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 2 of 2)
Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: Mr. Ernie Johnson Jr.: And I see that image is emblazoned in my mind when I looked up there to my left and I saw all these students standing up with that “I love you” sign, as their arms were raised.
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John Fuller: This is “Focus on the Family” with your host, Focus president and author, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and last time we enjoyed a visit with sportscaster Ernie Johnson. He’s the host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” and what a tremendous story we heard. I’ll urge you to get the CD or downloadof this series with Ernie by calling 1-800-A-FAMILY. Also ask about Ernie’s new book called Unscripted. Now there’s more coming today in honor of Father’s Day, which is Sunday. Let’s go ahead and rejoin the conversation now. Here’s Jim Daly.
Jim Daly: Ernie, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.”
Ernie: Great to be here, thanks.
Jim: Hey, I so appreciated the discussion last time. It started with your heartfelt relationship with your dad. And you know I lost my dad when I was 11, so I didn’t really have that kind of relationship. He was a big baseball fan and player. He played one year in the pros, I think for Detroit.
Ernie: Most glorious year of his professional life.
Jim: I’m sure.
Ernie: No I’m serious, when you get there, when you’re in “the show,” a lot of folks want to be there and never get there.
Jim: No kidding, but just the way you expressed your relationship with your dad and what caught my attention was the way you said, “He was my best friend.” Man, I wish more sons could say that about their fathers. And that’s the key. You talked about Cheryl, your wife, and how you met. She was the banker. She wasn’t perhaps that impressed with your paycheck (Chuckling), but that was fun. You got married, your career was taking off, you had two children, a boy and a girl, just like God scripted it for you, and then you and Cheryl decided to do something kind of drastic, and I’d like to know, first, what it was, and why you did it.
Ernie: Well, I came home from work one day in 1990, ‘90, ‘91, right around that time as the year changed, and I had been working the previous week when Cheryl had been watching TV, and she saw this ABC News, the show “20/20” had done a profile on what was going on in Romania with all the orphans there in the wake of the Ceausescu revolution and the overthrow. And as I walked in the door that day she said, “You know what we need to do?” And I was like, “Chicken or fish, whatever you feel like. I’m good with anything.” I thought we were talking dinner.
Jim: (Laughing) You are a man’s man. I love this.
Ernie: And she says, “No, you know what? I really feel strongly we need to adopt one of these kids from Romania.” And she explained the story to me, and I was like, “You know, we kind of have it good right now. We kind of have the boy, the girl, you know, everything’s good.” And the more we talked about it, we determined that, yeah, let’s go to a meeting of people who have been there before and done that, who can kind of tell us what the process is like, tell us everything.
John: Ernie, we should let younger listeners know that that was a really difficult situation, with thousands of kids institutionalized and really no hope, right?
Ernie: No, it’s an excellent point, because what had happened, they had, Ceausescu had encouraged women to have as many kids as possible, and so you had all of these kids growing up impoverished, and the ones who were really feeling the brunt of this were any kids with special needs; any kind of problems, and they were viewed as outcasts. They were viewed as, well, let’s forget about them. And they were basically warehoused in some of these orphanages.
Jim: Oh my.
Ernie: And so, that was the thrust of this “20/20” piece that Cheryl had seen. And so, we go to this meeting, and we hear about this and we hear about what it’s like to go there. And it’s probably gonna take a month from when you leave to coming home with a child. So we said, “Let’s go.” Let’s get into this whole adoption process—the home studies, all the red tape, all the paperwork you’ve got to go through and, you know, these strangers coming into the house and talking to the kids about what kind of parents we are, and we were, “Please, please don’t remember how mad I got last Tuesday, you know?”
Jim: Right, the home study.
Ernie: Yeah, the home study. And so, we get the green light, and so Cheryl goes with this group of strangers. You know, she gets to know them a lot better as they travel together, but I stay home with Eric and Maggie, and at that point, you know, Eric is 7, Maggie is 4, and, you know, I’m worried about Cheryl.
You know, she’s in Romania; it’s not like we can pick up a cell phone and talk all day, you know, the communication was spotty. She’s more worried about me, because she is convinced that when she gets home from Romania, these kids are going to have rickets or something because they are not gonna have had a vegetable in a month.
