Skip to main content
Original Issue

Dave Is Top Dog Now

With Dan O'Brien out of the picture, Dave Johnson's decathlon hopes are golden

The answer, for now, is Dave. Definitely Dave.

Of course, no one—especially Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien, the principals in a decathlon competition that Reebok executives hoped would be a clash of truly Olympian proportions to determine the "World's Greatest Athlete"—had any idea how prematurely the answer would come. It arrived on June 27, a month before the Barcelona Games, when O'Brien failed to clear any height in the pole vault at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in New Orleans and thus did not make the Olympic team.

"I was sad for Dan," recalls Johnson. "It's something that happens to every decathlete at some point. I was mad and upset that it happened to Dan at the trials."

Johnson's reaction, caught by TV, was somewhat pithier. But he claims he only said, "Oh, shoot!" The folks at Reebok cannot have been so restrained. Hoping to crack the track and field market now dominated by Nike, they had sunk $25 million into an ad campaign featuring two virtually unknown decathletes.

Lost in all the commotion was Johnson's masterly performance in New Orleans. He racked up 8,649 points, second best in the world this year to the 8,727 he had accumulated at the Mt. SAC Relays. Frank Zarnowski, the author of The Decathlon, the event's standard history, rates Johnson as a "little bit of a favorite" over Michael Smith of Canada, the silver medalist (behind O'Brien) at last year's world championships. And to the list of top contenders, Johnson's coach, Terry Franson, adds Christian Plaziat of France, whom Johnson has not beaten in three tries, and Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia.

But it's hard to imagine anyone in Barcelona stepping into O'Brien's role. Athletically, Dan and Dave are perfect foils. The order of the decathlon's 10 events makes them look like hare and tortoise: Dan is the best first-day decathlete in history, Dave the best second-day decathlete. "The Dan-Dave thing was very clever," says sports agent Art Kaminsky. "If it had gone to its logical conclusion—Dan and Dave dueling in the 1,500 [the final event] in Barcelona—it would have been an incredible story."

Of course, it can't reach that conclusion now. "Dave cannot be a clear winner now," says NBC track commentator Craig Masback. "Only with Dan in the competition can he prove himself the world's greatest athlete."

Kaminsky disagrees, pointing out that Johnson is an appealing package on his own. "He's an articulate, handsome guy, and he seems very sincere," says Kaminsky, whose clients have included cyclist Eric Heiden, swimmer John Naber and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. "He helped himself tremendously with his human reaction to Dan's suffering."

Competitively, Johnson may benefit from O'Brien's absence, and not just for the obvious reason. "They make the mistake of trying to be the other guy," says Fred Samara, TAC's decathlon coordinator. "They worry they are losing too many points in the other guy's strong events. Dave is never going to beat Dan in the 100. He has to stop pressing. In the 100, the long jump and the hurdles, he tightens up in the face and shoulders when Dan is in the competition. He's got to be patient and remember that he has that incredible swing in the last two events."

A sign hangs on the wall of the weight room at Azusa (Calif.) Pacific University. It quotes part of Matthew 6:33 in letters 15 inches high: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD, AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU.

On a hot afternoon, having already taken some starts and thrown the discus and javelin, Johnson is seeking to add unto himself a few more pounds of muscle. At 6'3", 195 pounds, with the broad shoulders and stiff upper carriage of a bodybuilder, he is blockier than the 6'2" 185-pound O'Brien. Johnson's jaw juts mightily, and that, along with the Oakley sunglasses that seem to have been surgically attached to his head, gives him the rugged good looks of a movie lifeguard.

At 29, Johnson is a whole Olympiad older than O'Brien. He knows how quickly one's fortunes can change. For two years, 1989 and '90, Johnson had the highest decathlon score in the world. He won two TAC titles and the 1990 Goodwill Games. The long-term plan he and Franson had mapped out culminates in winning the gold medal in Barcelona with a world-record score. Then, says Franson, "Dan came along and dropped a bomb."

It exploded at last year's TAC championship in June. O'Brien, whom Johnson had beaten twice in 1990, finished with 8,844 points, three shy of Daley Thompson's '84 world record. Johnson ended up with a respectable 8,467 points but never challenged O'Brien. Among the awestruck witnesses to O'Brien's feat was Thompson. "He can be anything he wants to be," Thompson said. "I see him as a 9,500-point man."

No one was predicting such lofty things for Johnson. Hobbled by an injury to his left knee, he was unable to finish either the Olympic Festival or the world-championship decathlon later in the summer. In late October, Johnson underwent surgery to remove scar tissue from the back of a knee. He was training again by Thanksgiving but needed one shot of cortisone in January and another in February before he was fully recovered. On top of that, in early October he and his wife, Sheri, had lost their first baby because of a miscarriage.

At a decathlon camp in New Orleans in early April, Johnson looked so somber that people asked him if he was all right. "I feel I have a lot of responsibility," he answered quietly. "I have a lot to prove this year."

Track and field observers agreed. "Dan and Dave?" cracked one about the Reebok campaign, which began in January. "That's almost false advertising."

