian went to Damien High, a private, mostly white all-boys' Catholic school in La Verne. He remembers a lot of racial taunting. But for Ian, his focus was never on the taunting; it was on overcoming the harassment by keeping his emotions under control.

"In a weird way I could almost understand the letters," Ian says. "I mean, with the proposal, here we were on people's televisions—we were everywhere. It's like we had come into people's homes, and some people didn't want us in their homes. I got that. But I also wasn't going to let anyone come in and try to ruin things."

There were dozens of meetings at Boise State about the wedding, the topics ranging from NCAA rules (the couple could not accept certain presents, gifts that might have been perceived, say, as coming from school boosters) to security (the location of the wedding was changed after bomb threats were made) to the date of the ceremony. ("They kept asking us to wait," Chrissy says.)

The day Ian remembers most—aside from July 28, 2007, the wedding day itself—was the day when he met with his security detail, mostly off-duty policemen, to discuss escape routes from the reception venue in case things got dangerous. "That," he says, "was when I thought, Man, this is serious."

The wedding went off without anything worse than some harmless wedding crashers, but maybe all the emotions did back up on Ian. He entered his junior year as a Heisman candidate and one of the most famous college football players in America. He bruised his kidney, and he sprained his ankle, and he ran for 627 fewer yards and had eight fewer touchdowns.

"Ian was still working really hard," says Jeff Choate, then the Boise State running backs coach and now its special teams coach. "But I think he would tell you that with the wedding and all the attention and everything, he kind of lost his edge."

People these days generally ask Ian Johnson two questions. One: What was it like that night in Arizona when he proposed to his girl under the lights after scoring the game-winning points? Two: Why in the hell did he pick the Minnesota Vikings?

Johnson was not taken in the 2009 NFL draft. That set him back. He is known among his friends for being so calm, so unbothered, so California cool. But the draft jarred him.

During his senior year at Boise, the offense moved away from Johnson for several reasons. A talented young quarterback—Kellen Moore—was ready to make his mark. Several other skilled running backs had arrived. "I told Ian, 'This is your fault,'" Choate says. "'It's your fault that talented players wanted to come here and be the next Ian Johnson.'"

Johnson had, in many ways, launched the Boise State fairy tale—48 wins over the last four years. (Yet another BCS bowl bid followed the 2009 season: a return trip to the Fiesta, on Jan. 4, against unbeaten TCU.) But he was still working through his own. During his senior year he asked to be put on special teams—as a blocker. He insisted on working extra with the younger backs. "Ian's legacy is that senior year," Choate says. "It's not the proposal or that great 2006 season. It's his senior year and what he said and what he left behind."

Johnson's numbers plunged. He touched the ball only 177 times, compared with 284 in '06. But he still thought the NFL would want him. He had the second-fastest time in the 40 for running backs at last February's NFL combine. He did 26 bench-press reps of 225 pounds—more than soon-to-be-first-round picks Beanie Wells of Ohio State and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno.

But after he was passed over by all 32 teams in the draft, Johnson could not keep his emotions tucked away. "I lost it for a few seconds," he says. "It's just ... I had worked really hard. I needed a few seconds there to get myself together. You don't let emotions cloud your decisions."

An undrafted free agent does not get to be choosy. Johnson's choice came down to Dallas or Minnesota. The answer seemed obvious. The Vikings already had Adrian Peterson, probably the best running back in football. The Vikings already had Chester Taylor, one of the most versatile running backs in football. The Vikings already had Naufahu Tahi, a savage blocker.

Naturally, Johnson chose to sign with Minnesota.

"I think you have to be realistic," he says. "I wasn't going to be fighting for a starting job anywhere. People ask, 'Why would you go where Adrian Peterson plays?' And I'm like, 'Who better to learn from than Adrian Peterson? Who is going to teach me more about being a pro than Chester?'"

And so he learns how to play football. She balances their tentative budget. He talks of a paid internship in the sports nutrition business after the season's over. They might move into teammate Jon Cooper's basement during the off-season so that Ian can work out with the team. It depends. Everything in their life right now depends.

It is 5° in Eden Prairie, Minn., where the Vikings train in a facility behind a large Viking ship. An even colder wind blows, and pellets of snow bombard Ian and Chrissy as they walk across the street back to their apartment after dinner. These are not the big, fluffy flakes of snow they remember from Boise. Cars skid on the slush.

It is a Tuesday, the one off day for players this particular week. Like most teams around the league, the Vikings get Monday off after a victory. But Minnesota lost at Arizona on Sunday, so the players and coaches spent much of Monday gnashing teeth while watching mistakes on film. Johnson did not make any of those mistakes while sitting on his rented couch, but he sat quietly in the meetings and watched the film and tried to look properly contrite. Chrissy worked a nine-hour shift at Victoria's Secret—it's busy at Christmastime.

And now, they hold hands and he laughs about how bundled up she looks with her furry hat and heavy coat and scarf, and she laughs about how he always feels warm no matter how cold it gets. He throws a snowball at her, and they talk about how much fun it will be to have a snowball fight with their children someday.

"When I was young, I didn't dream about being a football player," Ian says. "I dreamed about being a good father and a good husband. Maybe that's crazy."

Maybe it is crazy. Maybe he will be a football star, and maybe he won't. Maybe they will have other limo rides through New York, and maybe they won't. In the end, they say, it doesn't matter. The snow keeps falling, and they are young, and they throw snowballs at each other, and they laugh as Christmas music plays over the loudspeaker at the restaurant behind them.

"It really is beautiful," Chrissy says.

And they lived happily ever after again.

Now on SI.com

Complete bowl coverage, including the run-up to the BCS title game at SI.com/cfb

They received tear-stained letters from couples, old and young, who said they believed in love again.
People these days ask Johnson this: Why in the hell did he pick the Minnesota Vikings?
"I didn't dream of being a football player," Ian says. "I dreamed of being a good father and a good husband."
PHOTOPhotograph by LAYNE KENNEDYDESERT DARLINGS Johnson left his lasting imprint on America with his impromptu proposal to Chrissy at the '07 Fiesta Bowl.PHOTOTED S. WARREN/AP[See caption above]PHOTOSTEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COMSTATUESQUE After beating the Sooners with the trick play, Johnson was pegged as a Heisman front-runner.PHOTOADAM M. BETTCHERWEEKDAY WARRIOR Johnson works out with the Vikings from Monday through Friday, but watches them from his living room come Sunday.PHOTOLAYNE KENNEDYIT'S A COLD BUSINESS Chrissy and Ian accept the uncertainty of the present, and their belief in a better future remains unshakable.