Like Stan Musial, broadcaster Ernie Johnson’s reputation starts with excellence at his craft. Johnson won his third Emmy Award this year as best studio host for his work on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”
Like Stan, Ernie is perhaps better known for his kindness and generosity. Also honored at this year’s Sports Emmy Awards was Stuart Scott, who died of cancer just months before and was represented that night by his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. Stuart also had been nominated for best studio host, and during his acceptance speech, Ernie asked Taelor and Sydni to join him on stage.
“The girls had prepared to humbly accept if he won and to be grateful for the honor of being nominated if he lost,” said their mother and Scott’s wife, Kimberley. “However, they were not prepared for such an unselfish gesture to come from someone with whom Taelor had only become acquainted 10 days prior to the Emmys.”
Ernie handed the girls the award, saying: “This belongs to Stuart Scott. This is your Emmy.”
The broadcasters shared a bond that others in the industry couldn’t. Ernie is a cancer survivor, diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2003. “When he stood on that stage and recognized their dad’s work and his life and his fight with cancer in such a profoundly personal way, it was all so incredible – because he had walked in Stuart’s shoes – professionally, as a father, and as a man battling cancer,” Kimberley said. “His actions will be an affirmation and example of selflessness that they will carry with them forever.”
Those are reasons enough for Johnson to be honored with a Musial Award.
But also like Stan, Ernie is a devoted family man. He and his wife, Cheryl, are parents to six children, four of whom are adopted.
The oldest of their adopted children is Michael, 26, who still lives with them. Born in Romania and abandoned soon after birth, Michael lived in an orphanage for three years before Cheryl, who was moved by the plight of Eastern European orphans, found him there in 1991, clubfooted and unable to speak. She called home to say that she couldn’t abandon him. Ernie agreed.
After arriving in the States, Michael was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Confined to a wheelchair after a fall in 2001, Michael wasn’t expected to live past his teens.
The Johnsons nearly lost him in 2011, when he contracted pneumonia. He couldn’t breathe and his heart stopped. Doctors asked whether the Johnsons wanted to resuscitate. The answer was yes, so doctors shocked Michael back to life. A subsequent series of infections left him on a ventilator, though, and he has required round-the-clock care ever since.
But that care takes place at home. Nurses tend to Michael at the Johnson’s house overnight, but Ernie and Cheryl watch over their son themselves during the day, one of the benefits of Ernie’s TNT night gig that he wouldn’t trade. Rather than talk sports, Ernie and Michael eat, sleep and breathe cars.
When ESPN asked to do a feature on the Johnson family, Ernie was so moved that he thanked the network for having the grace and class to tell the story of a rival.
The Johnsons know that there is no cure for their son, who might not live until his 30th birthday. Yet that knowledge serves only to make each day sweeter.
“Every day,” Ernie has said, “is a blessing.”