Ernie Johnson Jr. spoke in honor of his father, legendary Braves broadcaster Ernie Johnson Sr., at his funeral service Tuesday morning at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs, drawing both laughter and tears. He began by citing Bible verses from Galatians and 2 Timothy and said ”I have no doubts where the right-hander is today…And I’m sure he’s heard the words ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’” Here are excerpts from his touching eulogy.
“When we moved here in 1965, I’d never played Little League baseball. I played baseball out in the front yard, but my dad somehow – after sign-ups had all been filled out everywhere – got me into Murphey-Candler Little League program. I was 8 years old, going on 9, and they assigned me to a team, called the Vees. V-E-E-S. I have no idea why. We had some titanic struggles against the H’s and the L’s that year.
“But in one particular game I was playing shortstop for the Vees and a guy hit a screaming liner, or as screaming as a liner can be from an 8-year-old bat. It took one hop over the fence. Ground rule double. A couple of runs scored. Game was tied. Our coach called all of us infielders to the mound and we talked about what was going to happen if the ball was hit to us. And as much as we as 8-year-old comprehended, we nodded and retreated to our positions.
“And as I ran back to short I noticed that we did not have a left fielder or a center fielder. So we trotted out to the fence. I looked over and there about 5 or 10 yards was the baseball. About 15 yards down to the right were the left fielder and the center fielder, eating blackberries. God’s honest truth.
“And I know as I grew up, why that happened to me as an 8-year-old. It’s because as I grew older and had more of an appreciation for life and what you put into it, and what you get out of it, that there was a lesson to be learned there. That a lot of times we get so caught up in the game, that we miss the blackberries.
“God has put so many moments that blessed us. I call those blackberries. And those blackberry moments, if we get too tied up in what we’re doing in our jobs, in the game, in whatever it is, we’re missing out on so much.
“My life has been filled with them. Our family’s been filled with them. There are some blackberries for (my sister) Chris. She said, ‘My dad was the perfect dad for a tomboy. He realized a fishing pole was just as good a fit as a Barbie doll for girls like me and taught me to fish when I was 5 years old. It was a hobby that we shared for over 50 years. He let me take horseback riding lessons when I was 12, we used to go riding in the fall when baseball season was over.’ That was spreading blackberries with a fishing pole and horseback riding.
“And my sister Dawn, who was all about the winter time. My dad growing up in Vermont knew every trick that came with the two feet of snow we’d get in Milwaukee. Building these ridiculous snow caves, making snow angels, teaching us to ice skate, putting these ridiculous-looking skis on the girls and letting them jump over the ridiculous little hump that he built back there. That was a blackberry.
“I have remembered for the last few days, over my entire life, so many great moments but one in particular was when we were on vacation up in Vermont where Dad was from. We were at a farm up there. And there were a bunch of cousins and friends, maybe six or seven of us. And dad would just throw us pop-ups out in this open field next to this barn, near the house. You could just do that forever.
“But the other kids would start to lose interest, so six dwindled down to five, four, three and then it was just me and one other guy. We said ‘Dad maybe about 10 steps this time, throw one that I can dive for.’ Then it was just me and him.
“I said, ‘Just one more.’ He knew it wasn’t just the last one. ‘Hey just one more, Dad.’ Asking for just one more throw was just what I’ve been feeling for the past few days. Just one more day. One more hour. One more minute.”
“He had these habits around the house that became blackberries for us, things we’ve laughed about through the years. Any time you were at dinner, it was ‘Chew it up small.’ ‘Dad we’re having soup, c’mon.’ ‘No horseplay.’ ‘No horseplay at the table,’ ‘no horseplay in the car,’ no horseplay that’s any fun.
“’Drive slow.’ That was a big one, especially when we all became drivers. ‘Drive slow.’ He got on my mom once back when the speed limit was 55 because she was going 56. ‘You lead foot.’
“He passed on his rare abilities in household repair to all of us. Mom likes to say he’s the only man in America who’s never been in a Home Depot. My dad’s answer to everything when it came to household repair was a can of 3-in-One oil. And it didn’t matter what the problem was: 3-in-One Oil did the trick. Squeaky hinges? 3-in-oil. Storm damage? 3-in-One oil. He used it on my baseball glove. It was, ‘Here 3-in-One, throw it in there.’ Out of salad dressing? 3-in-One oil.
