In jail or dead: Johnson and her greatest escape
Brisbane Heat and Queensland Fire allrounder Sammy-Jo Johnson has made it the hard way, with the memory of her father never far from her mind
The journey back to her father's grave is an uncommon one for Sammy-Jo Johnson. In the six years since his death, she has returned two, maybe three times – just enough to recall the way to the small plot on the grassy hill overlooking the Lismore countryside.
She remembers the funeral vividly. It was held by the gravesite on a blue-skied winter's day and Sammy-Jo, then 19, and her sister Rikky-Leigh, only 16, each addressed the mourners.
"They say 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'," Sammy-Jo told the 50 or so mourners who had gathered.
"I believe in that, because Dad passing hasn't killed me, and it's only going to make me stronger. Push me further to reach my goals. Tackle life head on and succeed in all my chosen fields."
As they exited the cemetery, Sammy-Jo headed the procession en route to the wake at the nearby community hall. She was driving her silver VE Commodore, the first car she ever bought. A giant sticker stretching across the back windscreen read: Showin' up the boys.
"And I did a massive burnout for Dad – then every single person that left the carpark did one as well," she says, smiling at the memory. "It was perfect for him."
The reasons she has rarely returned to that cemetery are complex, and rooted in Sammy-Jo's refusal to hit pause on her life for long enough to deal with the loss of her father.
But they're also quite simple. On that hillside in South Gundurimba, there's nothing really to go back to, Sammy-Jo says, because the family could never afford a headstone for their patriarch.
And so Robert Johnson is buried in an unmarked grave.
For a brief period as an 11-year-old in Albury-Wodonga, Sammy-Jo Johnson thought she was going to be the next Tim Cahill. When she was overlooked for the school soccer team, one dream was easily shoehorned into the next. Even as a kid, or perhaps especially as a kid, Johnson had to play sport; preferably as many as possible, as often as possible. It was her means of escape from a home that undulated between offering comfort and chaos. So when no-one wanted to be goalkeeper in the local hockey team, she stuck up her hand. And stayed between the posts for a decade.
"For some reason, I was never scared of the ball," she remembers. "I don't know why, but I was just fearless."
Johnson was fueled by the adrenaline of the action. She was playing first grade locally in grade six, diving toward vicious sticks swung by women 20 years her senior. The same rush drove her towards all things fast. Her father Robert's passion for cars had been hers, too, from an early age. She was barely into double figures when he let her take the wheel of his enormous B-Double (a prime mover with two trailers) in an empty paddock beyond Toowoomba.
"I couldn't reach the pedals," she remembers. "It was in gear and it was rolling, and all I had to do was steer and hope to God I steered it straight.
"Forklifts, trucks, motorbikes – it didn't matter what it was, Dad would get me on it."
The crossover between speed and cricket landed at Brett Lee, whom Johnson idolised. Posters of the blond tearaway adorned her bedroom walls in Albury-Wodonga, where the family had moved to from Lismore for her father's work when Sammy-Jo was a toddler. Memories of those days are of school holidays and watching DVDs with Rikky-Leigh and their mum, Teena. Of raking the yard for pocket money to splurge on fish and chips at the corner shop. The family lived in four homes and the girls attended three different schools across either side of the state divide, all of which for Sammy-Jo were merely access points to sport. Her trucker dad was always on the road, and as she was to learn intimately later, fighting his own private demons. So on the homefront, the girls forged a close bond.
"We didn't do extravagant things," she says, "but we had enough to do us."
Sammy-Jo was in year eight when her parents decided the time was right to return to Lismore to be closer to extended family. Their place on Campbell Crescent was part of a housing commission estate. Young kids would wander the street barefoot and barely clothed, dropping in on neighbours to ask for food. It was a tough community.
"I remember when we first moved in there, and five or six local guys tried to kick the front door in and have a go at Dad," Johnson says. "It was pretty intimidating."
Within her own four walls, life was becoming more complicated. Her dad, once a hard-working truck driver with a gift for anything mechanical, was losing his battle with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and drug addiction. He underwent electric shock treatment, saw psychiatrists and psychologists, tried rehab, and self-medicated with marijuana, all to no avail. An attempt to go cold turkey from the drugs ended with the loss of his license and a three-month prison stint when he tried to run a police officer off the road. The decline was steady from there. His weight blew out to more than 150kgs. He virtually refused to leave home, doing little more than sleeping. Teena had become more full-time carer than wife, and was already juggling looking after Sammy-Jo and Rikky-Leigh with a relatively new addition, Montana, who had been born in Albury-Wodonga two years before they relocated.
