Popular sportscaster Ernie Johnson Jr. shares a look at his remarkable career and his family life, highlighting how his Christian faith has helped him overcome difficult challenges to live a life that is inspirational to others. (Part 1 of 2)
Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: I really learned from him that kind of a mind-set in terms of what you’re doing, working as hard as you can at it, and just being grateful for having the opportunity. So here’s what my dad did; he taught me a world of lessons and didn’t even know it.
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John Fuller: Well, that voice may sound familiar to you. Ernie Johnson is a recognizable figure in professional and college basketball, and major league baseball, and other sporting events. And today on “Focus on the Family,” you’ll hear about his inspiring life, his family, and his storied career. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, Father’s Day is coming up, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to hear Ernie Johnson’s story, which is fascinating. He and his wife, Cheryl, have six children—that’s right, six, and I’m grateful for each one. Too few big families today, you know? And I also want to talk about the influence of his father, of the journey he’s had. You are gonna be touched in so many ways over this next day or two, so buckle up. This is gonna be a very informative ride and a faith-filled journey with Ernie.
John: And he’s written a book called Unscripted. I love the subtitle. The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary and with that, we’re glad to have Ernie here.
Jim: Ernie, welcome.
Ernie: Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here. I really thank y’all for having me on.
Jim: Well, I like this subtitle, this idea of “unpredictable moments that make life extraordinary.” That’s a great thought. How’d you come up with it?
Ernie: That was a joint effort between myself as the author of the book and the folks at Baker Publishing. I had always wanted and said that if I ever wrote a book, it’s going to be called Unscripted, because that kind of defines, I guess, the way the sporting public would say, boy, that show he does on TNT with Charles Barkley and Shaq and Kenny, that’s a free-for-all, (Laughter) and it’s spontaneous. And it is, and it’s unscripted, but then the more I thought about it, I said that really describes the life that I’ve had away from the cameras.
And so then, as we talked about the subtitle, part of it is what I hope folks will kind of gravitate toward as these blackberry moments, and I thought that was a little too vague to use as the subtitle, but then we kind of settled on these unpredictable moments that make life extraordinary.
Jim: It’s so true. You’ve brought them up. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal. What’s it like on TNT? I’ve watched that show. I’m a basketball fan. It’s fun to watch the banter, actually, and those guys can really dish it out, can’t they?
Ernie: To say the least. (Laughter)
Jim: But they seem like good guys. There’s good chemistry.
Ernie: Look, I’ve told people before, I said I grew up with two sisters, both older.
Jim: You told Shaquille O’Neal this?
Ernie: No, I told them all. I told the whole world this. This is as close as I’ve ever had to having brothers—Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
Jim: Okay, that’s good. I thought you were gonna say, “You remind me of my sister, Shaq.” (Laughter
Ernie: No. I’m not gonna say that to him, but it really is, and we do have this really deep respect for one another, and a love for one another. I think, truth be told, if there was ever a moment when any one of those guys needed anything from any of us, we would drop what we’re doing, and we’ve done that before. I mean we’re really tight, and it’s very rare in our business to see a core of on-air people like for me and Kenny and Charles.
We’ve been together for 16 years, and we added Shaq about 5 years ago. In TV, that doesn’t happen very often. It’s, well, let’s change things up. Let’s get somebody else in here. So it’s been really nice to be able to work with those guys for that long. And the show is exactly what it looks like. I mean if you’re watching it at home, and you think, I have no idea what’s going to happen next, join the crew, because half the time, I don’t either and that’s what makes it fun.
Jim: Now you’re a three-time Emmy winner. That’s exciting, too, I mean that the professionals have acknowledged you in that way.
Ernie: Yeah. I mean part of that is gratifying; it really is; because when I am nominated for that, I’m up there against Bob Costas and James Brown and Greg Gumbel, or Bryant Gumbel, and you know, a lot of times it’s guys that, as I was coming up, I was watching them and saying, “Boy, I’d like to be in that chair. I’d like to be in that position.” And then, to have three times had them say, “Yeah, you’ve won for studio host,” it’s like, yeah, that’s very gratifying to have that recognition from your peers.
And the show has won seven, eight, nine, something like that. And that’s gratifying, just because our entire crew takes pride in that. You know, we have so many people working on that show on a nightly basis, and they’re all involved in the input in that show and to what might work, and ideas are encouraged by our producer, Tim Kiley. You know, we’ll have something we might want to do to close out the night, and the assistant lighting man might say, “This might work better if you do this,” and T.K. will say, “Sure. Let’s plug that in.” And so, when the show wins an Emmy, it’s like BANG, everybody says, “Hey, that was us.”
