Brad Johnson hasn't lived here since 1987, but most everything in town stops when he's on TV.
At Black Mountain Music Hall, where the bands are booked around the Washington Redskins' schedule, the manager recently bought a 70-inch screen to show his games.
And whenever his mother, Ellen Johnson, goes out of town to see him play, dozens flock to her house anyway to watch her satellite feed.
"Brad Johnson is the same to Black Mountain as Cal Ripken is to Baltimore," said Bill Burrows, Johnson's high school basketball coach. "I think he'll eventually be the same thing to the Washington Redskins."
Some criticized the Redskins for trading a first-, second- and third-round draft pick to acquire Johnson from the Minnesota Vikings in February. But eight months later, it looks like one of the best swaps in team history.
Johnson, at 31, seems to have arrived, having used unusual drive and unorthodox means to persevere through injury and setbacks and become one of the NFL's sharpest passers this season. With Johnson at quarterback, the Redskins (3-1) have the league's top-ranked and highest-scoring offense. Johnson has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions.
In short, Johnson looks like the first franchise quarterback Washington has had since Joe Theismann in the mid-'80s.
"It's more than you can expect," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said this past week. "The personal makeup, the great desire to be successful and the competitiveness--those are his strengths. And you tie it to the physical ability, and then you have what football fans are looking for in terms of a top-flight quarterback."
Johnson was just that at Black Mountain's Charles D. Owen High School, which he led to the North Carolina state basketball semifinals and football quarterfinals as a senior. In addition to being a star athlete, he was senior class president and voted best all-around male among the class of 1987.
To Ellen Johnson, he is the son who puts two pieces of tape on the index finger of his left hand before each game. She once asked why. He said, "To show I love you, Mom."
"I doubt you'll ever find anything Brad has ever done on a negative side," said Bill Mott, his U.S. history teacher. "It sounds like Mary Poppins: Practically perfect in every way. But I don't know what else to say."
Johnson's pro career, however, nearly didn't get off the ground.
He saw one dream die and another suffer a heavy blow at Florida State, where he lost the starting quarterback position to his best friend, Casey Weldon, his junior year. Two years earlier, he had set aside his dream of playing in the NBA (he started for the Seminoles' basketball team as a walk-on) to focus on football.
The Vikings picked Johnson in the ninth round (227th overall) of the 1992 NFL draft, the last draft to go nine rounds. But with scant college experience, he was passed over twice in Minnesota when starters got injured. Desperate for playing time, he went to the NFL's fledgling World League of American Football in 1995. In time, he became a starter for the Vikings, got them to the playoffs in 1997 and helped them in 1998--only to lose his job to Randall Cunningham, who filled in brilliantly after Johnson's season was stalled, first by a broken leg and later by a broken thumb.
Johnson survived those times through his work with Alex Serrano, a Chilean sports psychologist and confidante who prescribed a regimen of exercise for body, balance and mind. Under Serrano's guidance since 1990, Johnson has thrown medicine balls and mastered a left-handed spiral to improve his usually right-handed passing. He has run and hopped on sand to build speed and agility. And he has read 20 to 30 books, from the "The Inner Game of Tennis" to "My Bible: Zen and the Art of Archery," to achieve poise in pressure situations. It has been a long journey from Black Mountain to Washington.
Nestled in the Swannanoa Valley, at the base of the Appalachian Mountains, Black Mountain is known locally as "the Front Porch of Western North Carolina." It's a place that grants each season its splendor, as the tourists who flock to Asheville's Biltmore Estate, 15 miles west, can attest.
Like the region's most famous son, evangelist Billy Graham, Black Mountain is without pretense or guile. The town and the people are hard-working, pragmatic and direct. As Owen High football coach Ken Ford's father often told him: "If you think of something you need and we ain't got it, then we'll teach you how to do without it."
It's a small town, with about 9,000 year-round residents. Influenced by the valley's eight religious conference centers and two Presbyterian colleges, downtown Black Mountain mingles potters and insurance dealers, antique shops and a hardware store, a hammered-dulcimer maker and espresso bar. Blanket mills and furniture factories dominate the industrial landscape. And the thread that ties it all together is Owen High, home of the Warhorses and War Lassies.
There are no metal detectors at Owen. The biggest worry assistant principal Ellen Johnson has for the student body of 900 is that life here is so good, too few move away to sample what the world offers beyond the Buncombe County line.
