How one of Calgary’s best covers the ever-changing world of sports

thumb photo Johnson

As a sports columnist for the Calgary Herald, George Johnson’s job is to capture the biggest moments in sports. He puts together compelling stories, using his unique personality and flair to tell the tale.

He has not only become known for his entertaining style of writing, but for conveying the passion he has for the world of sports and the characters within it.

But Johnson fears that he may be the last of a fading generation of writers, giving way to a new group of generic reporters who are focused on quantity, rather than quality.

“Expediency seems to have taken over for a lot of the quality,” Johnson says. “For someone who wants to write now, don’t be afraid. Show some personality in your writing. Sometimes it’s going to be awful – God knows it still is 36 years later – but at least I tried.”

 For the spark plug scribbler, it’s the way he is able to tell the story that sets him apart from his formulaic peers, infusing his pieces with a certain wit and charm that makes even the most casual of sports fans want to read his column.

It’s a trick of the trade he says he learned from a colleague back in Winnipeg when he wrote for his hometown paper, the Winnipeg Tribune.

George Johnson on ladderGeorge Johnson’s unique style of writing, infusing humor and personality, is becoming a rare commodity in journalism these days.

Photo by Geoff Crane The Tribune’s sports editor, Jack Matheson, had a more conversational style of writing that Johnson says served as inspiration when he began his own writing career.

“I remember one of his great leads was ‘Just when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers needed a stiff drink, here comes John Martini,’” Johnson says. “He made you want to read it even if you weren’t a big Bombers fan. I thought that was great. I look at it, I laugh and I want to read on. To me, I think that’s what you should try to do (as a writer).”

One of the stories Johnson is most famous for is the tale about meeting the world’s greatest heavyweight boxing champ, Muhammad Ali, in 1978 on a flight home from New Orleans following his rematch victory against Leon Spinks.

While the champ occupied first class, the economy section was escorted up one by one to meet the boxer and get an autograph.

Johnson says this legendary meeting encapsulated everything he knew about sports, and is one of the reasons he continues to cover it to this day. As Ali signed a couple of posters Johnson had bought as souvenirs, the champ had asked: “Did you see the fight?”

“Oh yeah champ,” recalls a giddy Johnson, reliving the experience over again. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

Johnson went on to tell Ali that he had come all the way down from Winnipeg to see the fight, to which Ali replied, “You came all the way from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to see ME fight? I must be the greatest.”

“I floated back to my seat,” says Johnson. “To me, that’s sports. We all have ‘our guys,’ and I won’t remember my name when I’m on my deathbed, but I’ll remember that moment. That’s why we love sports.”

It’s those moments of pure fandom – the sense of being a 12-year-old kid, jaw on the carpet, unable to speak as you meet your sports idol for the first time – those moments beyond just the recap of last night’s game, that Johnson says he loves to capture for his readers.

Produced by Geoff Crane

Jean Lefebvre, a former sports beat writer with the Calgary Herald, got to know Johnson well, not only as a colleague, but as a fan of his writing as well.

“I would say, and this is my opinion only,” says Lefebvre. “I think (Johnson) writes to entertain himself, and anyone who wants to come along for the ride is welcome.”

Lefebvre’s statement is illustrated in an article written by Johnson back when golfer Jack Nicklaus retired at St Andrews’ golf course in Scotland during the British open in 2005. Nicklaus – a.k.a. the “Golden Bear” – thought of as one of, if not the greatest, golfers to play the game, was playing the final round of his career that had spanned over four decades.

Johnson wrote from the perspective of himself when he was a kid watching Nicklaus on Sunday afternoons, an experience he says he shared with his father, who recently passed away from cancer.
Johnson says the world stopped when Nicklaus stood on Swilcan Bridge and waved farewell to the crowd, and the game of golf.

“I was trying to tell my kids how much it meant to me because 30 or 40 years down the road, they’ll have their Nicklaus moment with somebody,” says Johnson. “That’s why sports are so powerful. Everything is in there. That to me is why I enjoy it, and why I’ll keep (writing) until they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”

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