the docks in Port Arthur, Texas, a once rowdy seaport and refinery town that has seen its day, sits the public library. It's a source of local pride not only for its staunch, clean appearance amid abandoned buildings on deserted streets, but also because it serves as the town's museum. Near the rows of books are tributes to the region's best-known citizens, mostly musicians and athletes, with their sheet music and high school yearbooks and game jerseys on display. From Tex Ritter to the Big Bopper, from Bum Phillips to Tim McKyer, a wonderful menagerie of free spirits who dreamed bigger dreams than Port Arthur, even in its heyday, could handle are celebrated there. Two of the more prominent exhibits are busts of Janis Joplin and Jimmy Johnson, former schoolmates at Thomas Jefferson High, class of 1960 and '61, respectively.
A smart girl and a smart boy, equally driven but in different directions—each was somewhat disgusted by the other's burgeoning talents and antithetical personality. Janis, a painter of some merit and a folk singer in those days, had the look of a beatnik and was called Beat Weeds. Jimmy could solve algebra problems at a glance and write term papers worthy of A's the night before they were due. He was a football lineman with the scars of childhood street ball showing through his burr haircut and was called Scar Head.
By a quirk in scheduling, Janis and Jimmy once had to put up with each other in a history class for an entire school year, she seated behind him. He would tease the weirdo, "give her a hard time, irritate her," he remembers; she would scoff at the jock and ignore him as best she could.
Worlds apart sat adjacent that way in Port Arthur. At one end of Procter Street, the main drag, stood the whorehouses, the gambling joints and the brawling saloons—all flouting Texas law for merchant sailors' cash. At the other end of Procter was a populace conservative in thought and speech, living on quiet, tree-lined streets and faithfully attending church. Port Arthur was a Texas boomtown, sprouting refinery pipelines and freighter masts, and as it was just 50 miles from the Louisiana line, it was also a Cajun town, with signs for boudin and the strains of twin fiddles. Port Arthur was segregated, but there was a middle ground where working-class whites and blacks lived so closely that their children could come home from "separate but equal" schools and learn to know each other well.
"Jimmy never thought there was any difference between him and the blacks," C.W. Johnson, Jimmy's daddy, said recently while driving through the old middle ground, where the Johnson family lived until 1962. "And he didn't like it when anybody said anything about it, either."
In their disregard for racial barriers, Beat Weeds and Scar Head were alike. They came to understand how life worked on the other side of the middle ground, and they took that insight with them as they continued on their divergent paths. Janis took it into a blues-singing frenzy, only to drop dead of a drug overdose at 27. Jimmy took it into football, where his savvy for massaging the human spirit in all its ethnic patterns would become an invaluable coaching tool.
After a vice cleanup in the mid-1960s and then the oil bust of the '80s, Port Arthur turned into a sleepy town with few signs of youth or ambition. But the unscarred library and its treasures inside stand as testimony to a brighter day. The bust of Janis is five-headed, the sculptor's interpretation of her multidimensional personality. The bust of Jimmy is conventional and features his trademark coiffed hair and hint of a smile. His face is portrayed as calm and unflinching, as it was when he arrived at the University of Miami in '84 to a cool welcome—he succeeded the beloved Howard Schnellenberger—and then set his players' spirits free, won a national championship and narrowly missed two more. It is the same smile he wore when he went to Dallas in '89 and was greeted by flat-out loathing—he displaced the legendary Tom Landry—and went about the task of tearing down a rotting facade and rebuilding the Cowboys. But like Janis, Jimmy has a personality that is multifaceted.
"It'll be quite a story, when all is said and done," says Cowboy running backs coach Joe Brodsky, 58, a Johnson skeptic in 1984 who became such a Johnson convert that he up and left the Miami area after 55 years to follow Johnson to Dallas. "How could a guy come in and take shotgun blasts in the face in two different programs and win a national championship with one and the Super Bowl with the other? Now won't that be a pisser?"
A Pretty Good Wizard
For Johnson the hay is pretty much in the barn, as they say in Texas. At 49 he's got things just about the way he wants them—at last. "I'm doing what the hell I want to do," he says, meaning coaching football, drinking beer, eating ribs and living alone in a big house with four aquariums teeming with saltwater fish. There are no loose pets, no wife and no kids around. His sons Brent, 28, and Chad, 26, are more like friends of his now; the three of them are closer than they've ever been. Jimmy's former wife of 26 years, Linda Kay, has gone to Venezuela to find a new life, waived, you might say, when Jimmy reorganized his own life three years ago to best suit the way he wanted to go about coaching the Cowboys.
All that remains for him to do now is to plug in another blue-chip player here and another real find there, win a Super Bowl or a few—"And we will win," he says—and then go off and lie on a beach, to be left alone for the rest of his days.