Jim: Right, you’re speaking to every mom’s heart right now.
Ernie: We’re playing putt-putt; we’re ordering pizza by phone.
Jim: It’s Happy Meal time.
Ernie: Every meal was a Happy Meal. (Laughter) I mean it was not fatherhood at its best.
Jim: That might be.
Ernie: Well, ask them, it was. “I got the greatest dad. We haven’t had a vegetable in a month.” So yeah, so she goes and, as it turns out, it’s a two-month process simply because the rules keep changing.
Jim: On my.
Ernie: There are abuses in the system and there are, it’s almost, you know, nightmarish, at times, just the process. And early on in her trip, Cheryl and I were talking. I was at work. My parents and her parents were kind of the safety net. They were taking care of Eric and Maggie if I had to be at work.
Jim: Grandparent vitamins.
Ernie: Oh, it was awesome, the best, the best and she told me on the phone, she said, “Well, I’ve met a child here.” And keep in mind, in our paperwork and in the home study and everything, you know, they kind of ask, “What kind of a child do you want to bring home?” You know, this wasn’t like we had a picture of somebody or said, “This is the child, now go get him.” You know, we said, a little girl under a year old, no permanent handicaps, but somebody that we can, with regular medical care, give them a second chance, give them, so she says, “I met a little boy at the first orphanage we went to.”
She said, “He’s,” and she prefaced it this way, “He’s so much more than we can handle.” And I said, “Well, tell me.” And she said, “Well, he’s got one foot that’s totally turned in, so he can’t walk and he can’t talk, just makes noises. And he’s almost 3-years-old and he’s never been outside, aside from the day they found him abandoned in a park.”
Ernie: So this is a bit different than a little girl under a year old with no permanent handicaps.
Jim: Why was Cheryl drawn to him?
Ernie: You know, I think sometimes, even through this scratchy phone line between Atlanta and Bucharest, you get the knowledge that somehow this little boy had somehow this access to a part, a piece of her heart and a part of her soul that only he could access—whether it was the way they looked at each other, possibly the fact that the nurse who handed this boy to my wife said, “Boy is no good. Do not take.”
And so, Cheryl continues in the conversation after she lays that situation out. And she said, “Ernie, I don’t know if I can go the rest of my life wondering what happened to that kid in that Romanian orphanage.” I said, “Well, bring him home.”
Jim: Wow. Wow.
Ernie: I don’t know where that came from. That wasn’t, it was part of me saying, “Well, maybe there will be another child then,” but it was all I could say. Because I could hear in her voice and just feel what was in her heart, and that was the only response I could have: “Well, bring him home.”
Jim: And of course it’s not easy, right? It doesn’t go simply.
Ernie: Oh no, no, no.
Jim: It’s complicated.
Ernie: It was complicated. It was an amazing thing to see them come into the airport. And that was a two-month process, and she came out, and here’s this little boy we had heard about, and you know, unable to walk and just making noises. And so, you know, immediately it was, okay, let’s get him to a doctor. Let’s see what’s going on. Let’s see what they can tell us.
We knew nothing of his birth parents. We knew nothing of what had happened there. And so, neurologists are looking at him and other doctors, because he’s got all kind of parasites. He’s got all kind of stuff going on [in his] digestive system, in addition to the foot that needs to be fixed, and the fact that we’re awakened every morning by this thump, [Sound of thumps on table], which is him rocking back and forth, hitting his head on his crib, because it was self-stimulation. He had been ignored for three years.
Jim: Probably not touched.
Ernie: No, he was still eating out of the bottle, when he was 3-years-old. So, we get the foot fixed. Neurologists are telling us he’s never gonna speak. He’s never gonna bond with you. This is, basically, what you’re seeing now is what you’re gonna get. And then they look at the way he’s walking after they fix his foot, and they’re suspicious of it, and then they diagnose him with muscular dystrophy.
Jim: It just kept coming.
Ernie: So we’re a year into this, and here comes that sledgehammer that, “Your child has a fatal disease, and there is no cure for it.”
Jim: How did that hit you and Cheryl?
