[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.)
After moving to New York in early 1999, Johnson attended a reading/Chinese buffet that was being thrown by the then-fledgling editorial staff at McSweeney's. He began submitting articles to the publication, finally landing on the Web site with a collection of crime reports that were heavy on mules, Ford Taurus accidents, and moped collisions involving geriatric drivers--purportedly from Wisconsin. Since then, in addition to writing the football picks, Johnson has contributed two batches of bad names for professional wrestlers ("The Vegan," "The Plum-Eating Bastard") and a series of articles on fictitious summer camps. Among the featured possibilities for vacationing kids: "Von Luxembourg's Water Treading and Proactive Mule Euthanasia Camp." "In Taos," according to Johnson's online brochure, "each camper will take several days in the mountains to track, stalk, kill, and dismember his/her own mule."
Author Dave Eggers, who founded McSweeney's, cautions that his publication's relationship with Johnson is only happenstance. "We do a thing with an area prison-furlough program," Eggers quips in an e-mail from Costa Rica. "That's how we get much of our staff and some of our contributors. It's a hassle, and most of the people they send don't work out too well, but Jeff has been a prince."
Johnson actually gets paid less than an average prisoner on furlough. He offers his services for free. But the affiliation has led to other opportunities. Last year, for example, the New Republic commissioned Johnson to write a piece about what he believed to be the greatest invention of the millennium: the nacho. ("I never cook," Johnson explains.)
To subsidize his freelancing, Johnson works as the music editor at Jane, a glossy magazine for young women. The job has cut into the time he has available for football meditations, though. For most of last season, Johnson paid the rent by working at the publishing house Scholastic. He estimates the job required "9 hours a week of work and 35 hours of Internet surfing, personal phone calls, and personal writing time." Since moving over to Jane he often puts in 60-hour weeks.
The increased workload has not chastened Johnson, however. In recent months he has written in McSweeney's about running through the streets of New York in a thong (Jets beat the Bills) and chatting with Wu-Tang Clan member and then-fugitive Ol' Dirty Bastard outside a New York nightclub (St. Louis over New Orleans). Both incidents were based on fact. The thong jog was undertaken on a $500 workplace dare. "It was worth a lot to them to have one of their employees be in a thong," Johnson observes.
Matt Olson, Balloon Guy's former front man and lead singer for the local rock group Smattering, theorizes that his close friend finds himself in peculiar, writerly situations because of his eclectic interests. Olson recalls that while on tour with Balloon Guy, Johnson would be discussing Japanese noise bands with some hipster one night, then arguing hoops with a college-basketball scout the next morning. "Since he's got such a strange bunch of information floating around in his head, and he's such a charismatic fellow, he just winds up in these situations," Olson explains. "I can discuss the New Yorker with him, as well as porn."
Since leaving Minneapolis, Johnson has maintained a well-seasoned loathing for the Vikings. "I've never liked any team as much as I hated the Vikings," the Bears fan says, attributing his antipathy to vague childhood recollections of Fran Tarkenton eluding opposing defenders. His animosity for the purple is so deep, in fact, it extends to sportswriters who cover the team. "Minneapolis sportswriter Sid Hartman is delusional," Johnson wrote last year before a Vikings-Falcons game. "He blurs the lines of journalistic ethics, calling people like George Steinbrenner close personal friends. The Vikings are much the same way....Like Hartman, they've feigned coolness, but never been laid."
As for this year's team? "I think the Vikings will make it to the conference championship game again and lose."
Why? "Because they always let you down."
Correction published 1/3/2001:
Owing to a reporting error, writer Paul Demko misstated Jeff Johnson's relationship with the group Nashville Pussy. While Johnson was working as tour manager for Gaunt, that group toured with Nashville Pussy, but Johnson never worked for the latter. Additionally, Johnson was indeed a sports writer for the Associated Press, but not in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the errors.