The Incredible Journey of Josh “Big Game” Johnson
This was first posted in 2011 regarding former DCSportsFan photographer Josh “Big Game” Johnson. Josh now resides in Florida but we hope he returns to the D.C. area one day. Please enjoy the following story!
BEATING THE ODDS
As a diehard Washington Redskins fan, Josh Johnson has watched athletes overcome adversity and leap boundaries to achieve their goals. Just ask and he’ll tell you about replacement players leading three victories in 1987 to help the Redskins reach the playoffs. Perhaps you’ve heard that story before – it was the basis for the 2000 movie “The Replacements.”
Josh also likes to rave about Doug Williams’ performance for the ‘Skins in that season’s Super Bowl. Time has not stolen this tale’s luster either; Williams used a stellar showing that day to become the first – and still the only – black quarterback to win the big game.
One great underdog story that he doesn’t often share, though; and one that hasn’t been heard nearly enough, is Josh Johnson’s own. Because there’s a lot more than meets the eye when you encounter the DCSportsFan.com photographer they call “Big Game” Johnson. And the journey of the man on the other side of the lens is as spectacular as that of any of the athletes he admires.
On July 20, 1981, at George Washington Memorial Hospital, Josh Johnson was born three months premature – and severely underweight – causing an intraventricular brain hemorrhage, which is bleeding into the brain’s ventricular system. IVH is described in four grades and Josh’s condition, Grade IV, was the most serious because it involved bleeding into the brain tissues around the ventricles. Josh had to undergo surgery and doctors told his parents, Sue and Larry Johnson, that his chances for survival were slim. They even presented them the option of cutting off his feeding, thus allowing him to die.
Sue and Larry refused to give up hope, though, and he slowly started to show signs of recovery. Three months after his birth, the Johnsons finally brought baby Josh home to Bethesda. The next few months, though, were difficult. Josh had to go back into the hospital in the fall due to an infection of his central spinal fluid. And when his head swelled in December, he nearly had to undergo further surgery. Fortunately, the pressure subsided and the disastrous turn was avoided. Against the odds, Josh Johnson recovered from the brain hemorrhage that doctors predicted would kill him.
In early childhood, Josh’s impairment wasn’t so obvious. In fact, Larry Johnson says his young son was doing things that you wouldn’t expect from someone with a mental defect. When Josh was three years old, Larry accepted a job in Argentina and the family of three moved overseas. “He learned to speak Spanish. He would do translating for my wife as a four-year-old kid,” Larry recalled. “He fooled us.”
By the time he reached the third grade, though, it became clear that Josh had a reading problem – he wasn’t able to sound out words the way his classmates could. Doctors said his struggles with phonetics were stemming from the irreversible brain damage he suffered at birth. Josh also showed signs of an impacted short-term memory. While his long-term memory was fine, he had difficulty cementing new ideas and it often took several tries for something to stick.
He still struggles with this today. Although he can tell you most players from the Redskins championship teams, it’s tough for him to remember the names of people he meets on a daily basis. He also tends to forget things shortly after doing them or watching them happen.
In Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”, Guy Pearce’s character, Leonard Shelby, suffers a brain injury and is unable to make new memories. He relies on note cards, tattoos and perfect strangers to string his daily activities together and make sense of them. Similarly, Josh runs around all day taking on new thoughts, but the images soon become blurry and fade away. He loses his grip on them. He forgets things as if they never happened at all, the way we often lose track of our dreams. It’s only the most powerful new memories – or recurring ones – that get trapped in his head and can’t escape.
Luckily for Josh, he’s always had people around to help him along his way, and technology has made it easier for him to keep track of things. When Todd Bradley, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of DCSportsFan, first employed Josh, he remembered, “We would talk every morning, but I would only tell him where we were going over the phone. Some days he would ask me five or six times that day’s schedule, but I would rarely get frustrated with him.
“I tried texting him the schedule, but that didn’t always work, so we set up an e-mail account for him that only deals with DCSportsFan. I make sure his new e-mail is always up to date and current. The next step is giving him access to his email on his phone, which will make things even better.”
Bradley has known Josh for nine years, talks to him several times a day and considers him “to be one of his best friends.” And Larry Johnson quite likely understands his son better than anyone in the world. “He’s the kindest person I’ve ever been around. I’ve never seen him do a mean or vicious thing to anyone,” Johnson said. But the people closest to Josh also understand his shortcomings. While he is quite open and talkative, he doesn’t always pick up on social cues quite the same way most people do. “He doesn’t realize if he’s talking out of line, interrupting,” said Larry Johnson.
