By Paul Lane
NORTH TONAWANDA —
Sure, Jimmy Johnson has won football championships at both the collegiate and professional levels.
But how could a Super Bowl trophy compare to the title of “Survivor” champion?
On his third attempt to compete on the reality TV show, Johnson made it onto the cast for the latest version of the CBS show, which takes place this time around in Nicaragua. The season kicked off this past week and will air at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through the fall, with the tribes split up this time around by age (those contestants ages 40 and older versus their younger counterparts).
At age 67, Johnson was the oldest participant on the show. But the former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach said in a recent conference call that competing on “Survivor: Nicaragua” was the fulfillment of one of the few dreams he’d had yet to realize.
“When I was a kid growing up, I had these aspirations of going to the Amazon,” he said. “I never miss a second of (the show). Sitting on your couch watching it with all of the beautiful shots, it sure is cool-looking.”
That’s part of what made Johnson apply to be on the show six years ago. He failed to get through the preliminary steps of the process then, but his second attempt three years ago was approved until a network physician denied his appearance. The doctor found that two of Johnson’s arteries were clogged and immediately started treatment to recuperate the former coach.
“ ‘Survivor’ ended up saving my life,” he said.
So, too, did it enrich his life. Johnson couldn’t reveal how long he lasted (filming wrapped last month), but he said the time he spent on the island was among the most difficult challenges he’s ever faced.
“I knew it was going to be difficult, but because of the length of the show, you really can’t see every single minute,” he said. “You can’t see the five hours of pouring rain in the middle of the night. And you don’t have a watch, so you don’t know what time it is.”
While citing the lack of sleep as the most difficult part of the show, Johnson said his time in the Central American nation helped him appreciate what he had back at home.
“We were sleeping on bamboo, boiling our water (for safety), we had no food,” he said.
In terms of strategy, Johnson said that his competitive nature was impossible to disable, but that he wasn’t there primarily to take home the top prize.
“No jury is going to award me a million bucks,” he said of the show’s finale, in which the eliminated contestants choose a winner. “I told my teammates that my goal was to get the jury to award one of them a million bucks. The adventure was the top priority.
But that doesn’t mean that he made the trip solely for the scenery.
“They wanted me to be the leader, and I told them right up front that I don’t want to be the leader. I’ve watched ‘Survivor’ enough to know that the guy up front is the guy who gets voted off first,” said Johnson, who happily shared his football war stories to pass the time at night on the island. “My past success probably helped me in the game. It probably bonded me a bit more to some of the individuals. I’m the least threat of everybody. I knew going in that I would be the target since I’m the celebrity. In fact, I would be the one person you want to take to the final three because nobody’s going to pick me to win.”
As he prepares to return to his seat on Fox’s NFL pregame show, Johnson said that he’s regained about half of the weight he lost in Nicaragua. He’s not sure what people think of him — at least, people who aren’t fans of the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles and other teams he tormented in his coaching days — but he’s happy to have taken part in the show, regardless of how the final product looks on CBS.
“I’ve been through the gamut. I think my image is out there, whatever it is,” he said. “In past ‘Survivors,’ I didn’t see a whole lot of people laughing. Now I understand why.”