It was an idyllic place to rear her own children. And Brad Johnson's childhood was one game after another. His parents were physical-education teachers: Rick was director of a sports camp; and Ellen, an avid tennis player, led her Georgia high school to the state championship.
Brad Johnson had a steady supply of playmates at Camp Ridgecrest. And at the family's mountainside home, his father invented the football games they played together, with pine trees serving as the receiving corps. Johnson's mother was as likely to shoot baskets against him as read to him before bedtime. Even the walk home from the bus stop was a game, with mailboxes and tree trunks ideal targets for rocks and baseballs.
But basketball was Johnson's passion, and he poured his energy into preparing for an NBA career and Division I scholarship to precede it--ideally, to North Carolina.
Rick Johnson told his son that athletes improve when no one else is practicing. So Brad shot baskets in the rain. He got a set of keys to the school gym so he could shoot before his class and at night, after dropping off his date. And he became the best pure shooter western North Carolina had seen, according to Burrows, which is saying a lot, considering he also coached former Cleveland Cavalier Brad Daugherty. Daugherty and Johnson never were teammates at Owen (Daugherty is three years older), but Burrows used the same strategy with each squad.
"When we got in trouble," Burrows said, "we threw it up in the air and hollered, "Brad!' "
By eighth grade, Johnson's renown as a quarterback had spread throughout the valley.
Mott, then Owen's junior varsity football coach, was so excited about the prospect of his matriculation that he devised a C offense to showcase Johnson's abilities. Mott explains to a puzzled listener that he's referring to a "See" offense-as in, "See that!" But he never got to test it because Johnson was named the varsity's starting quarterback as a ninth-grader.
"I worked hard when I was on the football field," Johnson said recently, "but I'd go home and I'd think about basketball."
A natural leader in school, Johnson found taking charge on the football field tougher--particularly as a freshman quarterback running a huddle full of juniors and seniors. His mother heard him fret over it just once; he gained their ear by playing well.
"I think people's perception of leadership is wrong," Johnson said. "I'm a very quiet person in general. Walking down the street, you'd never know I played football. I'm very easygoing. But I take football very seriously. I want everyone on the same page. I think leadership is being on time, working hard and being prepared. And hopefully, everyone will grab onto your coattails and go."
Interest from the nation's top college basketball programs cooled his junior year, so Johnson accepted a football scholarship to Florida State--partly because they agreed to let him play basketball, too.
It wasn't easy to move eight hours from home; his recruiting visit to Tallahassee had been his first time on a plane. He was homesick and talked about it 10 years later, when he delivered Owen's commencement address in June 1997. Johnson's message to the graduates was this: No matter how much you love your friends, your family and home-cooked meals, have the courage to follow your passion where it leads. And whatever you do, do it with a passion.
Florida State Blues
Johnson says he is not remembered at Florida State. Indeed, his career as a starter is little more than a footnote in Seminoles lore after Coach Bobby Bowden benched him not long after a loss to Miami in 1990, when Johnson was a junior. Johnson's portrait doesn't hang in the Seminoles' trophy room, as do paintings of cornerback Deion Sanders, quarterback Charlie Ward, running back Warrick Dunn and a half-dozen others. But he is remembered by many, including Bowden's longtime secretary, Sue Hall, who lights up at the mention of his name.
"How could you forget?" Hall asked. "We get so excited when he does well. He's pretty special."
Johnson and Weldon were fiercely competitive, with contrasting styles. Weldon was more polished and bold, eager to launch the ball downfield at every opportunity. Johnson favored higher-percentage plays, held an advantage in size, but needed work reading defenses.
When Johnson followed that loss to Miami by playing a poor first quarter in the Seminoles' next game, against Auburn, Bowden gave the job to Weldon, who went on to finish second to Desmond Howard in the 1991 Heisman Trophy voting and now is one of Johnson's backups with the Redskins, behind Rodney Peete.
The 1990 season was "probably the toughest time in our friendship," said Weldon, who remains Johnson's best friend. "But it was just circumstances. It wasn't like I beat him out; it just happened. He had played well up until then. But he's such a great guy, nothing changed. . . . He never had the chance to make as many plays and be as athletic and show his ability at Florida State."
What Bowden remembers best about Johnson is how he handled the demotion. "The nature of the game now and the nature of young men now is to gripe, blame somebody or transfer to another school," Bowden said. "Brad Johnson never complained. He was a team man all the way. It was obvious to me his football was ahead of him."