Johnson's way of dealing with the turmoil around her was to immerse herself more deeply in sport.
"I picked every sport you could think of and played one every afternoon," she remembers. "Monday was touch footy, Tuesday was hockey, Wednesday was basketball – whatever sport I could play, I was there. And that's all I did.
"That was my distraction from what went on at home … and I would do anything so I didn't have to spend much time at home."
When she was at home, she retreated to the carport and continued to practice. She would try to convince Rikky-Leigh to don the hockey gear and stand at the striker's end while she steamed in off as long a run as she could manage from behind the safety of the locked gates. If her sister wasn't interested – which was most often the case – she would put a ball in a sock, with a piece of rope tying it to the carport roof. She still remembers the sound it would make crashing into the tin: Bang … tink… bang… tink.
Despite the difficulties intertwined with her family life, Johnson's loyalty and love for those closest to her stayed true. She looked after her baby sister, and tried to set the example for the regularly recalcitrant Rikky-Leigh by showing respect to her parents and behaving at the three different high schools she attended.
"I was a smart kid," she says. "I had to learn how to grow up quick."
A 17-year-old Sammy-Jo Johnson is standing at the back of the nets adjacent to Allan Border Field in Brisbane. She is fresh off the bus from Lismore, and staring wide-eyed at the girl occupying the batting crease. The grace. The command. She has never seen anything quite like it.
"It was Meg Lanning," she recalls, still with a trace of awe. "She was hitting these beautiful drives, one after another.
"I couldn't do anything like that. I was just cow corner, cow corner.
"Being in that environment, I thought, how cool would it be to train and play here all the time?"
Johnson hadn't come through 'the system' that had churned out much of the country's top female talent. Instead, her break came via a chance encounter with a one-day legend and the parents of an Australian sporting icon.
When she dismissed Michael Bevan in a charity match on the NSW North Coast, she had little idea she was being watched by Stan and June Gilchrist – fellow Lismore residents and the proud parents of Test legend Adam. They took a quiet interest in the only girl in the game, and followed her progress. The next year, they sent Johnson an email, offering her a scholarship to play a season of cricket in England. The arrangement covered flights and set her up with a club and a host family, however she feared the inevitable response from her parents when it came to meeting accommodation and living costs.
"I never thought it would happen," she says. "That was my life story: you can't go – we can't afford it."
Teena knew it was a potentially defining moment for her daughter, who today she refers to as "the apple of my eye". They held fundraisers and raised money through local sponsors – more than $5000, which ultimately set Sammy-Jo up for a northern summer.
"It was a struggle to save up that money," Teena remembers. "But that was something I wanted to make sure we did."
Johnson headed to the UK, where she slowly but surely ingratiated herself to the locals, some of whom she still calls friends. On the field, she took 60 wickets and made her first hundred.
She returned home, signed on with the NSW Under 18s and for most of the next two seasons began making the weekly flight to Sydney from Lismore to play grade cricket with Northern Districts. The regular airfare was agreed at a set price between Cricket NSW and a regional carrier, and Johnson saved up the $100 each week through her casual job at Hungry Jack's.
"That was my goal," she remembers. "All I wanted to do was play for the Breakers (NSW's senior women's team)."
But circumstances conspired to push Johnson north of the border – she felt "ripped off" at not being given what she believes was the best chance to make it at NSW – and, just as she had in her childhood, she shoehorned one dream into the next; if the Breakers didn't want her, maybe Queensland Fire would.
Her modest wages from her casual job tending the grounds at Allan Border Field went towards rent at a caravan park in Emu Plains, where she and her partner Brian – who worked as a tree-lopper – stayed for six months. From there they moved to Aspley Acres Caravan Park, a known crime hotspot in the city's north and home to a host of parolees transitioning back into society from the nearby prison.
"It was pretty full on," she recalls. "It felt like us against the world."
On the field, Johnson's early promise was morphing into a match-winning ability. When the time came to play the NSW side she felt had slighted her, she took 3-14 off four overs, including the wickets of national stars Alex Blackwell, Alyssa Healy and Lisa Sthalekar – all falling to her pace and bounce. Her success was sweet.
