My earliest memory is of an afternoon in June. I was four years old, and I was in the backyard with my dad. He’d just bought me a purple and gold mini football, my first football. He’d marked off an area of our backyard with a white chalk line. “Here’s how it works, Mick. You try to run there,” he said, pointing behind the line, “and I try to stop you.” He shoved the mini football into the crook of my arm, led me to the far end of the yard, went back to the middle, got down on his knees, and yelled: “Go!”
I took off running toward the end zone. Our backyard is narrow, his arms are long, and even on his knees he could move fast enough to catch a four-year-old. Time after time I ran, trying to get by him. But he never let me have anything for nothing, not even then. Over and over he’d stretch out one of his arms and tackle me. Sometimes the tears would well up. “There’s no crying in football,” he’d say, which I guess is a joke from some Tom Hanks movie, and he’d send me back to try again.
And then I did it. I zigged when he was expecting a zag, and I was by him. I crossed the chalk line at the end of the yard, my heart pounding. I remember squealing for joy as I turned around. He was lying on the ground, arms reaching toward me, a huge smile on his face. “Touchdown Mick Johnson!” he yelled. “Your first touchdown!”
All those years, I believed that every kid in the neighborhood was jealous of me. And why not? I’d spent time at the houses of the boys on my block —Philip and Cory and Marcus. I’d seen their dads sprawled out on the sofa. Mostly they’d ignore me, but if they asked me something, it was always about school. I’d answer, and then they’d go back to their newspaper. These fathers drove delivery trucks or taught high school or worked in office buildings in downtown Seattle. They wore glasses, had close-cropped hair, and either had bellies or were starting to get them. Everything about them seemed puny.
My dad was bigger and stronger than any of them. His voice was deeper, his smile wider, his laugh louder. Like me, he has red hair, only his was long and reached his shoulders. He wore muscle T-shirts that showed his tattoos—on one shoulder a dragon, on the other a snake. He kept a keg of beer in the den, and whenever he filled his beer stein, he’d let me sip the foam off the top. The way he looked, the way he acted—those things alone put him a million miles above every other kid’s father. But there was one last thing that absolutely sealed the deal—my dad was a star.
Our den proved it. It was down in the basement, across from my mom’s laundry room, and it was filled with scrapbooks and plaques and medals. Two walls were covered with framed newspaper articles. It was the headlines of those articles that told his story. I used to go downstairs into the den, pick up one of the game balls that he kept in a metal bin in the corner, and walk around and read them, feeling the laces and the leather of the football as I read. Mike Johnson Sets High School Yardage Record . . . Mike Johnson Leads Huskies over USC . . . Mike Johnson Named to All–Pac Ten First Team . . . Mike Johnson Selected in Third Round.
Sometimes my dad would come in while I was staring at the walls. He’d tell me about a touchdown run he’d made in a rainstorm against Cal or the swing pass in the Sun Bowl that he’d broken for sixty-five yards. When he finished with one of his stories, he’d point to the two bare walls. “Those are yours, Mick,” he’d say. “You’re going to fill them up with your own headlines.”
My mom had been a top gymnast at the University of Washington the same years my dad was on the football team. She runs around Green Lake every morning, and she used to do the Seattle-to-Portland bicycle race, so she knows all about competition. But every time she heard my dad talk about me making the headlines, she’d put her hands on my shoulders and look at me with her dark eyes. “You don’t have to fill any walls with anything,” she’d say. “You just be you.” Then she’d point her finger at my dad. “And you stop with all that ‘bare walls’ stuff.”
My dad would laugh. “A little pressure is good for a boy. Keeps him on his toes.”