Friday, June 27, 2008

University of Alabama Football Report for 6/27/08: The Curious Case of Jimmy Johns

The brash unbridled tongue, the lawless folly of fools, will end in pain.
Euripides, The Bacchae

That quarterback turned tailback turned fullback turned linebacker Jimmy Johns was arrested earlier this week for selling cocaine comes as a bit of a surprise. Everyone knows that the preferred intoxicant among the Alabama faithful is getting high off the fumes of their own bullshit. And nothing proves that more than the relationship between the fans and Jimmy Johns.

During one of the Great Leader’s state radio broadcasts, Nick Saban fielded questions about why Johns did not see the playing field more, since he was one of the team’s “best players.” What followed, perhaps after a couple of self-censor disabling beverages, was a brief inquisition of the fan, asking who told him Johns was one of the team’s “best players.” Certainly not, as Saban described himself, “the man wearing a National Championship ring.”

To pull rank, National Championship rank, on an Alabama fan in public is akin to telling the French that not only is their bread stale but that they could use a little more self-confidence.

How Jimmy Johns became the infatuation, and ultimately the embarrassment, of the collective Alabama fan consciousness is an object lesson for the future.

Act I: Straight Outta Brookhaven
For better or worse, Jimmy Johns was the best thing to come out of Brookhaven, Mississippi, other than State Route 550. A town of just under ten thousand people distributed over just seven square miles, Brookhaven bills itself as a “Homeseeker’s Paradise” and a town that “has the best of all worlds.” Why limit (or name, for that matter) to just two, one supposes.

As quarterback for his high school team, John only lost one game and took his team to the state Class 4A championship his senior season. The team won the title and Johns won the title of “Mr. Football” for the state. Online recruiting sites ranked him as a top ten “dual threat” prospect as he had nearly the same number of touchdowns throwing the ball as running it. A college future was assured, but where?

The suitors for Johns’s signature were two SEC schools: local favorite Mississippi State, who had recently made headlines by hiring Sylvester Croom, the conference’s first African American head coach; and neighboring Alabama, who at that time was coached by Mike Shula, the man who beat out Croom for the Crimson Tide job the previous year.

Any time a local hero considers a rival school, the recruiting heat can tick up a notch. However, the personal animus between the coaching staffs at Alabama and State (which had hired many former Bama men, like Croom himself) was considerable. Ultimately, Johns would make his decision based on who promised him a chance to play quarterback.

At the time, both schools were building a pro-style passing game requiring quick and accurate reads of the defense with an ability to stretch the secondary on occasional deep routes and keep linebackers back with hot reads. Croom, who had spent much of his coaching career in the NFL around West Coast offenses, knew Johns had no chance of doing what the offense required. Many argue that Shula knew that too, but told him otherwise.

If there is a bellwether moment of Johns’s poor decisions—well, friends, as Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Act II: A Special (Teams) Player
John was arguably the jewel of his signing class and certainly looked the part of a cut diamond. Much of the hype surrounding Johns’s career at Alabama may boil down to two factors over which he had no control: First would be the contentious recruiting chatter between Croom’s staff at MSU and Shula’s at Alabama. The second would be the physical comparison of Johns to the class’s other quarterback signee, Jimmy Barnes.

Jimmy Barnes was a California import with a big arm and a big everything else too. All freshmen report with a little pudginess to work off under the demands of the next level’s conditioning, but reports of Barnes’s massive size soon ballooned (pun intended?) to comic proportions. His early diagnosis of mono was even questioned in some quarters as a cover-up for inferior cardio stamina.

Johns, on the other hand, had a senior’s build beneath a freshman’s face. In his class’s group picture, he’s easy to point out as the player who already looks four years older than everyone else.

But Joe Montana never looked like Mr. Olympia, and Johns’s tryout at quarterback was predictably short. His already questionable arm was hindered by a tweaky shoulder and his ability to read progressions quickly never materialized. One option would be to redshirt his freshman year, giving Johns time to rehab his shoulder and study the playbook. Johns, however, continued to push for immediate playing time—another condition of his recruitment, supposedly—and was moved to running back.

In relief of Kenneth Darby, a squirty corkscrew of a scatback, Johns had moderate success as a change-of-pace runner. He had one speed and one direction, fast and straight ahead. He also had only one way of holding the football and no way to protect it.

Watching Jimmy Johns run the football was like watching a coat hanger being jiggled up and down in the slots of a locked car door, a stiff erratic motion that rarely yielded success and more often led to greater frustration.

Rumor had it that upon seeing Johns in high school, former Bama and current A&M DC Joe Kines said he planned on making Johns the best linebacker Alabama had fielded since Biscuit. Why he never got his chance is speculation. Some say Johns openly defied a move away from the offensive side of the ball, others say runningback coach Sparky Woods had more pull than Kines with Shula, still others say both, and a few say nothing because the truth may be worse than the rumors.

No surprise then that, after Shula’s dismissal, Saban wanted to make good on Joe Kines’s boast. However, in their first, and now only, year together, it took an entire season and a painful fumble for Johns to accept his role with the linebackers.

