By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times,published September 7, 2001
BLACK MOUNTAIN, N.C. -- About 45 minutes east of Asheville, cradled in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a place so warm, so charming, you want to be wed to it.
Or, at the very least, go out on a date.
You are in the tiny town of Black Mountain, in a place the residents call the Front Porch of western North Carolina. You are walking down State Street, the one main road that dissects the five-block town, and you are receiving smiles and how-do-you-do's. And while there are obvious acknowledgements that you are from out of town, you never feel unwelcome.
It is that way with the people of Black Mountain. On a warm day in June they are busy minding their own business, laughing at their own quirks, planning for their own tomorrows.
The Bucs needed accuracy. The Bucs needed a hard worker. The Bucs needed a leader. In Brad Johnson, they got all that -- and more.But as unassuming as the people are, you know they have lots to say about those who are part of Black Mountain's surprisingly rich heritage.
You hear them talk about Blues singer Roberta Flack and of former University of North Carolina star basketball player Brad Daugherty, whose once-promising NBA career was cut short by chronic back problems.
Finally, you hear the name Brad Johnson, the man the Buccaneers believe will take them to a Super Bowl, and everything comes to a standstill.
If there were a snapshot of the fictitious Front Porch, Johnson would be sitting in the rocking chair.
"He is an important person to Black Mountain," said Mike Harris, who has been cutting hair for 34 years at the Around The Town Barber Shop and remembers routinely tending to Johnson's locks. "To us, he's a sense of what is right in the world. He was a great kid, a polite kid. The type of kid who everyone knew would amount to something. Not just playing sports now, in everything."
And Johnson has done well. Not just by NFL standards, earning a Pro Bowl bid in 1999, but, more important, by Black Mountain standards.
"For me, the biggest thing is to know where you come from," Johnson said. "Not let things get to your head. Not forget your roots. Remember the values of life you grew up around. Black Mountain people are hard-working people. They are decent people. They care about you and hope good things for you."
To understand who the Bucs' new quarterback is, it's best to understand where he came from.
Black Mountain, with a population of about 5,000, is the best sign of life in the Swannanoa River valley. It seems a cross between television's Mayberry and Dodge City, only not as silly nor nearly as rough. There are two gas stations and two banks and, to remind you you're in one of the loops of the bible belt, there are 22 churches.
You walk the streets and see no litter, no police cars. You stop to ask for directions and are told, "I'll take you there."
You drive to Owen High, the only high school in Black Mountain, and meet its assistant principal. Her name is Ellen Johnson and she has been there "many" years.
Johnson’s mother, Ellen.
She is Brad Johnson's mother. She's a powerful, charismatic woman with a principal's handshake and a maternal smile. And like everyone on the streets, she has an endless supply of stories of her famous son.
She explains that growing up in Charmeldee Sky Hi Acres -- at 3,700 feet it is one of Black Mountain's higher residential areas -- her son could not afford to shoot an air ball at the basketball goal on the side of his house. Nor miss the trees he was aiming at with the football.
"He learned to be accurate because if he missed, there was a long way down the mountain just to get the ball, and an even longer way back up," she said. "He missed a couple times and had to go get the ball. He stopped missing eventually."
She tells you about how once in the fifth grade he needed $150 to attend a summer camp and fell $25 short. He entered an essay writing contest on "How to be a Good American," and won the $25 first prize.
"Brad knows what he has to do, he always has known what he has had to do," she said. "Even as a little boy, he has always been very focused."
But standing under his retired jersey in the auditorium at Owen High, Ellen Johnson can't help but remember how close the oldest of her two children came to not playing football in his senior year.
Frustrated by the way he was used in his junior season and eager to concentrate on basketball, Johnson initially opted to sit out.
Black Mountain would have nothing of it. New football coach Kenny Ford, whose father was part founder of the barber shop and whose little brother Benji was a teammate of Brad's, came over to Johnson's house and convinced him that Owen desperately needed him.
"Now, as I look back, obviously that was a very important conversation," Ellen Johnson said. "All kids have dreams and his dream was to be a pro basketball player and he was on his way. He was so talented. But he had a coach who told him he would throw the ball the right way, he would let him be the quarterback he could be. It worked out, I would say."
Added Brad Johnson: "I remember the night very well. That was a turning point. There have been others. But that was an important one."
Ever since, townsfolk have followed Johnson's every move as a quarterback. They can tell you who he played, how he played and in what year. They know his stats. They are not at all surprised.
"When you think of Brad you think of total dedication," Benji Ford said. "He had and still has a real zest for life, a real zest for competition. He's a very unassuming person, true to his small-town roots."
Ford has his memories too. He recalls Johnson once ran out of gas in the town and, not having any money on him, had to run the six miles up the mountainside to his home for money. He then ran back.
"I was in high school, I didn't have a credit card or gas money so there was nothing left to do but run home," Brad said. "Walking would have taken too long."
Ford also remembers that at the end of football practice, Johnson would get down on his knees at the 50-yard line and throw two balls into the end zone without a problem.
"It was obvious he was going to be special," Ford said. "We all knew we were playing with someone very gifted."
Although he now makes his home in Tallahassee, Johnson frequently goes back to Black Mountain. He said that while the people obviously know him, they are not in awe.
And as you leave Black Mountain, you know why.
"Oh yeah, Brad Johnson, the quarterback," said the old gentleman at the gas station. "Isn't that Ellen Johnson's boy. I know his momma well."
Brad Johnson has always been one of the most prepared quarterbacks in the NFL. But this time he was caught with his pants down.
One afternoon following high school football practice in Black Mountain, N.C., Johnson, then a junior, drove by a local outdoor basketball playground. A game was on, so Johnson had to stop. But when he checked the car for shorts, he found none.
So he took off his jeans and played in his underwear.
"He couldn't stop. He had to pull over. But that was him. He just couldn't resist the game," said Al Ellis, 30, a former football and basketball teammate of Johnson's at Owen High. "There he was, in his underwear, balling with all the guys. People are passing by and looking at him.
"We first thought he was going to come out here and shoot a couple of jumpers. Then we realized he was ready to play. We were like, "Man, come on, you're serious?' He was like, "What? Ball up. I'm here to ball.' But that's him. He was so furiously competitive, he couldn't pass by without stopping to play and it didn't matter that he didn't have shorts. He couldn't care less who saw him playing in his drawers."
Johnson confirms that the story of the boxer rebellion is the nearly-naked truth.
"Ahh, man, I can't believe they told you about that one. I never thought that one would come out," said Johnson. "Look, I had to go out and so I couldn't play in my jeans, could I? I had to play. Had to play. I couldn't say no. We always played. I think the biggest thing was that if there was a game, anywhere, I wanted to be involved in the game. So we just played."