Offensive Line Man

Writer Jeff Johnson stretches the truth and covers the spread

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

Jeff Johnson swears this story is true.
Two years ago, while Johnson was working at Cedar Hills Liquors in Minnetonka, Vikings linebacker Dwayne Rudd walked through the door wearing wind pants and began searching for a bottle of Alizé; a fruity French liqueur Johnson claims was popular among the large, musclebound professional athletes who frequented the store.

Rudd's appearance riled Johnson for two reasons: Johnson loathes the Vikings, and, on the previous night, in a game against his beloved Chicago Bears, Rudd had engaged in a display of gridiron hubris that left even Vikings partisans mortified. His 11-2 team leading 41-22 over the 3-9 visitors--and with the clock about to run out--Rudd scooped up a fumble and scampered toward the end zone. Rather than gracefully accept the gift, however, Rudd decided to pause at the five-yard line, then tiptoe and finger-wag his way into the end zone. Backward. For an encore he went on to spike the ball in the face of a beleaguered Bear. "I was just furious," Johnson, who was watching the game on TV, recalls. "I was like, 'This guy is such a fucking poor sport!'"

So when Rudd walked in the night after the game, Johnson needed no introduction. Without pausing to contemplate whether or not he should strap on a football helmet, Johnson, who stands (a less than chiseled) six-foot-three himself, offered the linebacker some unsolicited advice on football etiquette. "I had the liquor, so I had the power," he laughs.

"Jesus, what were you thinking last night, anyway?" he remembers chiding the 6-foot-two, 237-pound native of Batesville, Mississippi.

Rudd probably could have pummeled the uppity liquor-store clerk. But instead, he just laughed, shook his head, and conceded that he was a poor winner. Johnson relented and sold Rudd his Alizé. "He was really nice," Johnson concedes.

It says something that Johnson is willing to swear this anecdote is true, because much of what he writes about guys like Rudd is based on lies. Or variations on the truth. (He prefers the term "sonnets.") For two consecutive seasons, Johnson has been the football columnist for Timothy McSweeney's Internet Experience (www.mcsweeneys.net), a New York-based Web site that, coupled with a related quarterly publication, is to traditional magazines what a Chicago-style Vienna beef frank is to a plain old hot dog. McSweeney's is an unruly stew of short stories, navel-gazing first-person narratives, librettos, bastardized crime reports, and other utterly unclassifiable collections of prose that fall somewhere outside the normal confines of fiction and nonfiction.

Each week Johnson looks at the NFL's schedule and picks the winners and losers. He occasionally omits a game, because, as he once wrote, "Having left my gout medication in the Midwest, my joints swell and don't allow me to write at length about irrelevant contests." Before making a prediction, the 31-year-old generally pontificates at length on a subject that has little or nothing to do with the game in question. "Tampa's Warren Sapp is the coolest guy in the NFL," he observed before picking a winner in last season's dustup between the New York Giants and Sapp's Buccaneers. "He's fat, he has braids, he smokes dope, and he likes to hurt people."

Despite (or perhaps because of) Johnson's insistence on avoiding the mind-numbing statistics and insipid aphorisms that clog most sports punditry, his record as a prognosticator is respectable. Last season he compiled a regular-season mark of 153-91-4. As of week 15 this season, he stood at 150-84. Johnson claims that some sports junkies even look to him for gambling guidance, and they become irate if the week's posting is tardy. "They're like, 'When are those goddamn picks coming out?'"

Before the Vikings played the Bears again in September of last year, Johnson wrote about his liquor store tête-à-tête with Dwayne Rudd. In the McSweeney's version of the anecdote, however, Johnson and Rudd are joined at Cedar Hills Liquors by former Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan, as well as "the ghost of first Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper." When Rudd arrives, Regan is sipping Sprite and Cooper is squaring his tab. Johnson concludes the story on this note: "Regan chuckled and looped an index finger through Duff's worn britches and said, 'It's wing night down the road.' Then they all left. Prediction: Chicago, in a nail-biter."

Johnson's pigskin prognostications first appeared on the Minneapolis music Web 'zine King Who (www.kingwho.com) during the 1998-99 season. Johnson was motivated by his genuine loathing for football punditry and the chance to regularly showcase his writing. "It's a guaranteed 17 weeks of retardation," Johnson cracks. He further notes that football is a way to "sucker people in" who would otherwise never stumble across his epistles. The result is an inspired hybrid of armchair Americana and ironic, willfully obscure commentary.

Johnson's journalistic roots predate the football picks. A native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, he worked briefly as an Associated Press sports writer and in the early Nineties published his own 'zine, The Mugwump Review. But while living in the Twin Cities in 1996 and 1998, Johnson worked primarily as a tour manager for bands such as now-defunct locals Balloon Guy and Georgia-based Gaunt. ("Their worst crime was that they were kind of homely," he says of the latter.)

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