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Bowling Great Don Johnson
Don Johnson passed away at 62 years of age in early May, 2003. The news was a shock to everyone in the bowling industry but was especially difficult for me personally. Only three evenings prior to Don's passing, I had dinner with Don in Las Vegas. Don and I had become great friends in the last few years prior to his passing, primarily because we knew one another for many years dating back to circa 1970 on the PBA Tour. We were both Las Vegas residents for many years as well as former, fellow PBA touring players. Additionally, Don and his wife, Carolyn were friends with my wife Gayle and I and we would frequently visit or dine together as friends do. As the years passed, Don and I grew to be closer friends.
As you might expect, the news about Don's sudden passing was staggering. I received a call from Don's long time and dear friend, Rick Peter, informing me of the circumstances surrounding his passing. As everyone in the industry in those years mourned the passing of a bowling legend, I mourned for the loss of a gentle and caring person who not only dearly loved his family and friends but also always had kind things to say about everyone he encountered.
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I am reminded of a special day in November, 1991 when I received a call from Don about his son Jimmy, a newcomer to the PBA Tour and a player trying to make a name for himself in his own right. He called to tell me that Jimmy had qualified for the national TV Finals in the PBA Brunswick World Open Tournament contested in those days in the greater Chicago area. Don was excited, to say the least, and invited me to come by the house and watch the show together. Naturally, I gladly accepted the invitation since I knew Don's children (Jimmy, Amy, and Scotty) very well but I was closest to Jimmy since he stayed with his father during his teenage years in Las Vegas while trying to to sharpen his skills as a player, gaining valuable insight from his famous father about Tour life and competition.
Don and I watched the telecast that Saturday together and with no one else at the house. As you can guess, Don was extremely proud his son had made the show at the site of the same event where Don won the first two World Open Tournaments in 1971 and again in 1972. As an entrant in first years at the World Open, I had the pleasure of watching Don win those events against future Hall of Fame Champions, Larry Laub and Mark Roth. Now it was Jimmy's Johnson's turn to try and duplicate the feat and win the same important tournament his father won 20 years prior.
As the show progressed, it became more and more apparent that Jimmy could and would win. Watching Don cheer for his son in a way he never cheered for himself was as emotional for me as a friend than the mere accomplishment of Jimmy winning the championship. Don and I both jumped out of our seat several times as the final match inched toward conclusion. When the final match ended and Jimmy was the victor, the pride displayed in Don's face and the passion evident in Don's silence while watching the television as the interview and trophy presentation got underway astounded me. I had watched Don win twenty PBA titles first hand but never witnessed a display of emotion as I did when Jimmy won his title. Don was a proud father.
At the end of Jimmy's interview, Jimmy turned to the camera and pointed his finger while saying words I still hear echoing in my memory to this very day, "This one's for you, Dad!"
After hearing those words, I quickly turned to Don and watched Don's reaction. As the tears flowed freely down Don's face, he said to me "this means more to me than anything I have ever done myself..." With that, Don slipped away, ascended the stairs in his home, and we never said goodbye. There was no need for words; I left Don's house in an exhausted emotional state. Partly from cheering for Jimmy but also for witnessing Don's passion and pride for his son that only a father understanding the experience so well himself could feel. You see, Don placed his family above everything else in his life. Don cared more for people than most anyone ever knew. He was a humble man - a people's champion.
Another story I wish to relate which goes to the character of Don Johnson happened in Sarnia, Canada circa 1978. Don Johnson, Fred Borden, and myself attended a banquet following an exhibition and coaching clinic where we were contracted to administer at a nearby bowling center. The banquet honored several local Canadian athletes including Dino Ciccerelli of the Minnesota North Stars professional hockey team and including Don Johnson from the world of bowling. After dining with several clinic attendees from earlier in the day alongside the honored guest athletes, Fred and I commented on how nice of a venue the banquet was hosted in and well organized the proceedings has been arranged.
Next, I noticed Don's name appeared as a guest speaker on the itinerary after the dinner and following the award presentations to Dino and to other Canadian athletes. Leaning over to get Don's attention, I asked Don if he had a speech prepared. Don looked directly at Fred and I and stated "Hell no, I did not know they were expecting me to speak - I have no idea what I am going to say?" No sooner than did those words come out of Don's mouth, Don was called to the podium by the Master of Ceremonies as a special guest celebrity speaker and introduced as a PBA Hall of Fame Champion and one of the greatest bowlers of all time.
As Don rose from his chair amidst enormous applause, he glanced toward us as if to say, "Well, here goes." What followed was a motivational speech as well done as any I had ever heard in person which came unrehearsed and straight from Don's heart. Don focused his words around what he truly believed was most important to anyone seeking to excel - Desire, Determination, and Dedication! As Don presented his words, one could hear a pin drop in the audience as the room was one in admiration.
Don's speech was an emotional one. The speech concluded by Don challenging everyone in the room to become the best person they could be, the best parent, the best student, the best employee or boss, and the best athlete. Don dared everyone listening to press their own limits to the fullest, to harness the desire to achieve, to develop a relentless will to succeed, and to remain dedicated to their goals and use the gifts God had given each of us to the fullest. Then came his final words ending his speech - "I have been to the top of the mountain and the view was beautiful; I ask each of you to climb your own mountain and keep your head held high no matter how far you rise. The true measure of success is not how far you climb, but that you try!!"
Don Johnson was a highly respected player during his era on Tour. Don won 26 National Tour titles including the U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum in NYC. Don also won the prestigious Firestone Tournament of Champions at Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio when he rolled the famous 299 in the final match of the televised finals against Dick Ritger's 268 to claim the $25,000 prize. Don Johnson was named the PBA Player of the Year in 1971 and in 1972 and was named to All-American bowling teams several times in his career.
Don was known to his fellow players as a "riverboat gambler" meaning he would make any adjustment in his game, his release, his angle of attack while trying to win during competition no matter what were the circumstances. As players, we would watch Dick Weber, Dick Ritger, Nelson Burton, Jr., Mike Durbin, Billy Hardwick, Barry Asher, Jim Godman, Johnny Petraglia to name just a few great pros, but everyone watched Don Johnson and where he was positioned in the field. Don was a dangerous player to overlook as he was famous for ferocious charges from back in the pack to the top of the leaderboard. Don had only one gear and that was full throttle.
Don Johnson was a fierce competitor and was never afraid to make a change in competition if he felt it would improve his chances of winning. While enjoying enormous success on the lanes, Don never lost his composure under pressure and never did anything to intimidate his fellow player. Don was a gentleman on and off the lanes and to this day, there has never been, in my humble opinion, another champion quite like Don Johnson.
Don put the widespread use of the plastic bowling ball in popularity during the early 1970's by winning many titles on Tour with the Columbia White Dot Carmel bowling ball. The popularity of the plastic ball on Tour ushered in the beginning of the end of the rubber ball era and it took an accomplished and talented player like Don Johnson to do so.
I guess I can end by saying that although the late, great Dick Weber was my bowling idol, Don Johnson was my champion! May the memory of Don Johnson live forever. Thank you.