'Fast Track' To Network Success
Date: April 28, 2002
Tested Star UC Runner's Endurance
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Lewis Johnson first made his name as an all-American middle-distance runner at the University of Cincinnati. But if his life story is any indication, it turns out he had a hidden strength - distance events.
Johnson has displayed the moxie of a marathoner - keeping an eye towards the long-term, not being afraid to make mid-course adjustments, and finding the willpower to persevere - in breaking away from the pack and conquering the grueling uphill road to network sportscasting.
Odds are, you've probably seen Johnson of late. Within a two-week window this winter on his employer, NBC Sports, he could be seen interviewing bobsledders at the Salt Lake Olympics and then towering over reigning NBA MVP Allen Iverson in an on-court interview at the end of a broadcast of a Philadelphia 76ers game.
Not bad progress for a guy who entered UC in 1982 as a 6-foot-6 inch freshman flying under the radar screen and unsure of his future direction.
The key was emphasizing preparation over expectation, says Johnson, in a message he often shares with today's teenagers.
"Things happen in your life and you may not be sure what they mean at any moment. The biggest thing is to be prepared for whatever may come," he says. "Sometimes people come across your path and take you in a different direction, because that's the direction you were supposed to go in."
Johnson benefited from just such a moment while at UC.
After two nondescript years of study, Johnson finally gave in to the urgings of one of his track buddies from Northwest High School, Doug Wiesman, and came out to train with the track team. UC track coach Bill Schnier recognized that the former high school hurdler's strength and long stride gave him exceptional potential for events like the 800 meters.
His progress was breathtaking. Less than a year after taking up the 800 meters, Johnson was setting new UC records in the event. By the following spring, he qualified to the 1987 NCAA finals and was an all-American.
Johnson remembers the period for his physical and emotional development.
"I have tremendous respect for Bill Schnier. Your parents raise you, but there's always someone else who has a tremendous influence on your life, and Bill was that person for me," Johnson says. "Athletically, academically and socially, he was great for us. It was like a family, the whole track team."
Johnson became a communication major and moved into the athletic dorm, where he served as a resident advisor. "I loved being there on campus," he says. "It was an important part of my experience."
He had made enough of a name for himself that he now thought of track as the road to his future.
He left school one quarter short of graduating (work he would return to finish in 1992) to train with the heralded Santa Monica Track Club. That paid off in 1988, when Johnson qualified to the U.S. Olympic trials. He was eliminated in the semifinals, but later that summer, made the first of what would be seven consecutive summer swings to Europe to compete on the most highly competitive track circuit in the world.
Track was paying the bills, and track led to romance, as Lewis married a Parisian, Dominique Galleron. The couple now live in suburban Dallas with their two sons.
But, employing perspective that is rare in today's world of modern athletics, Johnson never grew too wrapped up in track as an end to itself. There would be life after track, and if his track background could get him a head start down that path, Johnson was going to be smart enough to take advantage of it.
No matter how humbling that turned out to be.
Broadcasting is a business where almost everyone starts out at the very bottom. Even though he was essentially a pro athlete, Johnson would not be the exception. His entree into the industry began as a gopher working college football productions for ABC at the Rose Bowl.
The job was menial, but Johnson focused on the positives - he had access to learn up-close, and he was meeting the right people who might help him reach his distant goals.
His involvement grew. Among his assignments, he worked three Academy Award telecasts for ABC. In the summer, he fit in ABC assignments in Europe, like the British Open, alongside his competition schedule.
"There I was signing autographs (at a meet) in Rome on a Wednesday night, then traveling to the British Open where we were sleeping six or eight people in a room," Johnson remembers. "There, I was just an (errand) runner for ABC, but the key was I was making relationships and building experiences."
One of his first big broadcasting breaks came during the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia. Johnson went as a stage manager, but when no one expressed interest in calling the less-than-glamorous men's 10K race-walk event, Johnson was given an on-air opportunity. The race unexpectedly turned into a classic finish, with a Russian and the Spanish world-record holder battling to the wire. Johnson's high-spirited call of the finish over the screaming crowd became TBS' "Play of the Day."
Back in the U.S., Johnson found another one of those people who would make a difference in his life in Jack O'Hara, an executive with ABC Sports who befriended Johnson. Johnson was given a four-game audition with ABC as a college football sideline reporter, which led to his first network contract.
As part of his contract, Johnson began honing his reporter skills with the ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas. While covering the Dallas Cowboys training camp one day, Johnson got a call from his agent informing him about the crash of TWA Flight 800. O'Hara, his wife and his daughter had been on the plane.
Johnson's reaction sent him to the ground in tears. "He was one of those people who cared," Johnson says of O'Hara. "He didn't have to spend time with me or try to help me. I'll always remember him for that."
A long period of tribulation followed. An affiliation between ESPN and ABC meant cutbacks that ended Johnson's network contract. Steady work on individual assignments - but no contract - became too precarious for a young man with a family to support.
Johnson considered a gig with NBC to work track and field at the Sydney Olympics as his broadcasting swan song. He told his agent he was getting out of the business. Fate wouldn't cooperate, however.
Johnson became involved on a major story when he found out that Marie Jose Perec, the world-record holder in the women's 400 meters, had bolted from Sydney, to the benefit of Australian favorite Kathy Freeman. The story landed Johnson on the main Olympic set next to Bob Costas. "I put my makeup on, and just sort of held on to the underside of the desk," laughs Johnson. "It was just a deal where I kept it simple, and tried to answer the question."
Later in the Olympics, Johnson once again appeared with Costas when Marion Jones' husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, tested positive for steroid use. "With a couple days left in the Games, the track and field producer, Sam Flood, said that I had done a tremendous job, and he wanted to see about getting me on some NBA games the next year."
When Johnson returned to the United States, his agent was already in touch with NBC on what turned out to be a three-year deal. Johnson became the sideline reporter for NBC's No. 2 NBA announcing team. Within months, he was working the NBA All-Star Game and last year's NBA finals.
He's also handled college sports assignments, including football games back at his alma mater. In 1999, he was the sideline reporter for UC's biggest football victory ever, an upset of No. 8-ranked Wisconsin. At halftime of the game, Johnson was inducted into UC's James P. Kelly Athletic Hall of Fame. Johnson's resume even includes a recurring guest role as a reporter on CBS' "Walker, Texas Ranger."
"Everything I've done is the first time I've done it. That's the story of my career," says Johnson, who admits he didn't grow up a sports nut. So he's had to learn on his feet at events like this winter's Olympics. "I had only skied once in my life. I had no experience with that stuff."
Yet his Salt Lake experiences have become some of the favorites of his career. He worked with NBC's Special Features Unit, and covered the four-man bobsled competition, a sport for which he quickly gained an affinity. He also covered the opening and closing ceremonies, interviewing Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill just after they carried in the Olympic Torch. Johnson remembers his thoughts at the time: "How does a guy like me, a track guy from Cincinnati, Ohio, who sort of squeaked his way into television, end up on the floor of the Olympic Stadium interviewing these people?"
The answer comes back to the fact that Johnson never gave up on the idea that it could happen, with a little luck, a lot of determination and a focus on the right preparation.
"It never fails - my career, particularly at NBC, has been nothing but surprises thanks to (NBC Sports executives) Dick Ebersol, David Neal and Tommy Roy," he says. "If you had told me I would be working the (NBA) sidelines, I would have told you you were crazy. That I would work the All-Star game, or that I would end up doing SunAmerica studio updates or covering the NBA finals, again I would have told you you were crazy. All of that came because of a dream of a lifetime, covering the Olympics in track and field. I've had one shocking event after another, in a positive sense."
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