Jim: Ernie, you’ve been around sports a long time [are] photos in your book of you and your dad. That’s unique. I mean, not a lot of sons or daughters have an opportunity to hang out at the big ball park.
Ernie: You know he played for the Milwaukee Braves back in the ‘50s, and then played a season with the Baltimore Orioles, and then in 1960 went to spring training with the Cleveland Indians and then that was the end of the line. But the biggest part of his career was as a relief pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves, so he played with, you know, Henry Aaron and Lou Burdett and Warren Spahn and Eddie Matthews and all these greats. And they won the World Series in ‘57. My only regret along those lines was that, you know, I was the third-born of our kids; I had two older sisters. And so I was born in ‘56, so my recollections of the World Series of ‘57 are a little fuzzy.
Jim: They’re grander than you might imagine.
Ernie: But I have, you know, what’s great is that those videos do appear, you know. There will be a DVD put out, here’s the ‘57 Series, and it’s not every game, but it’s a good cross-section of that, and I’ve seen video of my dad pitch in the World Series. And that is, I mean you can’t put a price on that.
Jim: Ernie, when you look at it, we’re right around the corner from Father’s Day, and you think of the impact your dad had on you. Describe some of those adjectives, the difference his life made in your life as a man.
Ernie: Well, I think it goes back to this kind of dream childhood that you referred to when your dad is a professional baseball player or later a major league announcer for more than 30 years. And so, a good part of my time was spent, you know, when you’re a baseball guy, that’s a long season. You’re gonna be away from home a lot, but my dad would always say, “Hey, you want to go to the park tonight?” And this was not during school most of the time; this was weekends; but I’d say, “Of course I want to.”
You know, he had to get to the ballpark five or six hours early to do his prep for the game and do his radio pre-game show, and so I’m hanging out at the batting cage, and Hank Aaron’s asking me how my Little League team is doing. (Laughter)
Jim: That’s good enough for me.
Ernie: So this is heady stuff, when you’re a kid growing up and it’s like, you know the players, you know, by first name, and you know, you can kind of just hang out in the clubhouse before the game, and you’re talking to guys. And Phil Niekro is talking to him. It was great. But better than that was just watching my dad and he was never one of these big sit down, I’m giving you a speech guys. Certainly there were times when I deserved that and I got it.
Jim: Good admission.
Ernie: But for the most part, he taught me just by modeling what it meant to be a dad and a husband and a professional, and so I would sit there and watch. And I saw the respect he treated fans with, folks he didn’t even know. You know, it happened every time we were at the ballpark. He’d finish his stuff on the field, we’d be walking up through the aisles to go up to the broadcast booth and grab something to eat, and he’d do his scorebook.
But on the way, somebody’d say, “Hey Ernie!” And it would be somebody from Macon, Georgia, who was up for the weekend who, you know, listens all the time but doesn’t get to the yard very much. And my dad would go over there and talk to them and, you know, I’m kind of looking at my watch, but then 15 minutes rolls by, and they’re talking about everything. My dad’s talking about his horses and what he did in the yard that day. It’s like they were long-lost friends.
And so, to watch that and to see how he approached his job and never thought it was special, I mean he thought it was. In a way it was special because he was getting to do what he loved to do, and the Braves were still allowing this kid from Vermont who played in the big leagues and never went to college, but to be their play-by-play guy and keep his hand in the game, but then he never lorded that over anybody and said, “Hey, don’t you know who I am?” There was never any of that. In a profession where that runs rampant.
Ernie: And so I really learned from him that kind of a mind-set in terms of what you’re doing, working as hard as you can at it, and just being grateful for having the opportunity. So here’s what my dad did: he taught me a world of lessons and didn’t even know it.
Jim: Oh man, that is well said. You shared at his funeral. He lived a long life, almost to 90, and you had the privilege as his son to say those important words at the funeral. Do you remember what you said?
Ernie: Yeah. (Emotional) Toughest thing I’ll ever do with a microphone, or probably without a microphone, because it was just hard. And I know there are folks who are listening who’ve been there, you know, and when he’s your best and when he’s the best man at your wedding, and when he’s the guy you’ve always had a chance to go to with questions, especially working in the same profession and knowing he’d understand when you say, “Man!” and he’d say, “It’s okay.” Or somebody would criticize you in the paper. “Heck with ‘em, Ernie. You’re okay. You can deal with it. You’re okay.”