Johnson had only just turned 18. There were more cricketing highs that summer, and in the year that followed. She was settled in Brisbane, and while she had never been one to run from her past, she was beginning to feel more at peace with it, and all the challenges it had presented her with. For the first time, she felt satisfaction about having achieved the hard way. It was a path that had allowed her to understand plainly that the life of a professional sportsperson was a privilege, and not a right – a line she continues to live by.
The steady rise however, precipitated a rapid fall, as everything she had held together started coming apart.
Over coffee outside a warehouse-style café in Brisbane's industrial northern suburbs, Sammy-Jo pinpoints the beginning of the end as she knew it: the break-up of her parents' marriage. Six months after the split, on July 23, 2012, Robert Johnson took his own life.
"That was the catalyst for it," Sammy-Jo says. "He left behind mum and three girls."
Teena says her hand was finally forced. After years of searching for solutions to her husband's myriad problems, she was left with no option but to escape the painfully familiar cycle of hurt and regret, which had escalated in the preceding five years as his problems worsened.
She remembers the way in which her eldest daughter's love for both parents remained undiminished throughout, despite their problems, or perhaps because of them; if she, the rock of the family, couldn't find ways to support them when they needed it most, who would?
"She'd always be there, making sure I was alright," Teena recalls. "Her father had his good days, and he had his bad, but he was always good to the kids."
In the summer that followed, Sammy-Jo played just one weekend of cricket – a 50-over match on the Saturday sandwiched by a pair of T20s. In the one-day game, she ripped out Victoria's outstanding top three: Lanning, Elyse Villani and Jess Cameron. It was the season's lone reminder of her raw pace and talent, as life threatened to drag her under.
For the next two years, she didn't represent Queensland once.
"When Dad passed away, everyone sort of went their own way," she says of Teena, Rikky-Leigh and herself.
"Everyone grieves differently. I just had to brush it aside. I just went off and did my own thing for about a year there – partied, had a bit of fun, lived life and dealt with losing Dad in my own way."
As the Fire celebrated winning the 2013-14 T20 national title, and another Johnson – Mitchell – took the cricket world by storm with his stunning Ashes exploits, Sammy-Jo was coming to terms with the reality that her cricket dream was over. She and Brian had lost their jobs, been kicked out of the house they were renting in Deception Bay, and were living out of an old Mitsubishi van. They hit the road and returned to Lismore, where they stayed on Brian's parents' farm until they could find casual work and scrape together some money. A small place they rented soon became a party house, with a pool table and a few stools the focal point of a living area that attracted the same unsavoury types they had managed to break free from years earlier.
"I thought, 'Well, this is how my life has gone'," she remembers. "I'd had a crack, but then I was making bad decisions about the people I was hanging around with and the things I was doing – drinking, drugs, whatever.
"If you stay in that environment, you're going nowhere – you'll either end up in jail or dead."
The lives of all three Johnson girls had taken a downward spiral as the death of Robert hit them in different ways. Sammy-Jo remembers the trio "going wild" independently of one another and, for the first time in their lives, some real distance forming between them. Teena had been a young mum, and began making up for those lost years, while Rikky-Leigh's delinquency continued. After a period of instability, it was the potential impact on Montana that led to a re-evaluation.
"It was all pretty tough for a nine-year-old girl, so it was like, 'Hang on, things have got to change here – Mum needs to pull her head in, we all need to pull our heads in'," Sammy-Jo recalls.
"We had plenty of arguments about it."
At the root of it all, sport was again the saviour. Johnson had started playing hockey again casually, which served as a wake-up call with regards to her condition; she was unfit, and she had put on weight. It all had to change.
"Something happened," she remembers, "and I just clicked back into gear."
July 2018. Sammy-Jo Johnson is standing in front of a packed room – some of the faces are unfamiliar, others she knows intimately – and she is pouring her heart out. She is detailing to her Queensland Fire teammates, new and old, her life story as best she can tell it; there are chapters and moments she is still to fully wrap her head around. She begins crying, and before long, there is hardly a dry eye in the room.
"That was pretty full-on," Johnson says. "You have to be brave enough to get up and say, 'This is me'.
"There were a lot of tears from everyone.
"We spoke about accepting people for who they are. You don't know what people have been through – you've never walked in their shoes.
"I think that's a clear difference this season from the past … maybe before people would've thought, She's just some kid from Lismore – a hoon who swears too much. They didn't know what I'd actually been through."