To be clear, it was not one moment that benched Jimmy Johns for good on offense. At one point in the season, he had cost the team more yards in personal foul penalties than he had gained in running yards. Also, he had been outspoken in how he couldn’t wait to show up his home state Bulldogs and their coach who’d suggested he was foolish for believing he could play quarterback, which only served to make Johns, now primarily a special teams player, a human target:

Yet, despite all this, or perhaps because the fanbase had instilled so much hope in his potential, there were near weekly cries for Johns to see more action throughout the season, as there were calls for him to replace Darby his freshman year. Saban directly challenged the fans, saying that he’d never seen so much attention given to a player who’d done so little.

He will be answering other questions now.

Act III: The Dog in the Fight
Lee Thomas says he doesn’t “work for Jimmy for money.” No, the self-described “caretaker” of Jimmy Johns says he works for the now former Alabama football player “because it's not often you see a young black player come through here and take people by storm like he done.”

No, I suppose not. Usually when a “young black player” takes the fans by storm, like say Andre Smith or Tyrone Prothro or DeMeco Ryans or the hundreds of other “young black players” reaching all the way back to Wilbur Jackson for whom Jimmy Johns isn’t worthy to hold their jockstrap, it is because they fucking earned it.

Mr. Thomas, though he works for free when it comes to Jimmy Johns, must be charging someone, as he posted the $120,000 bail for six charges of cocaine distribution (and two traffic violations), then added that Jimmy Johns is “not sad at all. He wasn't crying or anything like that” following his arrest.

That comment would probably not be appreciated by the eventual judge in this case, and is not appreciated by the current defense lawyers for this case, who stated “contrary to comments made by those claiming to be close to him [I wonder who?], Jimmy Johns is distraught over his arrest.”

Mr. Thomas further stated that Jimmy Johns may be finished at Alabama but isn’t “done with football.” This statement was uttered roughly ten hours before, the website for Jimmy Johns Linebacker Bullies, a pit bull breeding kennel Johns promoted by posting pictures of himself in uniform and proclaiming that he not only sells “some of the bulliest dogs in the country, he also plays for the best college football team in the country. The University of Alabama. Roll Tide!”

Ah, school pride. Too bad it is also a letter-for-letter violation of NCAA Bylaw, which states that a student-athlete will lose eligibility if he or she “accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”

Roll Tide, Jimmy! Another personal foul on your way off the field.

I swear to God, just when one thinks this team has hit rock bottom, someone reaches out for another damn shovel. At least now, finally, we’ve hit bedrock.

Of course, we’ve said that before and could be wrong here, as wrong as Mr. Thomas the Caretaker is about Johns playing football again; oddly, the pit bull business, not the drug trafficking, sees to that. During his recruitment, in what seems a lifetime ago, Jimmy Johns wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Vick. With his arrest this week, he’s finally achieved that goal.

Jimmy Johns’s football career is a pattern of losing his roster spot to players with lesser talent and greater effort at no less than four separate positions. And sadly, Johns has a greater likelihood now of showing up face down in the swamps of southern Mississippi than he does of ever stepping foot on a football field again—one does not receive the title of “caretaker” without taking care of loose ends.

Two weeks ago, this space was dedicated to support of Kenny Stabler, who was held for DUI shortly beforehand. Is it because one is a winner and the other not, because one is old and the other young, or—worse—because one is white and the other black? For those who believe in only binary condition—right and wrong, win and loss, lawful and criminal—and not value, how to explain the condemnation of one player and not another without hypocrisy.

In the tragedy of The Bacchae, Euripides presents a conflict between the king Pentheus and the god Dionysus. Pentheus has outlawed worship of the drunken son of Zeus and denies him his rightful stature as a god because he claims that kings must maintain order, making worship of Dionysus—and a good many other things—a waste of time.

However, like a classical Larry Craig, Pentheus also wished to observe privately the orgiastic rituals he condemned publicly and, through disguise and trickery not unlike a sting operation, gets his chance. But the voyeur king pays for it with his life.

I mention this only to point out that I’m no Pentheus, and I probably worship at the altar of Dionysus a little too much for my own good. Would now be a bad time to mention the thrill of snorting a line off a sorority girl’s ass while she’s phoning her dad for more money?

I thought so.

Rumors of Johns and drugs have been floating around Tuscaloosa for at least two years, though nothing of the magnitude of this week’s charges. Rumors are just that, and at best only shades of the truth.

That truth being that we love sport because it provides us an escape from the horrid gray areas of our real lives, the uncertain choices we hope will make today better and stave off death until tomorrow. It is a relief to see a cleanly drawn world of win and loss, where there’s always another play or another game.

A line of thought says that sport does not build character so much as reveal it. We forgive—hell, love—Stabler because we know his character. We know he cheats, but he cheats for us. His whole life is the Holy Roller.

Football, this ridiculous thing that means so much to us, means nothing to Jimmy Johns. How else to explain his dealing blow in the parking lot of the building named after Mal Moore.

It is not that Jimmy Johns broke the laws or the rules that disgusts us. It is not that he didn’t live up to his potential. It is not that he cost his team something as transient and light as victory. It is not, as his caretaker insists, that he fell in with the wrong crowd. From this viewing, he is the wrong crowd.

We know his character. Football had revealed it long before the police.

Roll Tide.