Brian Griffin is a poet, not a jock. But he’s a native Tennessean, so of course he knew who Johnny Majors was before he happened to bump into him in a campus coffee shop. Much like Andy Holt, another Tennessee legend, Majors loved to spend time at the university that had long been at the center of his life, meeting up with old friends and making new ones. He did it effortlessly.
“When I taught at the university, I ran into him in the student center one day. We were both getting coffee. He looked me in the eye and held out his hand. “I’m John Majors.” I said, “I’m Brian Griffin.” He asked me what I do, and I told him I teach English. I found myself walking across campus with him, sipping coffee and talking. Turns out he loved Emily Dickinson. He actually had memorized some of her poems. He was a genuinely nice guy. Reminded me a lot of my Dad, except for the part about Emily Dickinson.”
Like Griffin, I grew up knowing Johnny Majors, and ran into him a time or two in Knoxville and again in Nashville when I covered state government for the late, lamented (at least by me) Knoxville Journal. But unlike my KnoxTnToday colleague Marvin West, I didn’t know him personally, and didn’t even get a chance to interview him – Nashville bigwigs monopolized his time. But I did get to know his younger brother Joe, one of the most influential lobbyists in the capitol during those years. He was a smart, funny, fast-talking guy and reminded me of the guy I’d seen on the Johnny Majors Show on fall Sunday mornings. That was must-see TV in any household I ever inhabited, and I watched religiously.
Joe and John were best friends as well as brothers, and I was sad for the family when cancer took Joe’s life in 2007. Joe’s son, Inman, has become a celebrated author, and I’ve got an unconfirmed suspicion that a character in one of his novels – a savagely funny send-up of SEC football called Love’s Winning Plays – a brilliant but irascible, opera-loving old coach who had a habit of ticking off big donors with frank comments at the annual fundraising dog-and-pony show might have been based on someone he knew. Inman’s college student daughter Tessa was murdered in New York City’s Morningside Park last December, so the family has known plenty of recent sorrow.
My own first real conversation with Johnny Majors – fans called him that despite the fact that he always introduced himself as John – didn’t happen until many years later, and we didn’t talk sports. The subject was politics and by then he’d become ticked off with the Republican Party. It was during the spring of 2012 and he was hosting a fundraiser for Anthony Hancock, a former player who was running for office. He was the Democratic nominee for the District 18 House seat and had been a star wide receiver, but despite his Vol For Life status, he was a decided underdog running in a bright red Republican district. Come November he lost to right-winger Steve “Extra Crispy” Hall.
Here’s one old friend’s assessment of Majors’ political evolution:
“He hates those damn right-wing nut-job Republicans, always telling people how to live. He is a staunch pro-choice advocate. This might even be the explanation of his disdain for Republicans. He’s never told me that he is a single-issue guy, but I have long suspected it. His brother Joe was a long-time Nashville lobbyist. Probably explains why he thinks almost everyone in Nashville is an idiot. He publicly supported Gloria Johnson, Heath (Shuler) and Anthony Hancock, all Democrats. He’s really a libertarian, but doesn’t know it.”
Hancock’s loss didn’t deter Majors from further political activism, and two years later he jumped into first-term District 13 Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson’s re-election campaign (he’d helped her some in 2012, too). She lost that time around, but kept on running and regained the seat in 2018, with Majors’ help every time. When she got the news of his death, she posted a video of his debut appearance at a 2016 campaign event. “Put me in, Coach Gloria,” he said. “I got my chinstrap on and my jockstrap on tight. Put me in.”
Johnson also posted this reaction on her Facebook page:
“I’ll never forget the day John Majors called me. It was during my first campaign for HD13, he was a legend to me, a household name in my family like so many other families. He had seen a story in the paper about the political ad from the GOP comparing me to Lane Kiffin. That did not sit well with him. I would have thought I was being punked if I didn’t immediately recognize that distinctive voice. He wanted to tell me how despicable he thought that ad was.
“We talked a lot about the issues and found we agreed on pretty much everything. He said he wanted to help my campaign any way he could so we decided to meet and videotape our talk. He really kept up with all things political. I mean ALL things. There wasn’t an issue he didn’t have a deep understanding of.
“We both worked with young people from a variety of backgrounds (Johnson was a special education teacher) and I think that is why we connected so well. We both believed in justice and equality for everyone. From there, he would just call me when he read a particularly nutty political article in the paper, and we would talk it through. He usually would call me before he was headed to vote, to talk about politics and about who we were voting for and why.
“After we talked in that first phone call, he told me he wanted to do everything he could to support me, and he kept his word. I always hated to ask because I know people asked a lot, but he truly wanted to help, loved to, actually. And I can say that he was a good friend and kept his word. He never once turned me down when I asked for his help. Rest in Peace friend, you will be missed.
Love to his family, they have certainly had their share of pain in the last couple of years – love to them all.”
A few years ago, I asked David Moon, an offensive tackle turned financial advisor who has remained close to Majors over the years, to sum up his old coach:
“He is a remarkably complex man. It’s hard for most people to believe that a man who is able to ride a person’s ass like he can also loves museums, the symphony and is a passionate naturist and conservationist. He loves the geography of East Tennessee and often talked about it to his teams. His Thanksgiving Day speech always included references to the beauty of the mountains, rivers, etc. As a 20-year-old, it was hard to believe that a tree hugger could be such a strict, unwavering disciplinarian.”
I saw Coach occasionally over the next few years, and the man knew how to own a room. I looked forward to those meetings, and treasure every one of them. One of the last times I remember, he autographed a copy of Inman’s book for me to give to my son, and I sat with him a few minutes at The Orangery. As always, he was looking sharp in his well-tailored sports jacket and silk tie, probably from Matt McClellan’s haberdashery. Wish coaches still dressed like Johnny and the Bear. But we all know they don’t make ’em like that anymore.
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. She found this tape of Perry Como presenting the Look magazine awards of 1956 to outstanding football players. Just one made Como laugh: John Majors of Tennessee. Watch that video here.