Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson and George Contreras
New Orleans, Louisiana
2004 Sugar Bowl
BCS National Championship Game
LSU 21 - Oklahoma 14

Mark Johnson and George Contreras
Shishoe Bay, Seattle, Washington
Ray's Boathouse Restaurant
Johnson/Contreras 1 - Halibut 0

Although I knew of Mark "Mad Dog" Johnson since his freshman year at the University of Washington in the Fall of 1966, I didn't become one of his friends until we had a chance meeting in 1968 when we both answered an ad in the UW's Daily newspaper about the Intramural Department needing officials to work Intramural Football Games. They paid $5 per game which was a LOT of money for a college kid back then, so I went to a training meeting and saw Mark sitting near the front. His moniker of "Mad Dog" had been richly deserved and I frankly was hoping to sneak out quickly from the back of the room when the meeting was over and pray that the other 25 applicants in attendance would shield me from Mark's view.

Suddenly I heard a yell "George" and knew that I had been found out. I courteously turned and said hello. We chatted for a few minutes and he asked me to go with him to get something to eat. He would not take "No" for an answer so I reluctantly made what turned into one of the best decisions of my life and went with him.

We would become the two top rated officials in the system and worked the games with the rowdiest dorm and/or frat teams involved. Eventually we were picked to be the refs for the Intramural Championship game, a BIG honor at the time. Mark would go on to continue his refereeing career after graduation but in wrestling not football. Eventually he became world class official and was picked by the U.S. Wrestling Federation to work tournaments in every corner of the wrestling globe.

Now 40 years later he is still one of my dearest friends in the world and a man my entire family can count on in any difficult situation. We have been together for all the UW Rose Bowls since 1978, three BCS Championship Games and even Super Bowl XL in Detroit when Pittsburgh beat Seattle's Seahawks. 

Mark is just now finishing a 3 month battle with tongue cancer that has seen him fight through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. He has lost his sense of taste, gets his nutrients through a feeding tube and has lost 30 pounds.

I asked him what would be the first solid food he would eat again once his taste buds reactivated and he could keep food down. His answer? Be in Aci Castello, Sicily for pizza on the outdoor piazza served by Jonica's Pizzeria. I'm glad he enjoyed the food in Sicily when he and Susie visited me last summer. 

Still, he is so very strong of spirit and thank God appears to be winning his battle. In typical Mark fashion, he knew that our friends Debi and Tim Murphy, who had come to Seattle with us and were tailgating in his home, had lost their husband/father Dan to cancer a little over two years ago. In the middle of all his own struggle, he pulled me aside to make sure that Debi and Tim were O.K. with him and that he was not upsetting them in any way by dredging up old, unpleasant memories.

Mark long ago lost any claim to the nickname "Mad Dog" as he matured and mellowed. I'm sure that his wife, Susie, and their two kids, Sophie and Mallory, played key parts in this transformation into a model parent.

In life, one makes many acquaintances but really very few friends. I am so fortunate to that I have been able to count Mark as a true friend all these years.

Anyone care for
"One Cruel Prawn"?

"City, State or Federal?"


Terry said...

Hey George - My family and I met Mark and Susie when we were in Sicily. A very nice couple and I am glad his battle with that dreaded "C" is going well. When next you see or talk to them please tell him my thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with him and his family.
Ciao - Terry

George said...

Will do!

Davide "Il Capo" said...


If it will happen to have Mark here in sicily I would be very happy to have him as my host at the "bettola dei marinai" the seafood place I took you when you first arrived here, then if needed we'll go for a pizza at the Jonica, AKA "cessi", too.

Big Hug!

George said...

I'll tell Mark, he'll love it!

DPLassen said...

Nice to see you hauled your standard coaching outfit all the way to New Orleans for that first photo.

George said...

One must blend in with the local fashions of the day when one is traveling.