Media Views: Ernie Johnson’s inspiring off-air life
Ernie Johnson, Jr. and other TBS broadcasters go over notes before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Huy Mach firstname.lastname@example.org
You probably know Ernie Johnson as the guy doing the television play-by-play of the Cardinals-Dodgers series that will decide the National League pennant this week.
There’ a good chance you also know him for broadcasting major golf, tennis and college basketball events for the Turner Sports cable conglomerate.
And you almost certainly know him as the host and ringmaster of Turner’s rollicking “Inside the NBA” show — on which Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Johnson toe the broadcasting high wire on the friskiest production in the history of sports TV pregame-postgame programming.
But you probably don’t really know Ernie Johnson.
While Johnson, 57, has a very public career at which he has become a major success, his biggest accomplishments come in his home in suburban Atlanta, not far from the Turner studios. That’s where he and his wife deal with a very difficult situation, one that would divide many families. Ernie and Cheryl Johnson’s adult son, whom they adopted as a refugee from Eastern Europe when he was a young boy, lives with them and is on life support — as he has been for two long years.
“He’s on a ventilator with a ‘trake’ (tracheostomy tube),” Johnson says. “We’ve all become very good nurses, everybody in the family. We know how to suction his lungs. He has overnight nursing, but during the day it’s me or my wife or my oldest daughter if she’s got a day off.”
Michael, 25, has been a member — a very special one — of the Johnson family for 22 years.
Ernie and Cheryl Johnson already had two children (Eric, now 28, and Maggie, now 26) when they decided in 1991 they wanted to provide a home for a youngster in a difficult situation.
Cheryl, who had seen a television report about the appalling treatment of orphans in Romania, traveled there looking for a child to adopt and came across Michael at an orphanage. He was 3, couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk and had other developmental issues.
But Cheryl knew he was the right person to add to their family. She said she couldn’t go through the rest of her life not knowing what happened to him. So after calling Ernie, Michael soon was on his way to his new home.
About a year later, Michael was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy yet still was able to get around. But in 2001 he fell and broke a hip, which left him confined to a wheelchair. Then on Sept. 11, 2011, a couple weeks before Ernie Johnson was to begin broadcasting the baseball playoffs — including the National League championship series between the Cardinals and his hometown Milwaukee Brewers — the phone rang while he was out of town on assignment. It as Cheryl with urgent news: Michael had developed pneumonia, had been rushed to a hospital, and a doctor was seeking permission to put a tube down Michael’s throat in a life-or-death situation.
“A remarkable deal,” Johnson recalls. “They had to ‘paddle’ him back (using electrical shocks) that first day.”
Seven long weeks of recovery followed for Michael, who developed infections along the way that required agonizing treatments.
“They had to stick him in the lungs and they drained two liters of fluid out in the middle of this one infection,” Johnson recalls. “It was so painful, but when they pulled out (the needle) he looked at the doctor and said, ‘Good job — I love you, too.’ This kid is remarkable. That’s what he tells everybody, ‘Love you, too,’ even if you don’t say it to him first.
“It’s very tough, but he’s a tough guy.”
So is Johnson, whose dad and mentor— former Atlanta Braves pitcher, publicist and broadcaster Ernie Johnson Sr. — had died a month before Michael’s ordeal began.
Before that Ernie Johnson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006, requiring him to miss some work while he underwent chemotherapy. But he overcame that situation, too.
“It went into remission and has been there ever since,” Johnson says. “I’ve never felt better.”
Albert “Scooter” Vertino, Turner Sports executive producer and vice president of content, says Johnson’s attitude is superb.
“We all work in sports, there are a lot of guys punching the clock who would give their right arm to do what we do and Ernie never loses track of that.
“He’s the type of guy who brings a really good attitude to the workplace every day, whether he’s (in the studio) or on the road. That type of stuff is contagious.”
Keeping the spirt
Michael continues along a tough road. And while his setback of 2011 might have zapped him physically, it didn’t quell his spirit.
“I’ve seen in two years how he’s the same guy, it just takes us a lot longer to do things,” Johnson says. “If we want to go somewhere, we get him up in the morning. It takes a while, because we’ve basically got our own intensive care unit in his bedroom. But we’re able to put the ventilator on his wheelchair; he’s able to drive his wheelchair. We try to do the same things we did before; it’s just without that machine we couldn’t.
