It's fair to say that Vernon Eloysius Johnson would not be Orlando Weekly's Man of 1999 if the Boola Bowl didn't exist. But it is equally true that, without him, the post-Citrus Bowl celebration on Church Street itself would be unlikely. And thus it is ultimately true, by the transitive property, that without our Man of the Year award, Johnson himself would not exist.
Beginning in 1947, after the Catawba Sentinels pummeled the Maryville Marauders, 31-6, in what was then the Tangerine Bowl, the losing team's band and cheerleading squad challenged the winners to an apres-game scrum on Church Street. The resulting riot (some insist "massacre") left hundreds gravely injured, while compiling property damage one contemporary observer likened to that of the Dresden bombings. Mr. Johnson, then just 11 years old, singlehandedly accomplished the emergency cleanup, in mere hours restoring the street to its glory as an amusement arcade-cum-employment agency.
Alas, in 1947 George Catlett Marshall was our Man of the Year (his efforts at rebuilding Europe narrowly besting those of our local boy). But as Marshall (and Europe!) faded into irrelevance while the tradition of violence, excess and restoration inaugurated by Johnson grew, it was clear that Johnson's day -- that his year -- would come.
Vernon Johnson is Orlando's cleanup man. He is a simple man, one of the sort who has greatness thrust upon them, rather than cultivating it carefully with public relations and bombast. A quiet man (his larynx removed in 1989, at the age of 53, due to cancer), he lives by three maxims:.
1. Get there before that stuff dries.
2. Fire hose unclogs toilet.
3. What's the big deal? It's just a head.
The final one arose after 1984's FSU vs. Georgia game, which tied at 17. The 14 beheadings that consecrated the Boola Bowl rematch that year (again tied, 7-7) offered unprecedented challenge to Johnson's push broom.
"The handle almost broke," he says in his creepy, robotic voice. "You get three or four heads ... together and ... it's like herding ... weasels."
Vernon Johnson was not high-born, the 13th son of a building maintenance man and a dry-cleaning worker. Nor is he highly educated, having attended UCF. Friends -- and he has many -- attribute his can-do attitude and superhuman stamina to, in the words of former Mayor Bill Frederick, "faith, family and fastidiousness." Johnson himself says it's the uppers.
"I'm hooked," he says. "Diet pills ... make me clean. Wish ... I could sleep."
After Friday's debacle of mayhem between fans of the Michigan Wolver-ines and the Arkansas Razorbacks, Johnson's now-routine heroism rose to new heights. In the face of beer-besotted "environmentalists" who pledged to save what they regard as a unique and fragile "river of puke," Johnson stood lonely sentry. Using a combination of novel legal theory and blazing kung fu, he vanquished more than 4,000 weekend warriors, then swept back the mighty river with his broom.
"They pay me ... good money," he said afterward, smoking a trademark Chesterfield through his throat hole. "Six-fifteen an hour ... but I have to buy ... my own pants."