But Mark Richt, Johnson's quarterbacks coach at the time (and now his brother-in-law), could see the hurt in his eyes. So could Serrano, who was pursuing his doctorate in sports psychology at Florida State and managing the football dorm.
"He was hurt because he knew he could play," Serrano said. "Sometimes in the midst of a season, they don't have the time to say it in the right way. Sometimes they don't have the tact. Or they think the guy is through. There were some coaches who told me, "He'll never make it to the pros.' . . . We made a pact: We are going to prove them wrong and show everybody."
In Serrano's estimation, Johnson was among the Seminoles' hardest workers--running, lifting and burning up stair-stepping machines--but he wasn't working on things that would make him a better quarterback. "He had the best time in the 12-minute run," Serrano said, "but he needed to be fastest in 12 steps."
So they created games, much as Rick Johnson had done years earlier, to simulate what a quarterback goes through. They practiced throwing off-balance by hurling medicine balls from a kneeling position, a chair and on the ground.
Serrano worked on Johnson's mind, too, replacing his negative thought, "I am slow," with the positive idea, "I am fast enough to get the job done." That alone took six or seven years, Serrano said.
The ultimate goal in the collaboration that continues today is for Johnson's on-field movements to become automatic. "An athlete that thinks is dead," Serrano said. Once the play is called, Johnson takes a deep breath, visualizes the play succeeding in his mind, then lets his mind go blank, in a sense.
As Johnson explains, it's partly a matter of not focusing on the outcome.
"Most people worry: "We've got to go win the game'," Johnson said. "What you've got to go do is: Make this play work. How are you going to make this play work? Now, how are you going to do it on the second play?' It sounds very simple. But it's hard to do."
After he was drafted by the Vikings, Johnson not only went two seasons without taking snap, he seldom was even activated for games. So he asked to be sent abroad to the NFL's European spring-summer league and landed with the London Monarchs in 1995. Accommodations were Spartan, but the experience was rich, allowing Johnson to call his own plays, build his confidence and hone his leadership skills. He led the league with 194 completions was second with 2,227 yards passing and 13 touchdown passes.
Johnson threw his first NFL touchdown pass in 1996, in the final two minutes of the Vikings' season opener against the Detroit Lions. He had taken over for Warren Moon, who had gotten hurt, and won the game with that throw. Afterward he tossed the ball into the stands to his father, who had undergone open-heart surgery four months earlier.
"I was about to fall apart," Rick Johnson said. "All I said was, 'Unbelievable' about a thousand times."
For Brad Johnson, staying in one system for seven years was invaluable. He learned the pro game from offensive coordinator Brian Billick, quarterbacks coach Ray Sherman and a long list of Vikings quarterbacks, including Moon, Rich Gannon, Sean Salisbury, Jim McMahon and Gino Torretta.
"People talk about a mentor-type thing, but there's no such thing as a mentor [among NFL quarterbacks], by any means," Johnson said. "You say you learn from Warren Moon, but they don't teach you specifics. I'm trying to beat their butt, and they're trying to keep me out of my job. But the way they relate with people, the way they handle situations, I think I took a little bit of something from everybody."
After leading the Vikings to the playoffs in 1996, Johnson suddenly lost strength in his throwing arm during a Monday night game against the Green Bay Packers in December 1997. He was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery and forced him to miss the final three games of the season and the playoffs. By then, though, he had come into his own as a quarterback.
Despite the neck injury, he began the 1998 season as the Vikings' starter, but then came the leg and thumb injuries and Minnesota's 15-1 run through the regular season with Cunningham at quarterback. When the Vikings signed Cunningham to a five-year, $28 million contract December, Johnson knew his future was elsewhere.
Nearly a dozen teams were interested in him, and it seemed likely Johnson would wind up with the Baltimore, where Billick had been named the Ravens' coach. But the Redskins, who surrendered a team-record 61 sacks in 1998, made the deal. While those around Johnson worried about his protection as a Redskin, he has flourished so far.
"What I had in Minnesota gave me a strong foundation," Johnson said. "Here, I think Norv can take me to the top. I think he's making me a better quarterback."
And Turner's offense has never looked more potent.
"If it ends right now, I'd be happy," Johnson said. "I think I've given everything I had to get myself ready. I don't want it to end; I want to play for as long as I can--as long as I stay healthy. But just beating the odds? I think I've done that."