“His spirits are always good. What’s crazy too is that he’s a special needs kid and doesn’t have a massive vocabulary but has the most loving spirit.”
Faith plays a major role in the Johnsons’ lives, and the joy of having young Michael in the house led them to adopt a healthy 7-month-old girl, Carmen, from Paraguay in 1993. Then in 2011, the same year Michael’s big challenge arose, the Johnsons brought in two girls — Allison (now 13) and Ashley (now 12). They had been in foster care in Cleveland.
“They had five or six homes growing up, we adopted them and said, ‘Here’s your forever place,” Johnson says.
That “forever place” is forever buzzing with the variety of family members from vastly different backgrounds. While you may think it would be crazy to work with Barkley and company, Johnson doesn’t.
“That (NBA) studio looks tame compared to our place,” Johnson says, chuckling. “Our place is a circus without a net.”
But it’s very rewarding.
“It’s what we’re here for,” he says.
And the Johnsons are inspiring. Tim Kiely, vice president and executive producer of production for Turner Sports, has known Johnson since they were working on the NBA show in 1995.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Kiely says. “From the day I met him up till now he’s almost become a hero of mine. He’s adopted all these children; he’s just an amazing human being without any ego.”
So while he enjoys his run broadcasting the NLCS — with the NBA season and the associated studio hijinks soon to follow — he has things in perspective while balancing his personal and public lives.
“That’s real life, what is at home,” he says. “This is baseball, this is in my blood, this is what I grew up with. This is going to Milwaukee County Stadium after my dad had played, was their PR director and their broadcaster. This is growing up in Atlanta (after the Braves moved there in 1966) and having Hank Aaron asking me at the batting cage asking me how my little league team was doing.
“I see (Hall of Famer and Cardinals special assistant) Red Schoendienst today when I walk in, he played with my dad in Milwaukee. ... On the other side you bump into (Dodgers broadcaster) Vin Scully a and here’s a guy who called some of my dad’s games, and was calling games when my dad was calling games. There’s a lot of ties to the past, that’s what makes the game great.”
And broadcasting baseball is a much more straightforward than the NBA studio wildness.
“They’re so totally different, the two assignments,’’ Johnson says. “That’s a blast, that’s such a free-wheeling unscripted free-for-all. It’s like guys sitting around in a living room watching a game. But the love of my life is baseball, and this is so cool. To be sitting with (analysts) Cal (Ripken) and Ron (Darling), it’s awesome. If you love the game of baseball, especially at this time of year, you love being in places that are electric. ... It’s great to be out and at the event, I feel the same way when we take our studio show on the road for the NBA to do playoffs and you feel the energy and the electricity in the arena. Same way here.”
And Johnson can crack a joke.
“I love this, it’s not a knock against the studio but everybody needs three or four months away from Chuck. There’s a reason the NBA season takes a break!”
But all kidding aside, Johnson is a devoted man. And he never has been better at keeping things in perspective even with a hectic travel schedule and some very late nights in the NBA studio.
“If I ever complain about my job, hit me with a rubber hose,” he says. “I realize there are a lot of guys out there who would love to have my job.”
In a business of huge egos, Johnson is firmly grounded. And Kiely, his longtime boss, knows the home life the Johnsons have is a major factor in that.
“It’s a huge deal; that’s what keeps everything in perspective” for him, Kiely says. “We all lose perspective ... when we’re under a deadline. The secret to Ernie’s cool and calm demeanor under pressure is he thinks of his family first. That’s something we all forget when we’re under a deadline — we’re always thinking about the next show, the next this or that. But that (family) is something that is an anchor in his life, because his home life is extremely busy and extremely complicated. It’s water over glass when he gets here.”
But that doesn’t mean Johnson is passive.
“He’s collaborative, but if he feels strongly about something he’ll let you know,” Vertino, the other Turner Sports executive says. “But he’s one of these guys who also doesn’t think he knows it all, isn’t afraid to ask for help.”
Johnson might have been caught up in that self-absorbing world at one time but no more.
“Sometimes early in my career I thought what I did was who I was,” Johnson says. “As you mature, I’ve learned that is not the case. This is what I do, this is not who I am.”
As Kiely can attest:
“He’s a wonderful human being.” Kiely simply says.