Old-School Skunk And The Ripe-Tomato Eyes Of Pete Johnson

"Dark Side of the Locker Room" is a compendium of journalists' bizarre, amusing and previously undocumented encounters with athletes (and often athletes' genitalia). Got a story? Send it to darkside@deadspin.com.

Today's story is from Franz Lidz, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and GQ. He was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated from 1980 to 2007, and a contributing editor at the now-defunct Condé Nast Portfolio from 2007 to 2009. He is the author of Unstrung Heroes: My Improbable Life with Four Impossible Uncles; Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers; and Fairway To Hell: Around the World in 18 Holes.

Back in the Pleistocene epoch, I interviewed Pete Johnson, a Bengals running back who could cover the length of a football field in 9.9 seconds, but was exceedingly slow at getting to appointments. He agreed to be at my hotel at noon. When he hadn't shown up by 1 p.m., I called his "secretary."

"That's funny," she said. "He told me he was on his way." At 1:45, he called. "I'm on my way," he said. At three o'clock, I called his secretary back. "He should arrive any minute," she said. At 5:30, Johnson called again. "Almost there," he said. "See you at 6:10." To Pete Johnson, 40 minutes was "almost there."

At 7 p.m., the secretary was in the lobby bar. "We'll wait for him together," she said. At 8 p.m., Johnson swaggered in with his 2-year-old son in tow. "How come you're so late?" I asked. He grinned. "I'm not late," he said. "You're early." As it was, the secretary said, I was relatively lucky. "When he says he'll be somewhere at a certain time," she explained, "it generally means he'll appear anywhere from six to 48 hours later."

You may not remember Pete Johnson, and if you do, it's probably for his various legal woes. That's a shame. He was a great big smiling Panzer of a man, born Willie James Hammock but nicknamed Pete as a child because, during hot Georgia summers, he liked to chase the Peter Pan ice cream truck down the street. He sang tenor selections from Brigadoon in the clubhouse shower. He liked to ride bareback on a stallion named Black Sea. He tooled around in a customized van that he called The Cisco Kid, which was tricked out as a sort of rolling early-'80s fuckpad: floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, a refrigerator, a stereo, a TV and a six-bottle wine rack next to the bed. He was a flake of the first order.

Tracking Johnson down was one thing; getting him to talk football was quite another. Rather than sit still on this occasion, he hauled everyone to a suburban pizza joint where man-sized toy animals decked out like rock musicians "played" Elvis Presley tunes. He listened to questions about his Super Bowl season and his college bowl games. He listened — but he didn't answer. He was watching a giant mechanical sheep play a riff from "It's Now or Never" on electric guitar. "Can't talk now," Johnson said. He offered to meet me the following morning at the team compound. "Eight a.m.," he said. "I promise."

The 2-year-old, who was a little bored, smashed a vanilla ice cream cone against his forehead. Johnson giggled. Soon he was rocking and rolling in time to an ersatz gorilla in a gold lamé suit. The gorilla was the keyboard man for the animal band, which was banging out The King's version of "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)." "Boy," Johnson said happily, "that organ player sure can jam." He took out his driver's license and pointed to a box he had checked off. "See, I'm an organ donor," he said, laughing at his brilliant wordplay. I wrote down his address, sensing I might need it someday.

Much of this was chronicled in the Sports Illustrated story I wound up writing. What happened next was not, and I suspect it explains a lot of what came before. At 10 a.m. the following morning, Pete Johnson was again AWOL. I drove to his address. I knocked at his front door. When it swung open, I was swallowed up by a cloud of thick, gray smoke. The scent: old-school skunk with notes of pine and juniper.

The smoke cleared and I stood face-to-face with my subject, whose eyes were the color of tomatoes. Ripe tomatoes. He glared at the pen in my right hand. He glared at the notebook in my left. Then he said, "Fuck it, man! I thought you was Domino's."

Photo via the SI Vault

Again, any sports journalist out there with a story to tell — print, online, broadcast — should send it along to darkside@deadspin.com. You know you've got a million of them.