Ernie: Punch to the gut. Yeah, I mean, it was. I mean it was. That’s what it is. It’s like, “Oh no, really!”
Jim: Ernie, the contrast here again. Here you are, you married your girl, your banker girl, and you have two children naturally, boy and girl, your career’s taken off. It’s all wrapped up in a Christmas package for you. The Lord’s blessing you. That’s how we would all see that. Then you make the decision to put it on the line, and Cheryl goes overseas, identifies this child who she was told not to take.
Ernie: “No good.”
Jim: “He’s no good,” and then sounds like Cheryl said, “Okay, that’s the one I want,” which is amazing.
Ernie: It is.
Jim: And then it starts falling apart, what you perceived to be perfect little home. How is he today, and what happened beyond him?
Ernie: Well, you know, once we get the diagnosis, No. 1, it’s what do we know about muscular dystrophy, aside from the fact that Jerry Lewis has a telethon for Jerry’s Kids every year?
Ernie: Well, what kind does he have? He has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Okay, that turns out to be the worst kind. And then you look at the research and you say, there’s a pretty good chance he won’t make it out of his teens, because the muscles don’t get stronger; they just weaken and deteriorate; and the lungs go, and the heart goes. So, people would ask me, they’d say, “I guess if you knew he had muscular dystrophy, you wouldn’t have taken him.” And I said, “No, you don’t get it.” I said, “Because there was something about that boy when Cheryl laid eyes on him that said we’ve got to have him here.”
And Michael, not unlike Maggie and Eric, not ours, okay, that’s God’s. And He’s entrusted him to us. And I said, “If I went through my life saying, when something bad happens, ‘We never should have had that kid.’—
Jim: What do they think of that?
Ernie: --you know, in five minutes there’s nothing that says something catastrophic might not happen to one of those two biological kids we had that changes the arc of our lives forever.” And then am I supposed to say, “I knew we shouldn’t have had that girl”?
So no, we had adopted Michael; we’d made the decision. We’re gonna add this guy to our family; he’s ours. You’ve got a new little brother. And they were great with him. And we got this new son and now here’s this devastating news. But no, I never thought for a second, if I knew, we shouldn’t have done this. It was just like, okay, how are we gonna deal with this now? And he has impacted more people than I ever will.
Jim: In fact, you talk about a high school that he impacted. Tell us that story.
Ernie: Here he is. Here he is, he can walk with leg braces until he’s about 12. He didn’t speak until he was 8. So, you know, the doctors who’ve said he’s never gonna speak, and he’s never gonna bond were wrong. He’s 8-years-old and he says, “Mike.” This is after five years of occupational therapy and speech therapy that we’re saying, “I hope this is gonna pay off.”
Jim: Five years. Wow.
Ernie: Five years, and 8-years-old before he says a word, “Mike.” And now we can’t shut him up. (Laughter) And here’s the thing about him. He had all these developmental delays, and he had some qualities that they told us were autistic in nature, but he couldn’t read, but he loved cars and lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners. And he would make his own kind of sounds and a little bit of his own language and you knew what he was talking about. We could understand him; strangers couldn’t.
But then he started looking at car brochures, like you’d get when you go buy a new car, and even though he couldn’t read it, he could look at it, and you’d tell him what kind of car that was, and it locked in there, so he knew every car that was on the road. So he would tell you, “Honda Accord. Down here, Jeep Cherokee.” And then all he wanted to know if he met you was what you drove. (Laughter) And then he would remember that. And here’s the thing. He would have teachers come up five years after they had taught him, “Michael, do you remember me?” “Chevrolet Astrovan, blue, silver, silver interior, cloth seats.”
Jim: Oh man. (Laughter)
Ernie: And their jaws drop. And so, he has this incredible memory, and this incredible spirit, and his favorite thing to say is “Love you, too.” And it’s not because you say it to him first; he just started saying it a lot. And I think it was because he heard it a lot in our household. You know, we had, you know, just to backtrack, after we had adopted Michael, we had adopted a little girl named Carmen from Paraguay two years after that. And so, while Michael was going through some of his early trials with muscular dystrophy, etc., we had decided to make it a two and two thing and contacted an adoption agency.