Johnson clawed her way back into the consciousness of Queensland Cricket in the summer of 2014-15. Playing hockey had given her the prod she sorely needed, and her mind soon returned to cricket and the potential opportunities she had worked so hard for that she was letting go to waste. She embarked on the four-hour return trip to the Gold Coast three times a week with a renewed vigour. An impressive sequence of performances with her new grade club led to an invitation to Queensland training, and the dominoes fell: one game was followed by another, until she had played the whole back-end of the season.
At the Gold Coast, she found a like-minded and compassionate friend in Australia rep Delissa Kimmince, who had returned from living in London after briefly walking away from cricket herself. The pair discussed life and the game they love, and Johnson saw in her older teammate a role model for both the way she wanted to play and approach her cricket.
"She's very laidback, relaxed and a bit of a bogan," grins Kimmince. "But when she gets on the field, she's serious about winning, and about wearing the maroon shirt, and I love playing with someone like that."
In 2015, Sammy-Jo and Brian packed up their belongings and ventured once more north of the border. Johnson was still only 22, but her life experiences afforded her a maturity beyond her years, and her second coming was timely; the 2015-16 season saw the launch of the Women's Big Bash League and the start of a revolution for female cricketers. But her excitement was tinged with fear.
"I was scared because I knew I was going to be training every day and I didn't know if I was going to be able to cope with that," she remembers.
"Training Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, and Tuesday and Thursday nights, and playing club cricket on a Sunday – I didn't think there was any way I'd be able to do it.
"But I knuckled down, dropped some weight, started doing PBs in things. I started bowling quicker, working on my batting more."
Despite playing just two games, Johnson learned as much as she ever has in that opening season of WBBL, immersing herself in what had become a more professional environment. By WBBL|02, she was a regular selection. In the Heat's past two campaigns, she has played 28 of a possible 29 matches, and last summer with the Fire, she picked up the Player of the Year and Players' Player awards for her exploits with ball and bat.
"It's been six years of struggles, up and down, for Sammy," says Teena, who today lives just around the corner from Sammy-Jo in Deception Bay, and only a few minutes from Rikky-Leigh, who has two kids and a third on the way.
"But she's pushed through it and come out 10 times better than I thought she ever would, because there were some really hard times.
"Her father would've been so proud of her last year, with all her achievements."
For six weeks across the 2018 winter, Sammy-Jo Johnson was up at 4.30am, Monday to Friday. Australia's female state cricketers have semi-professional status, which means they need to supplement their cricket income with actual jobs. Johnson has two. She fills gaps in the roster at her local Super Cheap Auto, where she does the diagnostics, fits spare parts, mixes paint and helps people with their cars any way she can. It is a position she clings onto solely because it is what she loves to do.
Most of her time outside cricket is put towards the running of a garden landscaping and maintenance business, B&S Lawn Care, which she owns with Brian. Originally it was just the two of them, mowing up to 20 lawns a day after their humble Facebook page started gaining traction. Last year, they hired some casual staff to meet the growing demand, and they have since added a commercial cleaning branch to the business, for which Teena is supervisor. Johnson is the brains of what is an expanding operation, and the heart. She is almost finished her Certificate III in Park & Gardens, which will make her a qualified gardener.
Between cricket, work and study, she barely pauses for breath – certainly not for long enough to think about everything the past six years has entailed. Her dad might come up in conversation with her sisters from time to time, though not often, and never with her mum. She wonders if the hectic lifestyle she has created for herself was designed at least in part as a distraction, so she doesn't have to properly contemplate his life and death, and the impact they had on her.
"I don't think about it … the anniversary comes up and it's just, six years today, keep going," she says. "Probably when I slow down I'll be like, 'this is something I've got to deal with'.
"I still don't know if I've grieved properly."
For now, while she's still young and capable, an Australia cap remains the dream. She sees her good mate Kimmince in national colours at 29 and reasons that, at 25, it isn't too late for her. But as ever with Sammy-Jo, there are other dreams in the queue. She wants to become a qualified mechanic, so she can open an all-female mechanics in Brisbane. And she wants B&S Lawn Care to become bigger than Jim's Mowing.
"When we get that big," she says, a half-grin appearing on her face, "I'll go and buy Dad a headstone."
CommBank T20 INTLs v NZ
Australia T20 squad: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Nicola Carey, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Delissa Kimmince, Sophie Molineux, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Elyse Villani, Tayla Vlaeminck, Georgia Wareham
September 29: First T20I, North Sydney Oval, Sydney
October 1: Second T20I, Allan Border Field, Brisbane
October 5: Third T20I, Manuka Oval, Canberra