U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL LOS ANGELES 1991 : Johnson Making Change on Past : Decathlon: One of the top decathletes in the world has made an about-face from his boyhood in Missoula, Mont.
Boredom begets beer.
That’s pretty much how it works in Missoula, Mont., and that’s how it came to pass that this country’s great hope for an Olympic medal in the decathlon found the key to his life.
Dave Johnson, who lives in Pomona but grew up in Missoula, will compete today in the two-day decathlon at the U.S. Olympic Festival track competition at UCLA. He was ranked No. 2 in the world last season and has a best of 8,600 points. Together with Dan O’Brien of Idaho, who has the best score in the world this season, Johnson hopes to finish in the top three at the track and field World Championships next month at Tokyo.
There exist in track and field lore many stories about Johnson, most of them in some way making reference to his “up from the streets” life. But the fact is that Johnson was a restless kid in a small town with nothing to do and with no one paying any attention to him. His ‘crimes’ were hardly worse than the trouble many teen-agers find in their path to adulthood.
What makes these stories resonate is that Johnson is today such a different person. Johnson, a born-again Christian, will be talking about his past, then, without apparent transition, will reveal that it is ‘Vitamin G, for God’ that makes him go.
Johnson is gracious to talk about his teen-age years, for surely his sponsors view this talk as just the wrong sort of publicity.
On Wednesday Johnson submitted himself to it again, sitting with reporters to tell the stories again. He laughs often when he tells them.
How did it all begin?
“Basically, I just didn’t have a lot to do. I just got into trouble,” Johnson said. “There were 10 of us who did things together a lot. We called ourselves the West Side Gang. We didn’t know what we doing. We just wanted to call ourselves something. We had nothing to do.”
The Gang was big into small crime and petty mischief, roaming Missoula with their apple cheeks and straight teeth. They wished they had facial scars.
Johnson’s career of small crime broadened to encompass burglary. He would break into homes and head--not for the safe--but for the refrigerator. “We were looking for beer,” he said.
Now, Johnson may have goals today that revolve around performance, excellence and service to community, but when he was a hyped-up 16-year-old, his idea of achievement was to be locked into the back of a beer-delivery truck with the driver headed to Alaska.
This quest led to the Big Bonanza. Johnson tells this story with the same teen-age relish with which he must have lived it. It was a caper that would land Johnson and the entire soon-to-be-terribly-popular West Side Gang high school in party heaven for months.
It had to do with a ring of keys sitting on the seat of his neighbor’s car. One thing Johnson knew about this particular neighbor was that he worked for a local beer distributor.
One day this ring of keys fell out of the neighbor’s pocket onto the seat of his car. Johnson spotted the keys and took them.
The West Side Gang called a meeting that night at the beer warehouse. Johnson ran through the key ring, trying each key until he found the right one.
“Just about every weekend we would go in there and grab kegs and cases of wine, whatever they had there, and had parties every weekend. All of a sudden, I was a pretty popular guy,” he said.
After about eight months, the beer distributor noticed that dozens of cases of his product were missing and changed the locks.
The West Side Club had, in the meantime, been thrown into quite the social whirl. Kids piled into overflowing pick-up trucks from Tiltzville, Bonner, Milltown, Evaro and Lolo. The Gang had, in fact, become the social directors for most of the teen-agers in western Montana. As luck would have it, a particularly lavish party was planned for the very weekend that the locks were changed.
“I stuck the key in, and it broke off,” Johnson said, who even today shakes his head in disbelief. “We really needed the beer. So we broke in through a window.”
The good news was that the party was a success. The bad news is that the long-suffering distributor called the Missoula police. The police also attended the West Side Gang party, armed with the serial numbers to the stolen beer kegs. To no one’s surprise, the numbers at the party matched those from the stolen kegs.
This, apparently, was not the biggest bust in Montana history. Johnson’s punishment was to pull weeds from the front of the warehouse and cut the beer distributor’s lawn. Happily for Johnson, this was enough to set him on the path of clean living and honest work.
That, plus the fact that his family moved to Corvallis, Ore., soon after the party broke up.
Once in Oregon, Johnson went out for football and track. He went to class, he studied and raised his grade-point average from 1.7 to 2.3.
Not that all the bad habits were gone. Johnson made it through three years of high school and never participated in organized sports. So, as a senior in Corvallis, he looked the football coach in the eye and told him that he had been playing ball all his life and that he was a fine wide receiver. When handed a playbook with all those squiggles and complicated pass patterns, Johnson nodded and said, “Sure, just like at Missoula.”
His speed and athletic talent made up for Johnson’s lack of formal coaching. Soon, Johnson was on the track team, hurdling and jumping.
In this area, however, Johnson did have something of a background.
As a juvenile delinquent, Johnson made a heck of a thrower. It was just that the training was a little unorthodox.
“I threw rocks at cars, threw snowballs, depending on the season,” he said. “For the pole vault, we had a metal pole stuck into a ditch and we’d vault across that. I got my speed from running away after the people stopped their cars when I hit them with rocks. Hurdling came in when I jumped hedges while running away.”
Even with his new citizenship awards and athletic success, Johnson was not a star. He had it in his head that he was going to go to college, to be the first of his siblings to do that. Johnson also had the notion that football might be his tuition to college. Track was something that was going to fun in the off-season, but too much a trifle to devote time to.
It all changed with a phone call from the track coach at Linn-Benton College in Albany, Ore., who phoned Johnson that summer after his senior year of high school. He suggested to Johnson that he attend the junior college and join the track team as a decathlete.
“I thought he said the marathon, I didn’t know what the decathlon was,” Johnson said. “I don’t do that, that’s long distance. He said, ‘No, no, it’s what Bruce Jenner did, the 10-event thing.’ I said, “Hmmm, Bruce Jenner, that’s the guy on C.Hi.P.S.?”
Not an auspicious introduction to an event steeped in American Olympic tradition. How could Johnson have grown up in such an athletic vacuum that he would have been unaware of the legacy of Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Milt Campbell, Bill Toomey and Jenner?
In 1982, 16 years after Jenner’s gold medal and the last American medal in the decathlon, Johnson took up the event.
He said he liked it because there was so much to learn. In his first competition, Johnson scored 6,297 points. He placed second. But it was not until qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials that Johnson began to set serious, long-term goals in the sport. While he placed 11th at the trials, the fact of being there imbued him with the Olympic spirit that had not touched him in his childhood.
Through sport and though his new-found Christianity, Johnson did not so much remake himself as rechannel whatever it is that makes a young person squirm in his seat in class and run full tilt all the time.
Johnson also learned that he was good at something and that track teams offered the same kind of friendship and honor and loyalty that the old West Side Gang had. Johnson learned that the new key opened a very different door.