And oddly enough, on July 6th of 1993, which was two years to the day that Michael first was brought to the United States, this agency calls and says, “Would you be interested in adopting a little girl from Paraguay?” And my wife and I looked at the calendar and said July 6th. The same day Michael came to the States, and now July 6th two years later, “Are you interested in getting this little girl from Paraguay?” Yeah, we are.
And so, we added her to the family, totally healthy, great kid. So we’ve got this little United Nations going on, (Laughter) and there’s no, there is absolutely no differentiation made in our household between biological and adopted. Eric and Maggie are like, “No, they’re brother and sister. They’re our brother and sister. We’re all just Johnson kids.”
And Michael’s, you know, rounding into form, and he’s got this memory and these strange personality quirks, but this wonderful spirit and this “Love you too.” And then he gets more and more unstable with the muscular dystrophy, and we need the wheelchair when he’s about 12. He goes to high school, and he’s driving his chair into the special-needs classroom.
The head basketball coach had come down from Indiana, this basketball hotbed, come down to football country to coach the basketball team, and he hears this wheelchair noise and pokes his head inside this classroom, just to see what he’s hearing, and it’s Michael. And this coach says, “It’s good to see you. I heard your wheelchair. I just wanted to say ‘Hey.’” And he said, “Whatcha drive?” (Laughter) So this coach, Phil Bollier, tells him what he drives, and Michael says, “Thank you.”Phil turns to walk out of the room, and Michael hits him with “Love you too, coach.”
And the coach turns around and is like, “Wow, where does that come from?” Michael gets home and gets off the bus; I’m at the driveway to meet him and I get him off, and I look in his backpack, and here’s this note from this basketball coach. I never met him. “Mr. Johnson, had a chance to meet your son Michael today. What a special kid. He needs to be on my basketball team. Would love to talk about it.”
So we talk, and Phil says, “Look, I want Michael on my team, even though he’s in the wheelchair,” he said, “You know, he can be my five-foot-tall impact player with no vertical leap.”
Ernie: He says, “I want him to teach my kids two things: maximum effort and heart for others.”
He said, “Because I know that everything he does in that chair, any move he can make, is with everything he’s got.” He said, “And I love this ‘Love you too.’” And I said, “Keep in mind, coach, he doesn’t care about basketball. He doesn’t know if it’s blown up or stuffed, and he could not care less. I said, “But he will like being included in this group.”
So he’s on this team, and he’s hanging out in the locker room; he’s learning everybody’s car. He’s absolutely killing the kids who take the bus. It’s like he’s got kids who have, “Oh, you drive this. You drive this.” And then somebody else on the team will say, “Yeah, but what does Kyle drive?” “Kyle takes a bus,” and the whole room explodes. Nothing against taking the bus; kid wasn’t old enough to drive.
So, so, Michael is part of all this, and before each game, everybody on the team puts their hands on Michael’s hands, in his lap, in his wheelchair, and they go, “One, two, three Hawks!” and they take the floor. And so, this goes on for a few years. Michael’s sittin’ on the bench next to Coach Bollier, and on senior night they’ve giving all these kids their blankets with their name and their number and the Mill Creek logo on there, and they call Michael up, and this is where his impact really hit home.
Because what Phil Bollier had been doing while teaching--you know, he’s the basketball coach but also a teacher--is he would tell his students right in the middle of an English lesson, “Hey, I want to talk to you guys about something. You know here in high school sign language is pretty big. Most of it’s with one finger raised.” And the kids go, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “I got something new for you. You know how I say “I love you” in sign language?” And he held up his hand, you know, and the thumb goes out and the index finger forms the L for “love,” and then the pinkie and the index finger form a U, and that’s “I love you.”
And he said, “When you tip that index finger at a person it means ‘love you too.’” He said, “So instead of that other sign language, why don’t you learn this, ‘Love you too.’” He said, “It’s something that my good buddy Michael Johnson really likes to tell people. So, here on senior night, Michael goes up there in his wheelchair with me and Cheryl, and they give him his blanket, and the crowd’s cheering. And I look up in the student section, and they’ve all got their hands up with this “love you, too.”
