Winning Isn’t Everything
Track coach Brooks Johnson has a relationship with the Olympics that spans more than 50 years, with medal winners among the highlights of his career. But ask him what he’s most proud of and he points to a stack of letters that testify to what Johnson cons
By By Peter Kerasotis
NORMA LOPEZ MOLINA
“It’s not about the medal. It’s so much more than that.
Track and field is the bait that brings them into a certain environment and keeps them there. But if you’re measuring success by the medal, you have it all wrong. What’s valuable, what’s most valuable, are the life lessons.”
The old teacher pulls a red folder from a filing cabinet in his Orlando home, tucks it under his arm along with a thick assortment of papers and notebooks and heads for lunch at Seasons 52, where he plops the cumbersome pile on a table. There, while talking over flatbread and soup, he pulls the red folder from the stack of evidence of a life well lived and points to the words inscribed on the folder’s tab.
“See,” he says. “You thought I was joking. But look at what it says.”
Written in black ink against the red folder are the words “LOVE LETTERS.” The old teacher sifts through the folder’s contents, flipping across the table letter after letter, most appreciatively—if not affectionately—expressing the difference he made in the lives of the people who sent them. His life’s odometer is at 78 years. He’s traveled a long road, with his journey taking him into the hearts and minds of elite students and world-class track athletes.
Johnson thinks of himself as a teacher, but he’s best-known as a track coach, one of the best in the world. He has a long history with the Summer Olympics, starting in 1960 when Willie May, who Johnson trained, won a silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles. In 1964, a year after Johnson competed in the Pan American Games, he tried but failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. In 1968, Johnson began a remarkable run with the Olympics that came to an end in early July. Until then, he had coached an Olympic team or had trained an athlete onto the team, including the 1980 squad that didn’t go to the Moscow Games because the United States boycotted it. He also was on the U.S. Track and Field Olympic coaching staffs in 1976, 1984, 2004 and 2008.
Johnson was the head coach of the 1984 women’s Olympic track team that included sprinters Chandra Cheeseborough and Evelyn Ashford, who each won two gold medals and set world records.
Johnson’s chances of coaching an athlete into the London Games looked promising going into the U.S. Olympic track and field trials June 21-July 1. But the two 110-meter hurdlers who train under him—2008 silver medalist David Payne, who joined Johnson after the Beijing Games, and ’08 bronze medalist David Oliver, whom Johnson has trained since 2005—failed to make the team due to injuries at the trials.
“It was inevitable,” Johnson says about his streak coming to an end, “but it’s not about me. It’s about the athletes, and I don’t live vicariously through them.”
He does, however, live to shape lives, a passion of his that has produced the stack of love letters. Few of the letters express appreciation for Johnson’s skill at shaving fractions of seconds off track times. Sure, some who wrote the letters likely thought winning was the only goal of training under Johnson. Years later, they realized otherwise.
“It’s not about the medal. It’s so much more than that,” Johnson says. “Track and field is the bait that brings them into a certain environment and keeps them there. But if you’re measuring success by the medal, you have it all wrong. What’s valuable, what’s most valuable, are the life lessons. I’ve seen assholes win medals and end up being no further ahead. In the long run, they’re still bums. So are you better off winning a medal, or becoming a responsible human being?”
It’s gotten harder for him to find the latter, which is why the athletes Johnson trains at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports, where he’s been coaching since 1996, number only a dozen or so. He could have two or three times as many, but again, he’s not as interested in shaving time as he is in shaping lives. The former, though, was what Brooks Johnson was doing earlier in the day–cajoling, cursing, criticizing, commending.
“I like to think of myself as a benevolent dictator,” he says. “Not everyone gets that.”
David Oliver does, but he’s seen so many others who didn’t. Oliver estimates that 40 athletes have come and gone since he started training with Johnson seven years ago. Early on, when he made the mistake of arriving late for a practice, he thought he might join the exodus. Oliver says Johnson not only ordered him to leave, “he cussed at me the whole way out.” He’s never been late again. He’s also seen the other side of Johnson—the benevolent part. He’s seen the old teacher appear unannounced at his Kissimmee home whenever Johnson senses Oliver might just need to talk, or receive some direction.
“He’s been more than just a track coach to me. He’s been like a father,” Oliver, 30, says. “I’ve learned so many life lessons from him. He gets involved in who you are. It’s not just track.”
Though Johnson trains elite athletes in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, there is no magic formula for turning them into Olympians. First of all, Johnson only works with people he likes. “I don’t want whatever talent or gift I have to exacerbate jerkism,” he says, which is why the attrition rate of athletes who come to him is so high. Dreadlocks, earrings and gold grills on teeth are not allowed. They only feed racial stereotypes of young black men, says Johnson, who has spent a lifetime fighting misperceptions of blacks.
“It does matter,” he says of how his athletes present themselves. “I’m not going to have some punk tell me it doesn’t.”
Once all that is understood (and often it isn’t), Johnson teaches technique, tediously and tirelessly. He breaks down a gait, a leap, a handoff, into tiny and intricate components, forcing his pupils to learn at a slower speed, again and again, until it becomes muscle memory. Only then can they run it at full speed.
“It’s boring and it’s monotonous, for them and for me, but that’s what it takes,” Johnson says. “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. You ask 100 athletes, who wants to go to the Olympics, and you’ll probably get 99 hands. Ask how many want to win a medal, and you’ll get 95, 96, 97 hands. But when you outline in detail what it’s going to entail, then maybe you get only three hands. Only a few want to make the sacrifice, to get into the minutiae, to give in to the demands and make the sacrifices. The difference between success and failure is the little things. It’s boring. There’s nothing exotic about doing a mechanical movement again and again.”