“I like to call him a sportscaster with a speech impediment. He couldn’t say no. Charity golf tournaments, speaking engagements, you name it, he was there. Mom lost track of all the nights that he was away from the house, away from the kids, speaking. ‘Dad wasn’t here tonight, he was out speaking to a group of dads about spending time with their kids.’
“It didn’t just extend through our family. Dad read about a kid named Ricky Haygood, a long time ago, he was paralyzed with a football injury, and they became lifelong friends. He lived in South Georgia. Nobody brought his attention to it. He read it and fell for it. He had such a heart. And it didn’t matter – we would be on vacation – or he’d be speaking in South Georgia and it was always, ‘Hey, hold on, we’re going to stop by and see Ricky.’ We’d be on our way back from Florida and we’d stop by to see Ricky. The Haygoods made Dad an honorary member of their family. It was that way with Kelly Hayes too in her wheelchair. I remember something dad used to say on the radio, ‘I’m going to say hello to all the shut-ins. I know you can’t get to the ballpark, but we’re thinking about you.’
“He was a constant source of encouragement, so proud of Chris and Dawn as they pursued the teaching profession. I went the less cerebral route, into television. But you know, when he and my mom were coming back from Florida once and I had just started my career in Macon, anchoring the news. They looked at their watches as they were driving up 75, and said ‘Hey, you know what? It’s almost 6 o’clock. If we stop around here somewhere we can watch the 6 o’clock news on Channel 13 in Macon.’
“This is a true story. They pulled in to a hotel down there around Warner Robins or Unadilla or somewhere that got WMAZ. It’s two minutes to 6. They get out of their car, go inside and tell the guy behind the desk ‘We need a room for a half hour.’ I can just picture that clerk saying ‘All right, Ernie!’ He said ‘No, I want to watch the news, really.’
“The greatest thing I’ve ever done or will ever do in my career is working with my dad on SportSouth in the mid 90s. To sit in that booth with a man who is respected by so many, loved by so many fans, it was the greatest thing anybody has ever done for my career. It was a chance to sit shoulder to shoulder with that legend and try not to embarrass him.
“There are so many folks who don’t have that relationship with their dad and I feel for you. I talk to guys who say, ‘I haven’t talked to my dad in years. He and I just don’t see eye-to-eye.’ I never took for granted the blessing it was to have that kind of relationship with my dad. He was the best man in my wedding, my best friend. He simply taught me everything I needed to know about how to work, how to be a dad, how to be a husband. If you gave me 87 years and 63 years married to the same woman, I’d take it.
“There are certain blackberries in my dad’s life – those Marine Corps reunions. He was so proud. And he told us all as kids growing up, ‘I won the war. We were losing when I went in. And when I came out, we had won.’ High school reunions he and mom would go to in Brattleboro. They’d have these parades, and Mom and Dad would be the grand marshal. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it; it was on cable. Those were huge blackberry moments.
“Those vacations in Anna Maria Island, which we took as kids and mom and dad continued to. I’d see them out there in their beach chairs watching the sunset, Dad’s got one hand on a gin and tonic and the other one in my mom’s hand.
“The Wednesday night dinner club; I must have met 500 people yesterday who were in that Wednesday night dinner club. That was a blackberry. The workouts at the rehab center. I tried to hammer home to Dad, ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to rehab. It sounds very old. Tell me you’re going to go work out.’ So he’d say ‘Mom and I are going to go work out.’ One of his buddies actually said yesterday ‘Your dad and I used to pump iron.’
“The chance that he had to work at Enable of Georgia, helping special needs adults lead productive was huge for my dad, huge blackberry for him. For all of us the last few days, there was no greater blackberry than Embracing Hospice. The facility where he spent his last five days, a place that is absolutely staffed 24-7 by angels who know exactly what to say and when to say it. Their care and concern just floors you.
“On behalf of our family, mom Lois, Dawn, Chris, Rebecca, and Eric, Maggie, Michael and Ashley and Carmen and Allison, thank you for being here.
“I don’t know when we’ll see him again, but I know we will. While I don’t know exactly what heaven is going to be like. I hope there’s baseball. And I hope there are blackberries.”