John ‘Johnno’ Johnson (1940-1983)
John ‘Johnno’ Johnson, legendary Australian Rugby League player and coach, was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 1 April 1940. His father Robert was Scottish, and had once played as a defender for Glasgow Rangers soccer club, earning himself the nickname of ‘Nutter’ for his skill at heading the ball, and the noses of opposition players. Johnson was a violent, racist drunk and womaniser who terrorised his wife and son. He often kept Johnno from school, making him stand between the homemade goalposts in their back garden while he hit soccer balls at him as hard as he could. By the time Johnno was 15 he was an exceptionally skilled goalkeeper, but he hated soccer, and took to playing rugby league in a nearby park with his friends. It was here, one Sunday in the summer of 1956, he was discovered by Alexander Wallace, the coach of Newcastle’s Rugby League club, the Larrikins.
Wallace immediately saw the boy’s potential and invited him, over Robert Johnson’s strenuous objections, to join the Larrikins’ under-16s team. When Johnno ran away from home after a particularly brutal beating, Wallace took the boy in, and Johnno stayed in his spare bedroom for the next three years. Johnno made his professional debut in March 1957, as fullback against the West Sydney Drongos. Wallace’s confidence in the young player was fully justified; Johnno scored two tries and contributed three try assists. The next morning, the sports pages of every newspaper praised his astonishing skill, grace and speed. Over the next dozen games, Johnno scored a record-breaking 48 tries, the most famous against the South Sydney Serpents, when he played the last 20 minutes with a broken left arm. Johnno’s injury kept him on the bench for the rest of the season, but by the next he returned as captain to lead the Larrikins to the first of five consecutive premiership titles.
In May 1963, while on a night out to celebrate the Larrikins’ 49–8 victory against the Cessnock Champions, Johnno was arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm. Percy Sanderson, a 64-year-old professor of Ancient History at the University of Newcastle, was walking his spaniel when he brushed against Johnno. It was alleged that Johnno then punched Sanderson in the back of the head, before kicking the elderly man as he lay unconscious. Nine of Johnno’s friends swore that Sanderson had been the aggressor, and that Johnno had acted in self-defence. In the days after the incident, the Newcastle Clarion, long a supporter of Johnson, published salacious articles about Sanderson’s ‘love of the Greeks’, implying he was a voracious homosexual. A large crowd cheered outside the Newcastle courthouse when all charges against Johnno were dismissed. Professor Sanderson never regained consciousness and died in hospital later that year.
Although Johnno emerged from this sordid episode more popular than ever, Wallace was furious with him, keeping him on the bench for a month, a decision that cost the Larrikins their sixth premiership. Still, the Larrikins won the last several games of the season, largely thanks to Johnno. In the final game against arch rivals the Wollongong Wombats, Johnno intercepted the ball and ran the length of the field to score the winning try. Wallace, cheering wildly from the dugout, suffered a massive heart attack. Johnno held him as he died, and later spoke movingly at his funeral about all he owed to Wallace and the Larrikins.
Johnno’s contract expired at the end of the season when, to the fury of the Larrikins, he was signed by the Wollongong Wombats. As fullback for the Wombats, Johnno remained the league’s top scorer, though some commentators observed he now seemed more concerned with endorsing various brands of beer and making highly paid personal appearances than with rugby league. Without Wallace to discipline him, Johnno was free to indulge himself, rapidly earning a reputation as a practical joker. Rarely a week went by without a newspaper detailing a prank he had played on his teammates, from egging a car to filling boots with shaving foam. These larrikin exploits, as much as Johnno’s unsurpassed talent on the pitch, forever endeared him to the sporting public. Johnno’s habit of defecating in the lockers of his Indigenous teammates was, for some reason, never reported.
In May 1964 Johnno married model and former Miss Gundagai, Elsie Partridge. After honeymooning in Hawaii, the couple returned to Elsie’s home town to spend a week with her family. At first all went well; a parade was held in Johnno’s honour, and the mayor presented him with the key to the town. The Johnsons’ trip was later cut short when a local newspaper photographer took a picture of a drunken Johnno simulating oral sex with the town’s famous statue of the dog on the tuckerbox. Fortunately for Johnno, Elsie’s father was the newspaper’s major advertiser, and was able to hush the matter up.
Shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday, in April 1965, with the Wombats trailing fourth in the premiership, Johnno was widely criticised for missing a week of training to record a pop song. ‘She Loves It’ along with its B-Side, ‘You Say No, But I Hear Yes’, spent four months at number one in the Australian music charts, keeping the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ from the top spot. The record’s cover, which showed Johnno standing on a beach wearing a tuxedo, and inexplicably made up in blackface, was later released as a poster and sold in the tens of thousands.
Although he spent much of his time drinking and gambling, Johnno’s form did not suffer. He led the Wombats to the premiership in 1966, 1968 and 1970, and that December he was named Player of the Year for the tenth time. Amid the celebrations little notice was taken of his divorce from Elsie, nor her claims that Johnno had been unfaithful to her with every one of his teammates’ wives and girlfriends. Elsie’s accusations of Johnno’s violence against her were ridiculed by the Newcastle Clarion with the headline ‘Slapper Slapped’.
Johnno was never to win another trophy; in May 1970, while playing against the Canberra Champions he was tackled simultaneously by four players, and the resultant injuries to his back, neck, shoulders, knees and elbows ended his playing career. Coincidentally, all of the players involved in the tackle had been a teammate of Johnno’s at one time or another, whether in the Larrikins or the Wombats.
After a year’s rehabilitation Johnno was appointed coach of his old club, to the delight of Larrikins fans. Great things were expected, but Johnno’s celebrated return did not immediately translate into victories, especially as his transfer policy appeared to be dictated by skin colour rather than talent; he swiftly transferred or sold every Indigenous player. The Larrikins ended the 1972 season narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon. Johnno vowed to win the premiership the next year, but his coaching career ran aground in June, when Katie Summers, Channel 19’s first female sports correspondent, asked to interview him. Johnno insisted the interview take place in the team locker room, and it was there that Summers claimed Johnno masturbated in front of her, as she was asking him about the Larrikins’ chances in the next game. Johnno denied the charge at first, insisting he had merely been drying himself after a shower, but video footage of the incident showed Johnno had been perfectly dry, and indeed fully clothed. Johnno then blamed Summers for his actions, on the basis that such an episode would never have occurred if the network had sent a real, male reporter. Despite a groundswell of support from Larrikins fans, the loss of sponsorships forced the club’s hand, and Johnno resigned in late July.
Throughout the rest of the decade Johnno became a familiar figure at casinos in Sydney and the Gold Coast, always accompanied by a model. His prodigious alcohol intake and love of rich food took their toll, and he quickly grew fat. In 1975, to recoup some of his gambling losses, Johnno released his autobiography. The ghost-written Obviously, at the End of the Day was a huge success, even accounting for the payout awarded to Katie Summers after she successfully sued Johnno for libel. A year later Johnno was hired by the Sydney Messenger to write a weekly column. ‘Nine Inches of Johnson’ regularly mocked women’s sports and decried the influence of ‘braburners’ and ‘shirtlifters’ on the game; the Messenger’s circulation increased by 15,000.
Johnno’s newspaper work resulted in his becoming a sports commentator for Channel 13, where after three years he was awarded his own late-night sports chat show, the title of which, Larrikin with a Double Chin, alluded to his significant weight gain. Over the next four years Johnno interviewed hundreds of players and coaches, though he often found himself mired in controversy for using offensive language, which he insisted had been ‘deliberately misinterpreted’ or was merely ‘a slip of the tongue’. In September 1982 alone, these slips of the tongue included ‘Coon’, ‘Chinky’, ‘Dirty cheating Wog’ and ‘Lowlife Abo scum’ among six other instances. Despite hundreds of complaints, research commissioned by Channel 13 found that most viewers admired Johnno’s ‘plain speaking’, as demonstrated by the enormous, and growing, audiences his show attracted.
August 1983 marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of Johnno’s old coach and mentor, Alexander Wallace, and Johnno was invited to unveil a statue of Wallace in front of the Larrikins’ Newcastle stadium. After the ceremony an emotional Johnno went out for drinks with the Larrikins team. He was last seen alive vomiting on a woman outside a pub in the city centre. Johnno’s body was discovered early in the morning of 20 August, on a railway bridge in the east of the city. Sometime during the night he had urinated onto a live rail, killing himself instantly. On the following Saturday, players were asked to wear black armbands at games, in Johnno’s honour. The few who refused, most of them Indigenous, were pilloried in the newspapers.
In 1999, to mark the millennium, the ABC commissioned a national poll to find ‘Australia’s Greatest Hero’. The results were announced on New Year’s Eve. In third place was Fred Hollows, in second place was Phar Lap and in first place, with more than 56 per cent of the vote, was John ‘Johnno’ Johnson.