In late April, Johnson proved it wasn't. At the Mt. SAC Relays he achieved four straight personal bests: in the 400 (48.16 seconds), the 110 hurdles (14.17), the discus (163'8") and the pole vault (17'3¾"). His second-day total of 4,411 points was the best ever—until he topped it at the trials—and his final score of 8,727 was the best anyone other than O'Brien had attained since 1986. Only a bad javelin throw kept him from threatening the U.S. decathlon record held by O'Brien, who, because of a stress fracture in his right leg, did not compete in any decathlons this year until the trials.

"I think it was Dave's faith that brought him through," says Samara, himself a former decathlete. A member of the Grace Brethren Church in LaVerne, Calif., Johnson sees sport as an extension of devotion. Upon winning the '90 Goodwill Games decathlon, he stood in the infield, pointing heavenward. "It's important to me to be the best in the world and to give something to people," he says.

Johnson has not always been so altruistic. Growing up in Missoula, Mont., he was a community nuisance. "Throwing rocks at cars kept my arm in shape," says Johnson. "Running from the police made me fast."

By age 16 he was a member of the West Side Gang. The members broke into houses hunting for liquor and challenged other gangs to fights, with Johnson leading the way, a dog chain wrapped around his hand as a weapon. "I was out of control," he says. "I probably was hyperactive and not diagnosed. I had so much energy and nowhere to vent it."

Johnson's crowning moment as a tough probably came the day he noticed that his next-door neighbor had left a ring of keys unattended on the seat of his car. The neighbor happened to manage the local Budweiser warehouse. Johnson filched the warehouse key. "For the next eight months I was the most popular guy around," he says with a grin. "Then they changed the locks, and I got caught."

The police estimated that Johnson and his friends had stolen $5,000 worth of beer. Budweiser officials were nice enough to let him work off the debt, but Johnson turned himself around only after his father, Wilbur, a supervisor for a company that made wood products, was transferred to Corvallis, Ore. "It helped a lot to get away," says Johnson.

He always had the makings of a natural athlete. In Missoula he had been an all-star pitcher in Little League and had bowled a 220 game as a seventh-grader. So he went out for football at Crescent Valley High in Corvallis, because "it seemed like a good way to make friends."

He got more than that. Matt Hirte, one of his fellow wide receivers, introduced him to fundamentalist Christianity. Johnson had been raised a Catholic, but, he says, "that wasn't personal enough."

Johnson tried track and field that year too. Initially he was good, but not sensational. He ran the high hurdles in 15.4 seconds and the 300 intermediates in 39.1. He also high-jumped 6'6" and ran a 54-second leg on the mile relay. One coach who called to recruit him asked about the decathlon. Johnson had no idea what he was talking about.

"You know," said the coach. "The thing that Bruce Jenner did at the Olympics, the 10-event thing."

"Bruce Jenner?" Johnson answered. "You mean the guy on CHiPs?"

Johnson spent one year at Western Oregon State College and another at Linn-Benton Community College. Then, in the most important move of his life, he transferred to Azusa Pacific, a Christian university set beneath the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains cast of Los Angeles, in 1983. The weather was perfect for year-round training, and Franson had made Azusa Pacific the NAIA track champion.

One of Johnson's training partners was a huge weight thrower from Nigeria named Christian Okoye, who would become a star NFL running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Johnson also met a blonde nursing student named Sheri Jordan. Three years later they got married. Sheri now works as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit of Arcadia (Calif.) Methodist Hospital.

Shortly after he arrived at Azusa Pacific, Johnson told Franson he would get 8,000 points in the decathlon. "I thought he was crazy," says Franson. "But he said, 'Watch me. I'm going to surprise you. See how I work.' "

That spring, in only the sixth decathlon of his life, Johnson piled up 8,043 points and made a believer of Franson. In the summer he finished 11th at the '84 Olympic trials. "Dave has this vision of what he's capable of doing," says Franson, "and it's huge. It's not a cocky vision, yet every year it comes to reality."

His biggest concern until a couple of years ago was sponsorship. The decathlon is the most time-consuming of all track and field events, mainly because it just about is all track and field events. In 1985, when Johnson ran out of eligibility at Azusa, he began writing letters to corporations. He finally got a job through the U.S. Olympic Committee's job opportunity program—ironically, with Budweiser. "That was tough because of my faith," says Johnson. "But we came to the conclusion that it was a need being met."

In 1990 Visa signed on as sponsor of the 10-member U.S. decathlon team. As one of the top two decathletes in the country, Johnson gets $700 a month. He also has sponsorship arrangements with Body Fuel, Oakley, Hinckley and Schmitt sparkling water, and, of course, Reebok.

Johnson and Franson agreed last year that Johnson would not pursue any new endorsements until after the Olympics. "If I win the gold medal, I'm sure all that will take care of itself," says Johnson, who has always insisted he would rather reach 8,900 or 9,000 points than win the gold. But with Barcelona looming larger, Johnson's ambition has grown to Olympian proportions. "The ultimate," he says, "would be to get that score at the Games."



In his preparation for Barcelona, Johnson goes that extra mile with his pal Oakley.



There are times when a dog's life is as rewarding as his master's.



Being the best, says Dave (left), helps him share his faith with worshipers at church.