Reached by phone in Caracas, Linda Kay says of her new life, "It's kind of wonderful." She teaches fourth grade at an American school for English-speaking children of well-to-do Venezuelans and foreign dignitaries. Now she travels wherever in the world she pleases. Of Jimmy's world, she says, "I don't miss it. When you're in football, you think everybody is interested. When you're out, you realize the circle is really small. You realize there's a group of people who are just as interested in ballet."
"To this day I care for her a lot," says Jimmy. "But I did what I had to do."
"It just happened," says Linda Kay. "I can't tell you why. Or when. I don't recall a discussion." Any resentment on her part? "Absolutely not," she says. "Never. Not from the beginning."
Sweet Li'l Ol' Boy
Johnson's hair is a mess, whipped every which way by the stiff winds blowing into Uncle Billy Sharp's yard at Crystal Beach. A family party—the Johnsons call get-togethers like this "cuttin' up"—is well into its third day, but there are still mounds of crayfish, pots of gumbo, pans of boudin and three brands of beer to be consumed. Jimmy is cuttin' up, telling loud stories, laughing louder, teasing his mama and daddy about how that lil' ol' dog of theirs will probably die any day now. C.W. and Allene don't drink, but otherwise they're right in the middle of the cuttin' up. Allene figures the ratio of dog-to-human years and says, "Well, Jimmy, when you get to be 119, you'll probably teeter and totter a little bit, too."
"Mama, if I get to be 50, I'm going to be extremely happy," says Jimmy. "And if I get to be 52 or 53, I'm going to be ecstatic!" He chuckles, but nobody else does. They know the strain of his work, know of his drive.
Uncle Billy brings the moment back from the brink of seriousness. "You can't kill these Johnsons," he says of his sister's family. "His bloodline'll take him to 90 at least. And when they get to be 110 you have to take a 20-pound hammer and beat their liver to death. Then you bury them, and you can still see the ground above them moving."
Jimmy so rarely comes home to the Gulf shore. Maybe once a year. He never remembers birthdays—"I'm not really sure when Mother and Daddy's birthdays are," he admits—and his Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas phone calls might come days after the holiday. He doesn't send Christmas presents.
Last year, a few days after his mother's birthday, she found a big box sitting on her porch. "I thought, Oh, Jimmy's remembered my birthday," she says. "I opened it, and there were power tools." Jimmy's TV show in Dallas was sponsored by a hardware chain, which had given him gift certificates. It was only a coincidence that he had sent the tools around the time of her birthday. "I called him and thanked him for my 'birthday present,' " says Allene. "Later, he did send me a present." She holds out her right hand to show a diamond cluster ring.
"I've been surprised out of the blue a lot of times," says Jimmy's girlfriend, Rhonda. "I appreciate that more."
"I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it," says Jimmy. Then he takes a serious tone, and he tells the family, "I don't mean to be the way I am, but there's some things I got to do." The others go silent. "And there'll come a time," he says, as tears well in younger sister Lynda's eyes, "when I won't do 'em anymore." It's a promise to his family to come home for good.