‘He's living this dream. The American Dream'

Ian Johnson hasn't changed since his Fiesta Bowl exploits, but almost everything else in his life has

Idaho StatesmanJanuary 28, 2007 

Normal days do not exist anymore for Ian Johnson. There are no quick stops at the mall or quiet dinners at a restaurant with his fiancee.

Boise State's star tailback, virtually anonymous in August, is now the Treasure Valley's biggest celebrity, a recognizable name among college football fans and morning-show viewers and likely to trigger a commotion any time he leaves his house.

"Every time we go out now, we've got to look good. We can't wear pajamas now when we go out," said Johnson's fiancee Chrissy Popadics, a Boise State cheerleader.

Johnson's amazing story attracted so much attention that the Broncos have cut off media access to their star until the start of spring practice. It's the first of many expected concessions to his popularity by him, his coaches and his university.

Johnson, the 2006 NCAA leader in touchdowns, emerged as a Heisman candidate in early November. Already a burgeoning name in college football, his popularity exploded after the Broncos' Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma in which he authored a storybookending — the game-winning 2-point conversion and a nationally televised marriage proposal.

But those around him in the chaotic last months describe a young manembracing the attention while attempting to remain true to himself.

"He acts exactly the same today as he did the first day I met him. Just the same old Ian," said Barbara Popadics, Chrissy's mother.

CELEBRITY STATUS

People, however, act very differently around Johnson.

Before his speaking engagement at Taco Bell Arena on Jan. 18, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson had one request: he wanted to meet Ian.Ian and Chrissy spoke with Jackson for several minutes and had their picture taken with the former presidential hopeful. Before they left, Jackson handed the couple his cell phone number and address, along with another request.

"He asked for a wedding invitation," Popadics said.

Will he be invited?

"Oh, yeah," Chrissy said.

Count the reverend as one of 350 on the initial guest list.

Mark and Barbara Popadics, Chrissy's parents and the financial backers of the wedding, will get a say on the final list. The Popadics moved from New Jersey to Boise in 1994 when Mark took a job with Hewlett-Packard.

Though she has been cast as a Jersey girl by the national media, Chrissy — the second oldest and only girl among Mark and Barbara's four children — attended Lowell Scott Middle School and graduated from Centennial High before attending Boise State.

On Dec. 22, Ian visited the Popadics at their Boise home, insisting that he wanted to show them something. He unveiled a self-designed 2.3-carat diamond ring with a princess-cut center stone and a diamond band and asked for their blessing to marry their daughter.

"Everyone asks me, ‘Is he really as nice as he seems?' Nicer," Barbara said. "He's just a sweetheart. He's done so many things for my boys. I really love him like my own. How special is that?"

The Popadics did not attend the Fiesta Bowl, though they — like everyone else who didn't go — wish they had. They were watching on television when Johnson scored the game-winning 2-point conversion. The house erupted in celebration. Several minutes later, as Barbara began putting things away, her husband called her back to the television. She arrived just in time to see Ian drop to one knee.

Screams. Tears. Phone calls.

"Ian is just one of those kids that everything he touches turns to gold. He's just full of surprises. He never fails to amaze me," Barbara said.

At 6:01 a.m. on Jan. 2, the Popadics were awakened by a telephone call. "Good Morning America" wanted to get in touch with Chrissy. The phone rang so often that by 11 a.m., the Popadics had installed caller ID.

"If not, I would have literally been on the phone all day the first three days," Barbara said.

The media rush has died down, but not completely. Last week, someone from Harpo Productions, Oprah Winfrey's company, called.

Oprah is a little late — or she might just be angling for dibs on the planned May 19th wedding in Boise.

In the immediate aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl and the proposal, Ian and Chrissy appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America," CNN's "American Morning," and ESPN's "Cold Pizza." They posed for photos in front of the Statue of Liberty, a nod to the game-winning play.

ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 29 edition included a full-page picture of Ian and Chrissy hanging out in California, with an inset of the engagement ring. Sports Illustrated's Jan. 29 issue features a picture of Ian proposing to his astonished girlfriend in its table of contents and a story on theFiesta Bowl stunner.

Barbara's scrapbook is overwhelmed.

"I can't find one big enough," she said.

CROWD CONTROL

During his post-bowl vacation in California, Ian was stopped by autograph seekers. But his fame in the Treasure Valley — unprecedented for a Boise State student-athlete — turns everyday situations into security problems.

Ian and Chrissy tried to eat dinner on Jan. 19 at the Cheesecake Factory. Tried.

"We couldn't eat dinner without people coming up to us and asking for autographs," said Chrissy, who has become almost as famous locally as her fiance and a must-have autograph for the Valley's little girls.

