Oprah taps ex-Bronco Vance Johnson for an encore
PARACHUTE — Vance Johnson, a voluble wide receiver for the Denver Broncos known for speed on the field and later for baring himself as a spousal abuser to Oprah Winfrey, was unsure he was ready to do it all again.
The Oprah thing, that is.
Johnson prayed, in fact, on Wednesday morning, asking that if the Lord didn’t want him to go on Oprah’s show again, well, now would be a good time to let him know.
Because Oprah did want him back.
Back in 1996, Johnson had completed an 11-year career with Denver, played in three Super Bowls, gained fame as one of the “Three Amigos” — the triple-threat combination of Johnson, Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel — and had written a book, “The Vance: Beginning and The End.”
When he went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” 15 years ago, he was retired from the Broncos but remained a well-known Colorado sports figure.
In a tearful episode, Johnson confessed his spousal abuse to Winfrey and pleaded for an end to domestic violence. For Winfrey, the moment lingered over the years, and having retired her daily talk show to start her own Oprah Winfrey Network, she remembered Johnson as one of her most memorable guests and sought to put him back on the air.
Winfrey set loose her staff to find him, a task that Johnson said, smiling, took some doing.
Eventually, though, Oprah found Johnson here, where the main route to the gas fields of the Piceance Basin takes off from Interstate 70 and the Colorado River meanders down the sagebrush-studded valley. It was here that dreams of oil shale riches once took form, only to be whisked back into the western Colorado adobe dust.
Having found him, returning Johnson to television was a work of relative ease. The Winfrey people shipped him a laptop, broadcast-quality Web camera and a boom mike and let Skype do the rest.
Johnson assembled the pieces in the back room of his restaurant, VJ’s Outlaw Ribs, visible from the interstate, as well as the road up Parachute Creek, and waited for his turn on Winfrey’s new show on her new network. His segment, which features Winfrey confronting the issues of ego and what happens when people lose control of it, is expected to air in October.
“All of a sudden I’m nervous,” Johnson said to a Parachute friend, Jody Swallow, as he prepared for the interview. “But it’s game-day nervous.”
As he readied for the show, he murmured, “I’m not going to cry. She makes everybody cry, but I ain’t crying.”
Johnson gained no storybook ending of redemption after his first Oprah appearance. If anything, his life spiraled down even more, despite his taking — and keeping — a vow to no longer abuse women.
He moved to Colorado’s Western Slope, opened a mortgage business in Grand Junction, got into real estate and bought the restaurant in Parachute, where he now resides.
In 2007, though, his 19-year-old son, Vaughn, died in a Denver accident. Vaughn was riding his motorcycle instead of his damaged car, which Johnson insisted he pay for himself. Had his son been driving the car instead, Johnson said, the collision with an SUV might have turned out differently.
“I blamed myself for not getting the car fixed,” Johnson said.
Soon after came 2008, when the real estate market collapsed, taking with it his investments. Like many, he lost a house to foreclosure.
About all he had left was his younger son, Scott, and his restaurant, but everything else was about to leave as well, including his health.
He collapsed as a result of grief for his son Vaughn, financial fears and the long-lasting effects of 11 years of NFL hits on a 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound body that now is 47 years old, Johnson said.
Johnson spent a month in a hospital, much of it comatose, he said.
His recovery began “when I woke up one day in the hospital and realized I didn’t want to die,” he said.
It was in a conversation with his father that Johnson realized he wanted to live.
“My dad said, ‘You’re not the Vance Johnson that I raised,’” Johnson said. “He’s the one I listened to. He’s the one who brought me back.”
Johnson’s parents, Geno and Jean, are working at the restaurant, and Johnson said he’s still learning from them.
Nothing that is served at the restaurant is actually cooked behind the counter. Jean supervises all the hard work behind the scenes, smoking the meat, making the barbecue sauce and preparing the ribs by recipes she has stored neatly in her memory, Johnson said.
Johnson is learning the restaurant business anew at his parents’ feet and now is in negotiations to open a second restaurant, this one in Grand Junction.
Johnson, though, has no money to burn. The restaurant provides a living, and things really hop on the weekends, especially during football season, he said.
Johnson said he hopes to learn more about the just-concluded negotiations between the NFL and its players to see if the deal includes better insurance coverage for retired players.
As it is, he has physicians’ bills of more than $100,000 that he’s unable to pay. He was fortunate in enlisting the aid of a Grand Junction physician who is providing him treatment for free, he said.
As he’s worked his way back to a normal, if modest, life, Johnson has also has revived The Vance, this time as an entrepreneurial pitchman.
“I would love to do a cooking show” on the Oprah Winfrey Network, he effused to the owner of the network during the taping Wednesday.
“Give me some love, Oprah,” he pleaded to the camera, asking her to drop by his place in Parachute for a meal. He got a grin and quick response.
“Is that your ego selling me now?” she responded.
As Winfrey completed a soliloquy on human ego and needs, Johnson filled in a hesitancy with a quiet comment to himself.
“What you need,” he quipped, “is ribs.”