When it’s final like that, it’s just, it was hard. You know, and I wanted so much to be there when he took his last breath, and the thing is, I’m working the PGA Championship in August of 2011, and it just happened to be at the Atlanta Athletic Club, and it was 15 minutes away from the hospice facility where we had admitted him that week. And, you know, every day I’d go in and see him and rub his head and wonder if he was aware that I was there, and then you know, every now and then you’d get a little squeeze of the hand, or he’d blink at you, or do something like that.
And I know the nurses said, “No, we’ve got the PGA Championship on, and he heard you. He heard you on the air yesterday, on Thursday.” And I went there that Friday morning and saw him on my way to the golf course and told him I loved him and, “I’m glad you’re gonna be watching today,” and we had to stay on the air about 20 minutes longer than we had scheduled to. We were scheduled to that night on TNT, because the play went long, and by the time I got back to the hospice facility, he had just died, and I had just missed it.
Jim: Just missed him.
Ernie: And then you go through these times where you’re saying, “Wow, if we hadn’t been on the air, maybe I would have been there, if we hadn’t had to stay on 20 minutes long.” And I fought that for a couple of years. I really did. I mean that just bothered me. And then, as I thought about it, and I said, Well, my mom was with him. My mom was holding his hand. They’d been married for over 60 years. So, maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. Maybe I was being selfish.
But, then a few days later, to be in that church and to tell everybody in there--and the place was packed--just what my dad meant to me, and what he meant to our family, yeah, it was, you know, I told them about the blackberry moments. I told them about how my dad loved that story of my Little League career when I was 8-years-old when we had a game that was postponed momentarily because two outfielders went looking for a ball that bounced over the fence and then were sidetracked. They were eating blackberries and they forgot about the ball. (Laughter)
And that was one of my dad’s favorite stories, because being a major leaguer and a guy who had been in the World Series, just to see a game stopped for a moment for a blackberry delay was really special. And the reason I told that story when I eulogized him is that as the years went on, that became, for me, like a modern-day parable, and it was one of these situations where, as I grew older, I said sometimes you do have to step away from the game, because God has put these blackberries out there for us, these sweet moments that if you’re too focused on what do I have to do next? Then you miss it, but these kids hadn’t.
They had said, “Wild-growing blackberries? The game can wait a second.” And the more I thought about that as being a husband and father myself, I said, how many times have I had the blinders on, and was, when’s my next meeting? When’s my next conference call? When’s my next telecast? When meantime, I’m missing something the kids want me to do. I’m missing the person just out of my range who would just love to have somebody sit and talk with them for five minutes.
Jim: Like your dad.
Ernie: Yeah. Yeah. And so I talked about that, and I talked about the blackberry moments in his life and wrapped it up by saying, “I don’t know exactly what heaven is going to be like, but I hope there’s baseball, and I hope there are blackberries.”
Jim: Well said.
Ernie: And it was a draining and difficult, but I honored him.
Jim: But you know, Ernie, what’s so terrific about what you’re saying, and you said it right at the beginning, about the relationship you and your father had, that you were best buddies, and how many people don’t have that in their relationship? So you had something special, and, you know, hats off to your dad for recognizing that and being your dad and you being a great son.
Ernie: Well, and you know, and he realized the demands of that job and the time it was gonna take him away from home.
Jim: One hundred sixty-two games, isn’t it?
Ernie: Yeah, and, you know, and half of those were on the road, and so there are long road trips, and there’s a lot of things he’s missing in terms of what me and my sisters were doing, but, he made up for it by the times that he was there, and that he would make the most of those time.
John: This is “Focus on the Family” and you’re listening to a recent conversation that Jim Daly and IO had with Ernie Johnson. And if you can’t stay with us, be sure to ask for a CD or download of this conversation and get a copy of Ernie’s new book, UnScripted. You’ll find these and other helps at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. And by the way, we’ll send that book to you when you support the ministry of Focus on the Family with a generous gift of any amount today. All right, here’s more with Jim Daly.
End of Program Note
Jim: So fast-forward a bit, and your wife, Cheryl, who seems like an awesome person, and we’re gonna talk about that next phase of your life, how did you meet Cheryl?
