Son of former Giant is running for Dad

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
1:11
PM ET



The words still resonate with Chris Johnson.

Even though the ravages of time have forever altered the bond between a man and his son, Chris still recalls the lessons taught by his father, Ron Johnson, the first New York Giants running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Ron, 64, has Alzheimer's and is confined to an assisted-living facility. Though his father still recognizes him, Chris knows the man he considers his best friend is slowly slipping away. A son is left wishing for better days, yearning for the past and finding some solace in the words his father used to say to him.

[+] EnlargeRon Johnson
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesRon Johnson in 1971
"My father always said, 'Don't sit there and feel sorry for yourself or a situation. Try to find a way to turn something into a positive,'" Chris said. "I got to find a way to make a difference in this thing."

Chris, 30, will be running in the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 4 and has already raised more than $41,000 for the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation and its quest for a new clinical test trial. He has never run a marathon but has set a goal of finishing the race in less than 3 hours, 30 minutes, a time he's hopeful of achieving with some training tips from a Runner's World editor.

"It's absolutely 100 percent what my father would want me to do," Chris said. "He'd say, 'It's terrible, Chris, but don't sit there and sob and cry about it.' I'm not a scientist so I can't come up with a cure. I don't have a big check to write out a donation. But I can give all of my energy and my spirit to running a marathon and try to build awareness."

Ron had a relatively short but successful career in the NFL. He played for the Giants from 1970-75, accumulating 1,000-yard seasons in 1970 and 1972. He rushed for 4,308 yards and 40 touchdowns in his career, which also included time with Cleveland.

Ron was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in 2008, and his mental capacities have diminished over the past four years. Once simple tasks, such as driving to a nearby airport, began to confuse Ron. His family put him in the assisted-living facility in 2011.

His wife of 41 years, Karen, says Ron is in Stage 4 of the disease, which is described by the Alzheimer's Association website as moderate cognitive decline. There are seven stages to Alzheimer's.

His family says Ron still recognizes them and can still play chess, but he cannot communicate as he did in the past.

"It's devastating to see a loved one become a shell of himself and no longer be able to function and do the wonderful things that made them who they are," Karen said. "It's not about pity. It's just a sadness. The person is not able to be the person they have always been and want to be, and you're so helpless. It's a dark, black, bottomless pit."

The father of two -- he also has a 29-year-old daughter, Allison -- Ron has always been close to Chris. Chris describes his father as his best friend. His mentor. The standard he lives his live by. The two ran a food-services corporation, Rackson Corporation, before Ron's condition worsened and Chris had to take over as president.

[+] EnlargeChris and Ron Johnson
Courtesy of Chris JohnsonChris and Ron Johnson
For the first five days after Chris was born, he was originally named Ron Jr., but Ron told his wife that he didn't want his son to have the burden of growing up with his name. Ron made sure to separate who he was as a football player with whom he wanted to be as a father. It's one of the things Chris appreciates the most about Ron.

It pains Chris that their relationship will never be the same.

"I wish I could go back and make certain peace about certain things and tell him the way I feel," Chris said. "It's tough. You're never going to get that back. That's the toughest part of his disease, watching somebody move further and further away from you, yet they're still in front of you."

As he searched for ways to help his father, Chris viewed a marathon as the perfect combination for raising money and awareness while combining athletics.

"If it helps one family that hears the story and they say, 'You know what, we're not alone with this,' then mission accomplished," Chris said. "If it touches one family and that's it, everything was worth it along the way."

After winning a spot in the race through its lottery system, Chris told Peter John-Baptiste -- the Giants' vice president of communications and a longtime family friend -- of his plans. That led to a series of events that placed Chris in touch with Runner's World senior editor Jeff Dengate. They met for the first time in September and are working toward making sure Chris meets that 3:30 goal. On Sept. 23, Johnson ran the 18-mile ING New York City Marathon Tune-Up in 2 hours, 13 minutes.

John-Baptiste said the Giants plan to help promote Chris' efforts, and donations can be made here.

"For him to take it upon himself and to raise awareness to help the cause, to help just not his dad but anyone and everyone, it's a commendable thing," John-Baptiste said. "Knowing Ron, it's no surprise that this is the young man he raised."

When Chris recollects stories involving his father, he doesn't point to one specific day or one memory. He talks in values and philosophies. Ron taught him about integrity and how to always treat people with respect, no matter how much they slighted him. Those lessons will last a lifetime.

Now Chris hopes running 26.2 miles can help others. It's what Ron Johnson would have done.

Matt Ehalt

ESPN New York contributor

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