Paul Sr. made sure nothing scattered his family to the wind, even when his five children reached adolescence. No weekends Hipping burgers; the Johnson kids could only take jobs with a future and jobs that left their weekends free so they could be with the family. On Sunday evenings Paul Sr. would take a seat at his living-room desk, gather his children, pull out his newspaper clippings, clear his throat...oh boy. Sure, it would all start innocently enough. "Let me ask y'all something," he might say, tilting back in his squeaky swivel chair. "I want your opinion about this fella I read about the other day." Then, leaning back so far in the chair the kids held their breath—was he going to fall flat on his back right in the middle of his morality tale?—he would read the article, perhaps one about a man who had lost his house because he had failed to read the fine print in his mortgage contract. Suddenly he would swivel toward one of the children, maybe the youngest, 11-year-old Michael, and ask, "Do you see where this fella made his mistake? Do you understand the importance of understanding every part of a contract you sign and always keeping a copy of it filed so you can refer to it? Do you plan to own a house one day?"
"Uh, yes, sir."
"How do you plan to make enough money to afford a house?"
"Uh, well, get a good job. I want to be an architect."
"An architect, hmmm? Are you willing to make the sacrifice it will take to accomplish that? How do you plan to get into college, Michael? What if you don't get a scholarship? I see. And what if you don't get into architecture school? What's your fall-back plan? Hmmm. How much money does a starting architect make? How much would you need to put away a month to save the money you need to buy a house? Do you think that's enough? [Pulling out a pad and pencil.] Well, let's figure it out. Here's how much you would have saved in 10 years at that rate. Is that enough? Are you sure? What about homeowner's insurance? Did you figure that in?"
All five children absorbed it, but Michael devoured it. The others were a little afraid of going near The Desk, but when everyone was gone and the house was silent, Michael would slide up to it in the squeaky swivel chair and run his hands across it, feeling the power radiating from the stacks of bills and budgets, reminders and plans. Michael wanted things his middle-class family couldn't afford. A fast car, a beautiful house, a walk-in closet full of clothes. So he set to work, sealing off all the seams in his plan, making certain he wouldn't end up like one of those poor saps Dad scissored out of the Dallas Times Herald.
Neatness and organization were essential, of course. Michael flawlessly governed his side of the bedroom that he and Paul Jr. shared, but the cosmetics and brushes that his sister Deidre kept leaving on the bathroom counter so unsettled him that he placed them in a shoebox each morning and deposited it on her bed, until at last she surrendered to his will. Just before his sophomore year at Skyline High School in Dallas, he went to the mall and shopped alone for hours, searching for the brown briefcase that would fulfill all the necessary functions and look just right with the glasses, pressed shirt and necktie he chose to wear every day to school. Each school year after that, he had to have a new brown briefcase.
Little mistakes mortified him. "I'm very conscious," he says, "of how I'm perceived." His siblings saw that early and started cashing it in, setting him up one afternoon when he was five by telling him it was their father's birthday. "Happy birthday, Dad!" little Michael blurted at dinner, and when everyone burst into laughter, he burst into tears. When he entered high school, he took the wrong bus home from orientation day and remained lost for hours rather than ask anyone for help. Michael Johnson was not going to be the butt of anyone's joke, the example for anyone's Sunday-evening family meeting.
Track? He was always the fastest kid of his age in his neighborhood, but so what? "Track didn't matter one way or the other with us," says Michael's mother, Ruby. "Education was everything," says his father. "He just happened to run well, according to time."
He didn't even go out for track his freshman year in high school, then long-jumped most of his sophomore year. As a junior he began winning 200s but was left in the shade of local rival Roy Martin, the nation's fastest schoolboy. His senior year another local rival, Derrick Florence, beat him when it counted most. Michael ran oddly, college recruiters noted. His legs from knee to ankle were short for a 6'1" man, and so he lacked the high-knee pistoning and long stride of classic sprinters. He held his torso and head extraordinarily erect, his elbows tight to his body. His feet seemed to barely lift off the ground. To lean, to pump like mad, well, that wasn't Michael. But Baylor coach Clyde Hart saw something that the others didn't. Michael got his scholarship.