Ernie: It was my first job out of school--I went to the University of Georgia--my first job in TV was the news anchor at WMAZ-TV in Macon, Georgia, Channel 13. And that was 1979. I was 23-years-old. I looked like I was 12. (Laughter) But it was, you know, they gave me my first job.
Jim: That’s all that matters.
Ernie: And there were two stations on the air. There was Channel 13, that everybody watched, and there was channel 41. And this is back in the VHF/UHF days, and so I mean, look, we could have put a test pattern up at the 6 o’clock news (Laughter) and it would have beaten whatever Channel 41 had put on the air. And so, I’m anchoring the news, and I’m not great. We don’t have a teleprompter back then. I’m looking like a bobblehead. I’m looking up and down.
Jim: Looking at the notes.
Ernie: Oh yeah, I’m looking at the script, and then looking up and, you know, heaven forbid they gave me a camera change; it would have rocked my world. So, I’m doing that, and right down the street from the studio is the bank where I would take my meager paychecks. Despite what you might have heard, being the news anchor in Macon is not as profitable as you might think.
Jim: You weren’t makin’ much.
Ernie: No, you’re absolutely right. (Laugh) Boom. Ba-doom--boom. So, I’m taking this meager paycheck, and she’s the teller at the bank, and she’s really pretty, and she’s funny and, you know, it’s more than just your typical customer/teller transaction through this six inches of bullet-resistant glass that we’re meeting through.
And it was just, you know, just we were always joking, and she would take these, you know, the lollipops that they save for the kids who are in the car, and she’d always give me a lollipop before I left, but she would crush it into about 8 billion pieces.
Jim: She would purposely crush it? That’s not a good sign, by the way. (Laughs)
Ernie: Yeah, no, no and so she’d say, “Okay, thanks for coming by,” and then it’s be like “bang,” and you’d hear this cellophane and I’d hear this kind of thump, and then here comes the drawer out and here’s my deposit slip and here’s this cherry lollipop in about 10 billion pieces. So, you know, eventually it’s like I’d go back the next week, and she says, “What do you do at WMAZ anyway?”
Jim: (Laughing) Faithful watcher.
Ernie: And she’s a college student at the time. She’s working her way through college at Mercer. And, you know, my professional side takes a little bit of a torpedo right there when she says, “So what do you do at WMAZ?” “Well, uh, really? You don’t know that I’m the anchor of the 6 o’clock news at WMAZ?” (Laughter)
Jim: Using that voice.
Ernie: And she’s like, “No. I’m working my way through school, and I hardly ever get to watch a TV.” And here’s the thing. The more we get to talk, you know, and it’s not like cars were lining up behind me and honking the horn, “Hurry up! Leave her alone! She’s got work to do!”
But when she wasn’t at the bank, then she was pursuing a psychology degree, and so she’s working for a local psychologist and she’s putting herself through school, and she’s studying like crazy. So, you know, I didn’t, you know, it didn’t surprise me that she didn’t, you know, watch the news much.
But I was very impressed with what she had going on in her life and her drive. And at the same time, after I got the guts to ask her out, then I learned that part of her weekend she was spending in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program with a teenage girl down there that she was just trying to help, you know, through a real troubled family situation. And I said, I’m like probably like four years older than this woman, and she has absolutely got life figured out way more than I do. She really gets the important stuff.
Jim: So you had some interest here. You’re thinking, okay.
Ernie: Oh yeah. I said this girl’s really special.
Jim: And look, she went beyond the paycheck she was depositing for you. She obviously had an interest in you, even though you weren’t making a lot of money. (Laughter)
John: Was that what the smashed suckers were about with her shoe?
Ernie: No, she says that was just being fun. She thought, you know, “We always had fun. When you came in you, you were always joking, and you always made me laugh.” And we really did. There was something between us through that bullet-proof glass, and I wasn’t really able to explore that more, until I actually asked her out and we were able to sit down and have a dinner and find out what was going on in our lives. And the more I found out about her, the more I felt like I was 12, like I didn’t have any clue what was going on in the world.
Jim: She didn’t take her shoe to the dessert, I take it, and start smashing dessert right at the table. So you get married.
Ernie: Well, we did, yeah. We did get married, but not until after we’d split.
Jim: Oh really? So you were dating and then decided [to separate]?
