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Butterball Company Cries Foul : He Talks Turkey Bowling

Times Staff Writer

The idea was hatched near Thanksgiving a few years ago as Derrick Johnson was stocking shelves in a supermarket late one night.

Johnson watched a couple of guys stacking frozen turkeys in the meat department slide a big Butterball brand bird wrapped in netting with a bright yellow handle across the linoleum. Johnson marveled at the speed and accuracy of the turkey as it rolled past the frozen meats counter. He had to try it.

Within minutes, Johnson was “bowling” Butterballs at several 2-liter plastic soda pop bottles set up at the end of a grocery aisle. He coined the late-night, indoor sport “Turkey Bowling.”

But executives at Chicago-based Swift-Eckrich, the company that sells Butterball turkeys, call it foul fun and have told the 29-year-old Santa Ana man to stuff it.

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Johnson’s dubious skill as a turkey bowler has attracted a flock of followers, landing him on half a dozen national talk shows in recent months, including Arsenio Hall and CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”

Trouble is, every time he makes an appearance, he brings along a 12-pound Butterball, making the people at Swift-Eckrich cringe.

The company, in a terse, four-paragraph letter sent last month, warned Johnson to stop using its turkeys because it “damages the butter ball quality image that we have spent millions of dollars to develop.”

Furthermore, the company said Johnson’s antics may encourage other late-night grocery stock clerks to bowl their products, then return them to the freezer cases for sale.

In threatening Johnson with a lawsuit, the letter said, “The presentation of a dirty and torn bag containing a turkey with bruises seriously damages” the company’s reputation.

Unless he quits using their brand of frozen turkey, Swift-Eckrich told Johnson, it will seek a court order to stop him and seek damages.

Has Johnson, a former Los Angeles Rams cheerleader and Chippendales dancer, turned chicken in the face of the corporate threat?

Has he abandoned his dream of turkey-bowling his way into big dollars as an actor?

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“No way!” Johnson said Friday. “This is my ticket into the big time. If (Swift-Eckrich) wants me to stop, all they have to do is write me a check. Better yet, why don’t they hire me as their West Coast spokesman. Apparently, I’ve done more to spread their name and reputation than all their high-priced P.R. guys.” The company could not be reached for comment.

Johnson is unemployed. He claims that Lucky supermarkets, where he stocked shelves for 3 years, fired him a year ago because he kept calling the grocery chain the “birthplace of turkey bowling.”

No matter, Johnson says, because he’s too busy promoting his sport--and himself. He said he has endorsements from a sportswear and shoe company. He is writing a script for a situation comedy about a “Mom and Pop” grocery store and he has organized the PBA--Poultry Bowling Assn.

He said he also is working with an independent Santa Ana market to put on the “Grocery Games,” a kind of supermarket Olympics featuring turkey bowling to raise money to buy food for the poor and homeless.

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“This is the sport of the ‘90s,” predicted Johnson, known to friends as “DJ.”

“I can see it now. The party invitation will read: ‘BYOB--Bring Your Own Bird.’ ”

The object of the game is simple: Using a frozen turkey, knock down as many 2-liter plastic soda bottles as possible. According to Johnson’s rules, men use 12-pound turkeys, while women use Cornish game hens. Two strikes in a row is known as a “gobbler.” A 7-10 split is a “wishbone” and a spare is a “hen.”

And as far as Johnson is concerned, Butterballs are the official bird of turkey bowling.

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“People ask why I don’t use another turkey,” Johnson said. “Listen, I love Butterballs. That’s all we had when I was growing up. Let’s just say I am a loyal customer.”


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