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He is up in the dark at 4:30 most mornings. By sunrise he is aboard his 39-foot SeaVee, “Three Rings,” named for his national championship with the Miami Hurricanes and two Super Bowl wins with the Dallas Cowboys.
Jimmy Johnson is usually alone.
“If I’m out there by myself there’s no pressure to catch any fish,” he says, smiling. “If I entertain people I feel kind of obligated to catch a big fish for ‘em.”
He fires up the diesel engines and heads maybe 25 miles offshore as the sun is chasing the dark away. Before long he will have five active lines out in search of mahi (“What they call dolphin down here”), tuna, maybe amberjack or wahoo — “Whatever gets on the hook,” he says.
Jimmy’s fishing bona fides are for real. He has caught and released five huge blue marlin in the 300-pound range, some after near two-hour struggles. He hosts the annual J.J.’s Championship Fishing Week that has included Michael Jordan among anglers. His house includes a separate room full of offshore-grade rods and reels and plastic boxes full of lures and hand-tied rigs. He cleans and vacuum-seals his own fish. (Doesn’t cook ‘em, though. His wife Rhonda handles that).
But Johnson’s passion for fishing isn’t just about what he catches. He is out there fishing for more than that.
“It’s peaceful out there,” he says. “It’s relaxation.”
It gives a man time to think.
He just turned 78. It can be an age that invites reflection.
Johnson reaches the pinnacle of his professional life this coming weekend: the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The enshrinement ceremony for the Class of 2020, delayed to this summer by the pandemic, is on Saturday.
More important, this feels to Johnson like the best his life has been, period, above and beyond sports or the fame he achieved in football or for the past 20 years as a studio analyst on “FOX NFL Sunday.”
“I used to say the most fun time of my life was was those five years at the University if Miami. It was that way for a long time,” he says. “Winning back-to-back Super Bowls was rewarding as well. But, really, the greatest time of my life is now. The most fun time of my life has been right now.”
It wasn’t football that got him to this place. It wasn’t fishing, or Fox TV.
It was family.
Johnson in reflection knows it was at great cost he achieved all he did in football. A divorce. Missing so much of his two sons growing up. Being far away, in headsets on a sideline, as his parents aged and passed away.
Even the most successful people can feel tinges of guilt or regret.
“I mainly retired [after coaching the Dolphins in 1996-99] because of my family,” he says. “I spent so little time with my two sons, and one had really struggled. And then I was with the Dolphins when my mother passed away.”
Then-owner Wayne Huizenga insisted Johnson fly to the funeral on his private jet.
It was that journey, wrapped in emotion, that changed his life.
“It was the realization then that I’d missed so much family time.”
He would never coach again.
His two sons were coming into their teens right around the time Johnson was beginning to make it big in coaching, getting his big break with the Hurricanes in the’80s.
Jimmy wasn’t around to see one of his sons, Chad, slowly go off the rails, his life engulfed more and more by alcohol.
Chad had been a successful stockbroker but lost it all to booze, ending up estranged from his family and living in his car. For more than 20 years he was slowly suffocating in a bottle and couldn’t get out.
“The first and last thing on my mind each day was where I’d get my next drink. Nothing else mattered, “ recalls Chad, now 53. “I lost absolutely everything. My job, any finances I had, my friends, but more importantly my family. Every aspect of my life was a closed door. My family never stopped loving me, but at some point they reached a limit on empty promises. It was, ‘I’ve heard this, we’ve done this.’”
But happy endings do happen. Sometimes hope is rewarded. Jimmy Johnson’s son found his epiphany.
Chad got clean. His first job sober was delivering subs from a deli. Today he runs a dependency rehabilitation center, Tranquil Shores, in the St. Petersburg area. His father visited there a few years ago and wept in reading the many notes and messages from those his son had helped free from the vice grip of addiction.
“I’m more proud of what Chad has accomplished than anything I ever did,” says the father.
Johnson always said the losses in football hurt him more than the wins ever made him feel good. He said the loss that hurt more than any other was the Canes’ 14-10 loss to Penn State in the 1986 season national championship game.
“I did a poor job of coaching. We had a much better team,” he says now. “But we turned the ball over. I think that loss made me a better coach.”
Not even that loss hurt as much as watching his son’s long battle with alcoholism, and thinking it might never end until it ended in tragedy.
“Nothing ever comes close to how low I was when Chad was struggling,” he says. “But since that time there have been a lot of great hours and days with my sons Brent and Chad. They’re both doing fantastic.”
Both sons live in the Austin area now. A couple of months ago, on a whim, Jimmy bought an RV and set out to visit his boys. The RV broke down in Pensacola. Oh well. Jimmy then flew out to visit his sons.
“Now we talk on a weekly basis. About real life things as opposed to surface things,” Chad said. “There’s been a lot of firsts with me and my dad in the last three to five years.”
Johnson has known since January 12, 2020, he was headed to Canton. Found out live on the Fox set, with 35 million people watching.
David Baker of the Pro Football Hall of Fame came through as door onto the set.
Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy’s best friend along with Miami lawyer Nick Christin, started jumping up and down. “I just stopped breathing,” Jimmy says. “Howie Long looked over and asked me, ‘You need your inhaler?,’ because of my asthma.”
Johnson was fighting tears. The tears were winning.
When he composed himself the first thing Jimmy did was thank all of the assistant coaches and players who he said got him to Canton.
To us this week he allowed, “Maybe I had something to do with it.“
Johnson presented Jason Taylor when he was inducted into the Hall. Now Johnson will be presented by his old Cowboys quarterback and now Fox TV teammate, Troy Aikman.
Johnson warned Aikman that his acceptance speech might be the shortest Canton has ever seen.
“They all start thanking everybody in the world, but there’s no way — we’d be there all night for me to thank all the people from my entire career,” he said. “I’ll talk a little bit about my family, then its gonna be ‘thank you’ and I’m gonna sit down.”
He will be surrounded by his football family and his Fox family in Canton, but it will be his real family he will be thanking.
The family whole again. The people who have made right now the best time of Jimmy Johnson’s life.