Ernie: We were dating, and then you get to that crossroads, it’s like, I think a year and a half in Macon is long enough for me professionally. You know, I’ve got some things on a résumé reel now that I want to send out. I want to continue my career somewhere else. I’m not gonna live in Macon all my life. And so, Spartanburg, South Carolina, is about 100 market sizes bigger than Macon, because it has Greenville, Spartanburg, and Asheville, North Carolina, so I’ve got a chance to move up 100 market sizes, and I’m gonna do it.
And she’s still in school, and it was like, you know, it was like one of these things. It was, well, I guess we’ve reached that point. You know this has been a lot of fun, but I’ve got to go to Spartanburg, she’s going to stay in Macon and finish her schooling. And the thing is, her folks lived in Atlanta, mine lived in Atlanta, so we did have that was still there, but it was kind of, that was that.
And then I kind of realized over the next few months in Spartanburg, like my mom and dad would ask, “Hey, so what’s happening? Who ya datin’? How’s your love life?” And I was like, “I blew it with that girl at the bank. She was the one.” And so, that’s the only way they knew who I was talking about. In fact, for years after we got married, there was always a Christmas present under the tree “To the girl at the bank,” from my mom and dad.
Jim: That was the label. (Laughs)
Ernie: Yeah, she was the girl at the bank.
Jim: Gift card.
Ernie: So yeah, eventually, long story short, was that yeah, we did. I was dogged in my pursuit of her and tried to convince her that I did need another shot, and yeah, so we got married in 1982.
Jim: So how long were you married before you started talking about children and that adventure?
Ernie: Well, talking about it didn’t take long after we got married in 1982, but we had our first child in 1984, a little boy named Eric, and then in 1987 had a little girl named Maggie. And it wasn’t Margaret, and people always ask. Is she a Margaret? No, no, she’s just a Maggie. She was just a Maggie.
Jim: She’s doing okay psychologically being called just a Maggie? (Laughter)
Ernie: There’s something about Maggie that is a little more free-flowing and a little less structured than Margaret. And so, it’s just like, yeah. And so, she turned out to be just a Maggie, too, real, you know, a real free spirit and lots of fun. So, there we were. So I mean you think about it, and this was kind of like I was following the script, you know?
Jim: Sure, a boy and a girl.
Ernie: A great wife, a great job, a boy and a girl.
Jim: You got it!
Ernie: (Clap) Hey! Thank you very much. We did it. We’re done.
Jim: I can do all things. (Laughter)
Ernie: Exactly, so yeah, so that was where we were, up until 1990, ‘91.
Jim: And your career is taking off, the moves you made, it was in a good place?
Ernie: It’s going well. This was perfect. This was great wife, boy and a girl, career on the uptick.
Jim: Everything’s in place.
Ernie: And life is good.
Jim: That is good. You know, we’ve gotta stop at this point, which is a hard point to stop, but I want to pick up next time how Michael comes into your life and the changes that are made, and all the other things that were going on. Can we do that? Let’s come back again.
Ernie: There’s a story there.
Jim: Let’s do it.
John: That was in Atlanta, Georgia, Ernie Johnson Jr. visiting with us and Jim, what an enjoyable time, especially as we lead up to Father’s Day weekend and the conversation gets even better tomorrow.
Jim: Well, I loved it, John, Ernie is such a gifted storyteller and what a great sense of humor and what an amazing voice he has and what a tender spot in his heart for his dad. I think that came through loud and clear. It touched me when I was sitting across the table from him.
Wait until you hear Ernie’s inspiring story about the adoption of his son, Michael, which is an incredibly inspiring story. You won’t want to miss it.
John: He really is such a great and dedicated father and very courageous and you’re gonna hear more of that tomorrow. His book, Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments That Make Life Extraordinary is available from us here at Focus on the Family and it’s a great book, a real winner. Call and request it from us. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459 or you can order it from our online store and support the work of the ministry here at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Let me also remind you that when you obtain the book through Focus on the Family, all the proceeds go to ministry. We save marriages, save babies lives. It’s an amazing way to put that little extra into ministry effort here, so thank you for purchasing the book through Focus on the Family. And when you give a donation of any size today, we’ll send you a copy of Unscripted as our way of saying thank you for investing in this ministry.
John: And when you get in touch, be sure you ask for a CD of this broadcast. It’s going to have extra content and the download will, as well. And as we wrap up, a short preview of what’s coming up next time.
Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: And I’d see that image is emblazoned in my mind when I looked up there to my left and I saw these students standin’ up with that “I Love You” sign as their arms were raised.
End of Excerpt
John: I’m John Fuller and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. Join us again next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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