WITHLACOOCHEE, Florida. It was a feel-good story so uplifting it quickly went viral: DeMichael Johnson, Jr., a top-ranked high school running back, is recruited to play football for the Central Coastal Florida State College Fighting Micrathena Spiders, but unlike so many young men who squander an athletic scholarship on four years of willing coeds and under-the-table payments from alumni, he actually applies himself to his studies and becomes something of a bookworm.
“I encouraged DeMichael to go to Florida A&M because the name was shorter and his reading skills were below grade-level when he graduated,” says his high school coach Beauford Wilcox. “Damned if he didn’t buckle down and learn something in the half hour of spare time he had every day between football practice, team meetings, weight training and steroid injections.”
Johnson’s love of literature was so strong by the time he was drafted by the Browns that when a woman recommended a paperback to him in the Cleveland airport as he prepared to board his flight home, he asked if she knew of any book groups looking for members. “We had an opening just then as Mary Beth Schultz and her husband Ed had just retired to Arizona because of their allergies,” says Cyndi Kramer, a matronly woman with a team logo “scrunchy” around her pony tail. “I made him an offer right then and there, provided he’d bring something sweet–besides himself–to our next session.”
Johnson agreed and soon found himself at the center of a warm circle of friends who helped him adjust to life in the Midwest, but he “never forgot where he came from,” as he puts it; the mean streets of this poverty-stricken town, whose only claim to fame are the double double letters in its name. “We’re kind of like the ‘bookkeeping’ of America,” says City Manager Lloyd Pfeiffer. “Double letters are just about the only thing we have to be proud of.”
With teen unemployment rampant, the despair of young people is often expressed by body-covering tattoos, an attempt comparable to graffiti to “tell your story” to an indifferent world, says youth counselor Ed McReady. “If you have so much as a square inch of epidermis that isn’t covered by ink, you’re a nobody here,” he says. “It’s not enough that you come back with a fancy car and diamond earrings.”
So Johnson took a middle path between his old life and his new and decided to have all twelve-volumes of “A Dance to the Music of Time,” the magnum opus of British novelist Anthony Powell, tattooed to his body, beginning with “A Question of Upbringing” on his left upper torso, and concluding with the final book in the series, “Hearing Secret Harmonies,” written on his lower left leg and foot.
“A lot of guys, they get some tacky tat they regret pretty soon,” Johnson says as he admires volume five, “Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant” on his abdominal muscles. “Powell’s work is a timeless study of society and politics in mid-20th century England. That sucker’s gonna last.”
The attraction of the voluminous work for Johnson is counter-intuitive, since the plodding British novel of manners has historically been anathema to the “gangsta” crowd that the rookie used to run with. “I ain’t gettin’ me no Powell tattoo,” says his former high school teammate Tyrone Newbill. “I barely got any space left since I added Trollope’s ‘The Way We Live Now’ to my back.”