So he breaks up the tedium of training by drawing on lessons he’s learned through the years. More than 50 years ago, when he coached and ran for the University of Chicago Track Club, one of the runners there was a young comedian named Dick Gregory. From Gregory, Johnson saw the wisdom in humor and well-placed sarcasm, and now regularly employs it in his coaching. Anything to get the message across and make it stick, and not just for the moment, but for a lifetime. “It’s not what you teach,” he says, “it’s what they learn.”
Even when being interviewed, Johnson teaches. He often doesn’t answer questions directly. That would be too easy. Instead, he makes statements, and he can be cryptic, sometimes poetic. Meanwhile he stares into your eyes, seeing if you get the point. When you don’t, he nudges you along, makes you work, until finally you arrive at a conclusion—his conclusion—satisfied with both it and the journey you took to get there.
That he has a presence about him helps. Though he wears a wide-brimmed straw hat and jeans torn naturally at the knee, Johnson exudes a certain sophistication. If his life were applied to film, Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte would be ringers to play him in his later years.
Born in Miami, Johnson spent his first 10 years in South Florida before his mother yanked the family to Massachusetts to escape segregation. In school, Johnson excelled in academics and athletics. He went to Tufts University in Medford, Mass., earning a degree in cultural anthropology, then to the prestigious University of Chicago where he studied law. He attended both private schools on academic scholarships while running track. He thought his ambitions would lead him to a career in corporate law, but the father of a white law school classmate who worked at a Chicago law firm informed him otherwise. He could knock on doors all he wanted, Johnson was told, but no law firm in 1950s America would open them for a black man.
“If I’d have been patient, if I’d have waited another five years,” he says, “then everybody would’ve wanted to hire me” to be the token black at the front door.
“He’s been MORE than just a track coach to me. He’s been like a FATHER I’ve learned so many life lessons from him. He gets involved in who you are. It’s NOT
just track.” —Hurdler David Oliver, who trains under Brooks Johnson
But Johnson wasn’t patient. He left law school and gravitated to government work in Washington, D.C., busying himself as a community organizer in the predominantly black Adams-Morgan neighborhood. There, in the mid-1960s, Johnson saw a dichotomy that angered and appalled him. Bordering the impoverished black neighborhood is the St. Albans School, an all-boys prep school for Washington’s elite families. Johnson says he approached the school’s headmaster, demanding to know how the school could justify being all white.
“ ‘Anybody can find fault and anybody can be critical,’ ” Johnson recalls the headmaster telling him. “ ‘Instead of telling me what the problem is, come back when you have a solution.’ ”
Johnson left, mulling the words. He went to the black community’s matriarch, a woman named Mrs. Jackson, and told her of the exchange.
“ ‘Fool,’ ” Johnson says she called him, adding: “ ‘You are the solution. You need to go back there and tell him that you are the solution.’ ”
Johnson did, and in 1965 he became the first African-American on St. Albans’ faculty, teaching cultural anthropology and history. His job also required that he coach, which was fine with him. He’d been coaching and running track for years, in school and in clubs. Among his students and athletes at St. Albans were Al Gore, the future senator and vice president, Ted Kennedy Jr. and Marvin and Neil Bush—all sons of powerful political families.
“It was the greatest dispensation of second-generation power in the world,” says Johnson. “I knew I needed to get to those kids to let them know that there was more going on than what they knew. It was important for those kids to see a black man in a position of authority and respect, and not just see them as janitors and gardeners.”
He required his students to read about black activist Malcolm X as well as read Plato’s Republic. Field trips included an excursion to see black comedian Richard Pryor, whose stand-up routines included the use of racial epithets. He started an at-risk program—“something unheard of at the time”—to bring in academically motivated black kids from nearby neighborhoods whom Johnson thought could flourish at St. Albans. He never figured that his 10 years at St. Albans would contribute to a red folder filled with “love letters.” He just knew that what he was doing there was important. “What is civil rights?” he asks, letting the question hang before answering it himself. “It’s giving people the freedom to exercise their right to be the best they can be.”
One of the letters Johnson pulls from his red folder was sent in 1984 by noted Washington Post journalist and author David Ignatius, a St. Albans student in the 1960s. Wrote Ignatius, “The times we spent together are among the sharpest and most precious memories I have of growing up.”
Johnson’s teaching also extended into D.C.’s black community, with a young girl named Esther Stroy among his track students. She made the 1968 Olympic track team at age 15 and, with Johnson’s help, later enrolled in the National Cathedral School, St. Albans’ sister school for girls, where Johnson also taught.
In 1975, after several more athletes he coached made the ’72 Olympics, Johnson left the “greatest dispensation of second-generation power in the world” and embarked on a college coaching career dedicated to building faster runners.
“Competition and ego took over from doing the right thing,” he says—the “right thing” being staying at St. Albans. Even still, he left behind important groundwork. “I wanted those kids to have a broader understanding of people of different cultures and backgrounds. I wanted to break stereotypes, effect change, because at the end of the day they were going to rule the world.”
Since then the old teacher has taught athletes who aspire to achieve greatness in the track world. Some now hold Olympic medals, validating their success under Johnson’s tutelage. But Johnson doesn’t validate his greatness as a coach—as a teacher—by the number of medals his athletes—his students—have won. Instead, he opens the red folder and reads the love letters they’ve written to him.
“I don’t want whatever talent or gift I have to exacerbate jerkism.
—Brooks Johnson, on why he only coaches athletes he likes