Writing as a sports columnist for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Troy Johnson gets to pick his topics from a great list of college and pro teams. This flexibility allows him to select what suits his clever and incisive style.
Football landed him in the Columbus, Georgia area as a player for Troy. Sports have kept him there. Johnson proves that some of the South's best writing can come from off the beaten path.
Swampland Sports Interview
Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born in Washington, D.C., but we moved to Orlando when I was 6 years old. After five years in Orlando, my father got bored of being a retiree. We moved back to Northern Virginia for another three years before returning to Orlando in time for me to start high school. My dad, an industrial specialist for the Department of Navy, eventually decided that retirement, and the freedom to go fishing any time he wanted, was a pretty good deal.
What was your definition of "big time" sports as a kid?
Spring training baseball, the Washington Redskins and Southeastern Conference football. When I was 7 or 8, I became obsessed with ‘‘This Week in Baseball’’ and ‘‘The Baseball Bunch,’’ starring Johnny Bench. My dad used to take me to Tinker Field in Orlando to watch Minnesota Twins spring training games. I used to imitate Rod Carew’s open batting stance in Little League, but never could achieve similar results. I struck out a lot, but looked really sophisticated doing it.
When we moved back to D.C. in the early 1980s, it coincided with the Redskins’ glory days. My dad managed to score ’Skins tickets every so often, and I would marvel that grown men were perfectly comfortable wearing dresses and pig snouts in honor of the Hogs.
I developed an interest in SEC football because one of my cousins started on the offensive line at Georgia in the late 70s. Because of him, I received Georgia jerseys every so often at Christmas and deluded myself into thinking I would grow up to be another Herschel Walker.
When did you decide you wanted to write about sports?
I had an epiphany as a freshman football player at Troy (Ala.) University when one of the assistant coaches told me I had to be the worst placekicker in Division II history. He wasn’t known to exaggerate, so I found my way to the school newspaper office my sophomore year. My eventual internship at the Birmingham News really made me fall in love with the newspaper business.
What writers inspired you to become a writer? Who are the writers that inspire you now?
I started reading the Orlando Sentinel as a youngster to check the Twins' box score each morning and became a devout reader of Larry Guest. I also enjoyed reading Lewis Grizzard because of his folksiness and humor. Loved reading Mike Royko as well, although he's about as un-Southern as it gets.
These days, I get a kick out of reading anything by Tom Wolfe and Bill Bryson. Wolfe is a master of social satire and Bryson displays a wonderful brand of self-deprecating humor in his writing. As far as newspaper sports columnists go, I really enjoy the work of Mike Bianchi, Geoff Caulkins and Joe Posnanski. They can wow you with their prose or make you convulse with laughter.
Can you compare the allure of pro vs college sports inside the market you're covering?
We’re in a strange market because we’re situated on a geographical and cultural divide (the Chattahoochee River). College sports coverage definitely drives our newspaper. Our readers care about Georgia, Auburn and Alabama football. Rumor has it there are a few Georgia Tech fans in this area, but I only hear from them if they’re revved up about the possibility of playing in the Carquest Bowl. Pro sports loyalties are more difficult to pin down because of the Fort Benning effect. The presence of a major military base means so many people are from somewhere else. The reader interest in NASCAR has exploded, but the attention paid to Atlanta pro sports has fallen off since Michael Vick’s guilty plea. Pro sports fans here have become imbued with this sense of dread regarding the Braves, Falcons, Thrashers and Hawks. They’re conditioned to expect sad stories.
As a sports columnist vs a beat writer, what do you see as your duty to the sports fans in your market (Columbus, GA)?
I try to be intensely local in my choice of topics and manage to hit everything from SEC football to Atlanta pro sports to local minor league teams to the occasional high school topic. I think I have to because newspapers are no longer the first option for finding out what has happened globally or nationally. ESPN’s quest for world domination has changed the mission for so many of us. As a columnist, I strive to engage my readers and occasionally infuriate them. I consider it my duty to turn issues upside down, to provide context, to inject humor whenever possible, to be a watch dog, to criticize, to leave myself open to criticism, to be accessible to my readers and to provoke them to think.
With Columbus as your base, you can be a truly “regional” sportswriter. In recent weeks, you’ve written about Auburn, Troy, the Atlanta Braves, and the Atlanta Falcons just to name a few. Do you like not having a defined “home team”?
It’s absolutely wonderful. There really aren't many boundaries for us. For example: My editors sent me to the 2000 Olympics of all places since Columbus hosted Olympic softball in 1996 and the region had so many athletes bound for Sydney. I worked in the Knight Ridder bureau down there and covered everything from skeet shooting to the men’s basketball team.
I'm fortunate to have so many options in this area. There's never a shortage of topics and, often, you mine columns from pretty unlikely sources. Just last week, I opted out of covering an SEC game to go watch a fledgling Division III team that had yet to win a game in its brief history. I based a column on a 24-year-old freshman football player there who had served two tours of duty in Iraq before landing at the school. I enjoy finding the off-beat whenever possible.
The SEC is a true Southern football conference. You lie in the middle of three SEC markets (Tuscaloosa, Auburn, and Athens), two ACC markets (Tallahassee and Atlanta), and very near a rising Sun Belt team (Troy). Do you think the ACC will ever match the SEC as a football power? Do you think the Sun Belt has a bright future ahead with Troy and Howard Schnellenberger at FAU?
If Boston College somehow reaches the Bowl Championship Series title game, it can only help the ACC. But the league has plenty of catching up to do. The Florida State-Miami game used to shape the national championship picture. These days, it helps settle who winds up in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. I think the SEC will always hold the upper hand simply because of the facilities and financial power of its programs. When the two of the SEC’s traditionally weaker programs, Kentucky and South Carolina, are in the Top 10, it speaks volumes about the league.
As for the Sun Belt, I don't know that it will ever grow to the level enjoyed by the Big East. It would not surprise me, however, if Troy and Florida Atlantic emerges as a fly in the BCS punch bowl one of these years. At risk of enduring one of his tirades, ask Mike Gundy what he thinks of Troy's talent level right now.
You are right next to Phenix City, Alabama. Are you aware of its crazy, but fairly recent history (50 years ago) as a lawless town that ultimately required National Guard intervention to clean it up?
Definitely. One of our newspaper’s Pulitzers came from its exhaustive coverage of the corruption and the clean-up. I knew a little of the history before moving here in 1997, but not many folks refer to Phenix City as Sin City anymore. It’s a quiet place these days. No racketeering anymore, but you can find some excellent barbecue.
Please visit Troy Johnson at the Ledger-Enquirer's website