Ernie: I stand in awe of how God connects the dots. I said only God takes a basketball coach from Indiana, puts something in his heart to go down to Hoschton, Georgia, where he’s gonna connect with this Romanian orphan who can’t play basketball a lick, and they’re gonna teach this huge high school love.” I said I can’t draw that up. I said there’s no way I could ever picture that. But for God it’s like, “I got ya. Watch this.” Sometimes you just want to sit back and watch God be God and say, “Wow. Wow. How did that happen? How did that guy get from there to there, and look at this result.” And I see that; that image is emblazoned in my mind, when I looked up there to my left, and I saw all these students standing up with that “I love you” sign, as their arms were raised. And then I said no, this kids’ impact, unbelievable.
Jim: That’s beautiful. How many schools need a coach like that and someone like Michael to teach them the way? Schools are struggling.
Ernie: Oh, this school is off the charts, man. This Phil Bollier is off the charts.
Jim: How’s Michael today? What’s happening?
Ernie: Michael’s 28-years-old.
Ernie: He’s 28-years-old. This is, again, so many kids, and folks out there who have dealt with muscular dystrophy, they know that it takes a toll, and a lot of times, you know, Eric and Maggie had actually spent several summers as counselors at a muscular dystrophy camp, not taking care of Michael, but taking care of other kids like Michael.
Jim: My goodness.
Ernie: And they would get in the mail every now and then a postcard from the Muscular Dystrophy Association and would say, “Sad to report that” and they’d name somebody. “We lost him last summer.” And it’d be a kid that they’d seen three or four years at muscular dystrophy camp. And so, for us to be sitting here and wake up every morning and see Michael at 28, still with us and still impacting folks.
Jim: Well, and what amazing character this has taught the other children in the family, to be part of it and things like that.
Jim: And I think the whole story that we’ve heard these last couple of days is that exclamation point, that you and Cheryl were trusting God when you didn’t even know it
Ernie: No, you’re absolutely right.
Jim: Saying, “Okay, let’s take this little guy in. He needs help” and then your other adoption, too.
Jim: When you look at it, Unscripted, a fabulous read, and again, the subtitle, The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary, you have done that. It doesn’t say “easy,” that makes life easy, and I think you did that on purpose. That’s not what you’re saying.
Ernie: Oh no.
Jim: Extraordinary, that’s Michael in the gym being recognized and those are extraordinary moments, and that’s what you’re driving toward. And I think you’ve done a beautiful job and you know, for Father’s Day this is a book that all dads should read, because it will help them be a better father.
Ernie: You know what? It’s my favorite day of the year, and that sounds selfish to say Father’s Day is my favorite, but it’s because I remember my dad and what he meant, and it means the world because where I am right now is trying to be that man that my dad was for me for my kids, that these blackberry moments that we talk about, that long after I’m gone, there will be kids in the Johnson household generations from now, who something will happen and they’ll say, “That’s a blackberry moment.” And that would make me say, you know what? I’m handing down what my dad gave me, and I’m handing it down to mine. And hopefully generations from now, they’ll say, “Hey, that’s a blackberry moment,” and “Hey, remember, trust God period.”
Jim: You said it well. Ernie Johnson Jr., popular host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” his new book, Unscripted, beautifully done. Thanks for being with us.
Ernie: You’re too kind; I appreciate it.
John: And that wraps up our second day with Ernie Johnson, who gave us a real look at what a honor it is to be called “dad” and what a story.
Jim: John, we heard about Michael and the adoption of Carmen from Paraguay. It’s just an amazing story, but it didn’t stop there. Ernie and Cheryl adopted Alison and Ashley out of foster care. These folks have hearts of gold and it was amazing just to listen to their stories. What love! What sacrifice! What a great message heading into Father’s Day.
John: And we’ll encourage you to get a download or the CD of this broadcast. Those have extra content on them and then Ernie’s book, Unscripted is available from us here atFocus on the Family.
Call to request resources and our number is 800- A -FAMILY orstop by and get those at our online store, www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And when you support Focus today with a generous gift of any amount to help us in this ministry effort, we’ll send a copy of Unscripted to show our appreciation and we’ll thank you in advance for your kindness and support.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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