The mall? Forget it. Even before the Fiesta Bowl, Ian could not get through Boise Towne Square mall without stopping traffic.

"It happened two times in December. It was almost a scary situation. People were grabbing things, giving him things to autograph that they hadn't even paid for," said Travis Hawkes, the owner of Blue and Orange Store.

"I told him, ‘Don't feel like you need to stay here.' It would have gone on all night."

Kelly Chapple, the athletic director at Lowell Scott, has also seen the phenomenon first-hand. Ian and Chrissy attended the basketball team's Jan. 18 season opener against Sawtooth to support Chrissy's brother, eighth-grader John Popadics.

Ian, as he does everywhere he goes, stole the show.

"When he showed up, it was pretty calm for about 3 seconds until everyone realized exactly who he was," Chapple said. "He signed everything from cell phones to tennis shoes to arms."

Chapple said she saw one woman leave the game and return with a new football, still in the box, for Johnson to sign.

"Kids from the other team were getting off their benches during the game and coming up to Ian getting his autograph," Chrissy said.

Despite feeling ill and not having much of a voice, Ian stayed well after the game ended to indulge the autograph seekers and picture takers.

Two days later, he was at it again.

During Boise's Jan. 20 Bronco parade, fans surrounded Ian's flatbed trailer so completely that it appeared he was walking on the crowd. Ian went through three Sharpie pens at the 90-minute autograph session that followed, according to the security guard assigned to him — the only Bronco with a personal detail.

His line stretched more than 50 yards, the longest one in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex.

"People give me stuff about being the face of our team," Boise State senior basketball player Coby Karl said. "But I come behind the whole football team. I wouldn't want to imagine what it'd be like being the face of the football team. It's got to be tough on him."

DEALING WITH FAME

Johnson first made headlines for his unique hobby, crocheting. He learned from his mother and, when he reached Boise State, began making beanies for teammates.

He even sold them until the NCAA made him stop in November.

Unlike many athletes, Johnson truly enjoys speaking with the media — promoting Boise State football and his teammates as much as himself.

"He's such an interesting person. The whole personality, the plumbing job (which he held in the offseason), the knitting, things that are so unusual for modern day college athletics," ESPN.com's Pat Forde said. "He brings a heck of a story. He's far from your average football player."

Johnson, a junior in 2007, will get plenty of opportunities to tell his story. As a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite (Johnson finished eighth as a sophomore after setting the Boise State single-season rushing record) and poster boy for the Broncos, Johnson should be on the cover of many of the countless preseason college football magazines.

"He is the most recognizable name returning next season," Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel wrote in an e-mail this week.

The attention, undeniably, is a boon to Boise State. But the Broncos — from their athletic director and football coach to the marketing and promotions department and sports information directors — are trying to figure out how best to promote Johnson without taking away from his academics or athletics.

Hence the current media hiatus.

"It's a two-way street. Ian, on one hand, is a unique, great person and an excellent football player," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "With our awesome fan base that's so excited and so passionate, the combination of the two has fireworks going around here."

And explosive merchandise sales.

On the morning of Dec. 22, 10 days before the Fiesta Bowl, the Blue and Orange Store received 1,200 No. 41 jerseys — its final pre-Christmas shipment.

Within hours, they were gone.

"We could have sold more. The reason we didn't is we didn't have any more," said Hawkes, the store's owner.

This summer, Nike — which has never released a Boise State jersey in more than one color — will sell No. 41 in blue, white and orange. Nike and the school have worked on new jerseys that will be available in May.

Such popularity, though, must be managed.

"That's a fine line. You want these guys to have their own lives, to be able to grow and do things they want to do with their lives," Petersen said.

The dilemma, one unique in Boise State history, will be a topic at athletic department meetings this summer.

"He'd sit there and sign little kids' T-shirts all day, but he needs to be able to study, go to class and live a normal life. It's important to us to let him do that kind of thing. He is a student-athlete first," said Brad Larrondo, BSU's senior associate athletic director for promotions and marketing.

It was Larrondo who pushed the idea of highlight videos for Johnson this season. The Broncos distributed 3,000 to Heisman voters and college football media around the country. Larrondo is now planning next year's marketing blitz.

Perhaps, he said, miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty wearing Johnson's No. 41 jersey.

"He's living this dream," Larrondo said. "The American Dream."

But Ian is not living it alone.

"Everyone," Barbara Popadics said, "wants to own a little bit of it."

Contact Brian Murphy at 377-6444 or by e-mail at bmurphy@idahostatesman.com.

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