Bradley said this sometimes makes people uneasy, at least until they spend some time around him. “If he’s uncomfortable in a certain situation, he tends to ask more questions of the people around him, which can bother some people, especially those who don’t know him.” It was even tough for Bradley when they first started working together. “It was very difficult. His learning disability makes it hard for him to remember recent conversations…so I found myself repeating myself over and over,” he recalled.
But all it takes with Josh is a little patience and willingness to understand that he’s just, well, he’s just different. “He absolutely poses no threat,” said Northwest Current sports photographer Matt Petros, who has encountered Josh at many sporting events over the years and befriended him over time. “He’s a pretty good guy once you get to know him.”
FINDING HIS WAY
In the summer of 1990, Josh went to Lindamood Bell Learning Center in San Luis Obispo, Calif., for six weeks to learn to verbalize and visualize words in order to increase memory. There he met John Corcoran, a former star basketball player at the University of Texas El-Paso (called Texas Western in his day).
Although his reading ability stalled at the second-grade level, Corcoran’s first job out of college was as a high school English teacher. He went on to teach for 17 years, often using tricks to avoid telling people he had trouble reading. “The students wrote their names on a seating chart and then pronounced them for me. To avoid reading the list, I asked them the next day to call out their names, claiming I wanted them to get to know one another,” he wrote on his website, johncorcoronfoundation.com, which promotes literacy for adults and children across America.
He was illiterate until the age of 48, when he decided to finally attempt to learn how to read, soon becoming able to do so at a 12th-grade level. He then authored two books – “The Teacher Who Couldn’t Read: One Man’s Triumph Over Illiteracy” and “The Bridge to Literacy: No Child – or Adult – Left Behind.”
Corcoran achieved a college degree and found success in the professional world. And Josh Johnson is pretty far along on a similar path – a college graduate who now has a career he enjoys. And he also uses tactics to fool people about his reading disability. He often asks people he’s comfortable with to write down DCSportsFan advertisements that he takes to the scorers’ table like he wrote them himself.
Josh has made quite a name in the local sports scene and achieved a greater level of success than anyone ever anticipated he would. But it wasn’t easy for his parents to show people that all he needed was a chance.
Josh was enrolled in a special education program at Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., but right from the start, the Johnsons weren’t pleased with its efforts. They felt it was serving more to separate kids with special needs from other children than to help them. “A lot of that program [in Montgomery County]… instead of recognizing that these kids can be taught, they just think they’re limited and look at what they can’t do,” said his father, who added the program “is [mostly] staffed by people with disabilities.”
High school wasn’t easy for Josh, either. At Walter Johnson in Bethesda, he was picked on for his disability. It didn’t help that he was serving as the football team manager at a rival school – Bethesda-Chevy Chase – where his live-in cousin Matt Smith was a star player. In addition, his parents weren’t fond of the special education program at Walter Johnson, so it was an easy choice for Josh to transfer to B-CC before his sophomore year.
No one bullied him there, Josh said, because if they did, all of his cousin’s football buddies had his back. “The name calling, the teasing and everything went out the door. It helped that no one would imagine [messing] with me because they knew if they did, they would have the whole football team coming down their throats.”
He passed his classes and was on a path to graduate but the doubters were still out. Many educators told the Johnsons their son wasn’t college material and that his future was bleak. Later, they insisted that sending Josh to trade school would be the best way maximize his potential. “He isn’t college material, he can’t go to college,” they said, according to Larry Johnson. “He faced an educational system that tried to define him by what he can’t do.”
Josh’s father compared it to the world of sports. “The worst coach in the world is the one who tells athletes what they can’t do. The excellent coaches are the ones who figure out how to take the kids as they are…and get them to maximize their abilities,” he said. “We kept insisting on raising the expectations.”
Try telling New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Larry Johnson said, that the best team is always the one with the most talent. The three-time Super Bowl champion has made a living getting the most out of players with less skill but more drive, and building teams that thrive off effort and inspiration.
Through hard work, Josh graduated from B-CC in the spring of 1999. Later that year, he enrolled at Graceland University, a small college in Lamoni, Iowa where his mother had attended school.
In 2005, Josh returned home from Graceland needing six credits to graduate. He earned three of them via a photography internship with what was then a new company called DCSportsFan, a website dedicated to high school sports coverage that was created by Todd Bradley and Chris Lehnert that year. Less than 12 months later, Josh graduated from Graceland with a degree in communications and a minor in political science. And he never left DCSportsFan.
