At her home in Gresham, Ore., DB Johnson reaches into her son Bill's small duffel and pulls out a black pouch. It's a cheap cloth case for ski goggles, not a personal treasure. "I don't like to go through his stuff," she says, carefully loosening the drawstring, "but someone has to look after his affairs now. This is one of the things I found."
She hands over the gold medal Bill won in the 1984 Winter Olympics downhill. He was a brash, recalcitrant 23-year-old when he shocked the world in Sarajevo by becoming the first American to win skiing's most coveted medal. "He left it in his truck, unlocked, in that bag," his mother says. "He likes it for show, but somehow or other he doesn't cherish it. He's careless with it."
Family and friends know the 41-year-old Johnson has been careless with many things since that Olympic victory. His marriage. His money. His reputation. His prospects. Recently divorced, broke and behind in his child-support payments, living out of an RV, Johnson was at rock bottom last summer when he decided to return to serious ski racing in hopes of making the U.S. team for the 2002 Games. To some observers it seemed a quixotic attempt to recapture lost glory, but to his many supporters it was an honest return to his roots. "He was starting over with what he knew best," says his ex-wife, Gina Johnson, 36, "and he was in the best shape I'd seen him in years, maybe ever."
"When I heard he wanted to make a comeback, my reaction was, he's got the talent—anything's possible if he gets into bombproof shape," says his former coach, Erik Steinberg. "But I told him there's a reason people don't come back to downhill racing at 40. Mark Spitz tries a comeback, and what's the worst that can happen to him? In our sport people can kill themselves."
Johnson has never been good at listening to viewpoints that differ from his own. On March 22 he nearly did kill himself, suffering a horrific fall in a practice run at the U.S. Alpine Championships at Montana's Big Mountain resort. As of Monday he was still in a coma at nearby Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Johnson crashed when he caught an edge at more than 50 mph and hurtled facefirst into the icy slope. He nearly bit through his tongue while tumbling through two safety nets. Medics at the scene kept him from suffocating in his own blood by forcing a tracheal tube down his throat, and he later underwent four hours of surgery to alleviate the pressure on his brain caused by internal hemorrhaging. "We were told he had a 25 percent chance of living when they first brought him in," says Gina, who was at her house in Sonoma, Calif., waiting for her and Bill's two boys, Nicholas, 8, and Tyler, 7, to get home from baseball practice when she called the hospital for information on her ex-husband's condition. "I asked when I should bring the boys to see Bill, and they said, 'Don't wait. Come now.' "
While doctors are hopeful Johnson will make what they call a "meaningful recovery," they acknowledge it's difficult to predict what that will be. Friends and relatives are convinced that Johnson, who can open his eyes but does not respond to direction, is aware of their presence at some level when they visit him. "He's like a newborn baby lying on his back, moving his arms and legs around and not knowing why," says DB, to whom Bill hadn't spoken for more than a year before his crash in a dispute over money he felt she owed him. "He doesn't have a pot to pee in," she says sadly. "The last time we spoke, he told me I was responsible for all the bad things that had happened in his life: the death of his first son, his divorce, his being broke. I guess he needs a scapegoat. He's not man enough to take responsibility for his misdeeds."
Johnson's past includes more than a few misdeeds, among them his arrest at 17 for stealing a car. Sharp-tongued and carrying a world-class chip on his shoulder, Johnson was a loner who would fight at the drop of a hat. Twice he was removed from his youth ski team in Oregon for fighting, and a few months before the '84 Olympics he punched Andy Chambers, a teammate on the U.S. Ski Team, in the jaw. "He'd pick fights all the time during dry-land training when we were playing basketball or touch football," recalls Steinberg, who also came to blows with Johnson a couple of times. "It was his personality. He was always testing us, putting us in situations in which we had to come down on him like a ton of bricks."
As recently as March 2000, Johnson got into a barroom skirmish in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in which he allegedly punched a woman and bit a man on the arm at the Mangy Moose saloon. After leaving the bar, according to the police report, Johnson was found walking along a highway and was arrested for public intoxication and interfering with an officer. He spent the night in jail. When he failed to appear for his hearing last April, a warrant was issued for his arrest. The warrant is still outstanding.
"Bill's always been a fighter," DB says. "When he was eight, he was expelled from his school in Boise for kicking the principal. He got straight A's in class and straight F's on the playground. I used to tell him he needed to take a Dale Carnegie class, but he didn't want to hear about it."