Impressed with his work during the internship, Bradley and Lehnert made Josh the site’s staff photographer, and also made him responsible for updating parts of the website. In addition, he was entrusted to do work for Sports Extra, a privately owned sporting goods store in Bethesda that is partnered with DCSportsFan.
The hiring paid great dividends, Bradley said. “He has become my right-hand man with just about everything we do here …[and] proven to be the hardest-working employee we have.” In five years, no one has been able to match Josh’s consistency or dedication. “If there is one person willing to work every day – day-in and day-out – for the better cause of the site, its definitely Josh. He is 100 percent committed to this company’s long-term well-being,” Bradley said.
“BIG GAME” JOHNSON
The nickname “Big Game” was given to Josh by Georgetown Prep students in 2007 because he had a knack for showing up to their biggest contests. While Bradley and Lenhert run the company behind-the-scenes, Josh has become the face of the website. “If you were to put a picture of Todd Bradley, Chris Lehnert and me on the website and asked, ‘Which of these three people work for DCSportsFan?’ Everyone would say me,” Josh said.
Now, Bradley explained with a smile, Josh’s reputation often precedes him. “Over the past six years, I’ve seen the legend of ‘Big Game’ Johnson grow. When the Redskins hosted the Green Bay Packers this year, Josh and I were walking from the Copper Lot and I probably heard five different people yell out ‘Big Game!’ in the first few minutes of the walk. It’s one thing to hear it at a local high school event, but it was amazing to witness this at FedEx Field.
“As our walk continued, so did the chants. People from all directions were yelling at Josh, high-fiving him and telling him it was good to see him. We even passed a bunch of Georgetown Prep students, and one of the kids goes “Oh my God, its ‘Big Game’ Johnson!
“That day made me realize how popular Josh had become.”
JUST SO YOU KNOW
If you’re a player, coach, athletic director or just a fan of a metro area high school team, you probably see Josh a lot, and his personality is such that he often approaches you and initiates conversation. “If there is one gift Josh has been blessed with, it’s the gift of gab. He has no fear. He’ll talk to anyone about anything, even if it has nothing to do with DCSportsFan or the games we attend,” said Bradley.
He might not remember your name the first time he meets you – or the third – but it’s important to understand that it’s not for lack of effort or lack of respect because Josh Johnson tries to get along with everybody he meets. And as far as the name thing goes, don’t fret, if you prove your worth, Josh will remember you in time. “Once he gets” your name, “he doesn’t forget it,” his father promised. Petros, his friend and colleague, knows a simple way to lend a hand. “If he keeps asking you your name, just keep telling him,” he said.
Josh Johnson is playing this game with house money. Doctors said he wouldn’t live to see his first birthday. Years later, teachers said he wasn’t fit for college and his contribution to society would likely be minimal. But instead of listening to the naysayers, he kept on going. He overcame the illness. He fought – and continues to fight – the disability, valiantly. The company he works for has reached heights its co-owners never imagined it could – over 1.5 million page views per month, on average – and his boss says it wouldn’t be possible if he hadn’t broken onto the scene in 2005. “I’m confident saying that DCSportsFan would not be as successful as it is today without Josh Johnson,” said Bradley.
Josh probably wishes he could make a little more money so he could move out of his parents’ house in Bethesda, although it’s not so bad living there – the home is equipped with an indoor swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room and at least four flat-panel TVs. “I don’t know if we’ve made it too comfortable for him,” his father joked, adding, “When he’s ready to get out, he’ll get out.”
Josh Johnson is a huge sports fan and knows many stories of great athletes overcoming adversity to reach the pinnacle of success. Coming up on his 30th birthday, “Big Game” continues to prove he’s also a winner, and in the biggest contest of all – the game of life.
For now, Josh will continue doing what he loves – shooting photos, working on his karate – he’s a second-degree black belt – and rooting for Washington area teams, while hoping the ‘Skins bring back quarterback Jason Campbell, one of his favorite players.
And he isn’t about to start letting people tell him what he can’t do. Instead, he’ll keep on giving this game his best shot. “I’m just gonna take it a day at a time,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out where this world wants to put me.”
Regardless of where Josh ends up, the odds are now working in his favor. And whenever there is a big game in the D.C. area, you can bet Josh will be there.
January 5, 2021 at 1:05 pm
Big Game Johnson!