BROWERVILLE, MINN. – Gordon Johnson sold his barber shop in downtown Browerville and moved his family to a farm with a Clarissa address. As with most Minnesota farms in the 1960s, the Johnson place was overrun with cats, reproducing enthusiastically and keeping away the vermin.
These Johnson farm cats were almost as unusual for their diet as were Ernest Hemingway’s cats for their six toes on his estate in Key West, Fla.
“They were potato eaters,” Gary Johnson said. “My dad had a guy who would give him 50-pound bags of potatoes. He’d boil up a big pot and put ’em out in the yard, and the cats would come running.”
Gary laughed and shook his head and said: “Whoever heard of cats eating potatoes?”
There was another creature roaming the grounds: Tippy, a large mutt of a dog.
“Tippy was a one-man dog … only responded to my dad,” Gary said. “Little Tommy was out there one day and Tippy was eating. Dad said, ‘Tommy, don’t try to play with that dog and, for sure, stay away when he’s eating.’
“Tommy didn’t listen. He went over there and Tippy took a good nip out of him. That kid started hollering and crying …”
Gary Johnson leaned back on the couch, smiled and said, “Little Tommy,” and shook his head again.
It is roughly 140 miles from the farmyard to downtown Minneapolis, and a week from Sunday, Little Tommy will be at U.S. Bank Stadium and making his eighth start as a Super Bowl quarterback for the New England Patriots.
Thirty-five years ago, when Tippy took a nip out of Tom Brady, he howled for help. A week ago, after running back Rex Burkhead crashed his helmet into Brady’s right hand during practice and opened a four-stitch cut, he led a second-half comeback vs. the fierce Jacksonville defense to put the Patriots in their eighth Super Bowl in the 16 seasons that he has been their quarterback (missing almost all of 2008 because of knee surgery).
The fact this game is in Minneapolis has caused the peaceful existence of Gary Johnson and other family members to be interrupted this week by a descending media horde.
Gordon and Bernice Johnson had three children. Gary is the oldest, and the youngest, Al, lives on the family farm. The daughter in the middle, Galynn, is Tom Brady’s mom, the 1961 homecoming queen and a 1962 graduate of Browerville High School.
There are cousins with a connection to both Channel 4 and Channel 11, and those Twin Cities TV stations were here on Sunday and Monday. Paul Johnson — known to all in this area as “Pickle” — is Brady’s first cousin, as Gary and Diane’s son, and has been fielding the media requests.
On Thursday, the Star Tribune started Pickle’s day at 8 a.m., followed by the St. Paul Pioneer Press at 10 a.m. Then came the main event: a TV crew from NBC, loaded with lights, cameras and wanting enough action to fill a segment for the Super Bowl’s endless pregame show.
Gary is the more loquacious of the Browerville brothers, and thus has had to alter his schedule.
“This is cutting into my ice fishing,” he said. “I did get out yesterday [Wednesday].”
How’d ya do (as a Minnesotan is required to ask)?
“Got the limit; 20 sunnies,” he said. “Always get the limit.”
Gary makes Diane very nervous when talking with out-of-towners, since he is quite a quipster. One of his favorites:
“You know Tom Sr. was going to be a priest, until my sister got him out of the habit.”
Diane pointed at her husband and said: “Gary! That’s wrong. Tom already had stopped studying for the priesthood when he met Galynn.”
Which is true, but not as funny.
Galynn Johnson and Nancy Irsfeld had been the best of friends since kindergarten in Browerville. “It was a great place to grow up, but we shared the idea of going out and seeing more of the world,” Nancy said this week. “We started by moving to Minneapolis, sharing an apartment and working for about a year.”
Galynn was in a couple of newspaper ads as a clothes model for Dayton’s. Later, she would be in ads for TWA. Nancy worked for Honeywell.
Soon, Galynn was going to airline training to become a “stewardess” and Nancy attended St. Cloud State.
“Galynn started flying for TWA,” Nancy said. “She called me and said, ‘I’m being transferred to California. Why don’t you come along?’ It didn’t take much persuading. We shared a place in Manhattan Beach.”
The Browerville friends then moved to Burlingame, near San Francisco. “We both met our husbands there,” Nancy said.
Tom Brady Sr. was getting started as an insurance salesman. He made a call at a door answered by Galynn. And three decades later, the history of the NFL was changed.
Irsfeld became Nancy Gonis and settled in the Bay Area. Her husband died a few years ago. She lives “maybe 15 minutes from the Bradys. Galynn and I took a 6-mile walk the other day. She’s doing well.”
Galynn Brady has been dealing with breast cancer since the middle of 2016. That’s also the last time the Bradys as a group (including Tom) were in Browerville, to attend Grandpa Gordon’s funeral.
Galynn was excited to make it to last year’s stupendous Super Bowl comeback vs. Atlanta in Houston. And now, she’s taking 6-mile walks and headed to an eighth Super Bowl — and this one in her home state.
Back in Browerville, Pickle Johnson’s huge man cave — actually, a man barn — dedicated to cousin Tom’s football triumphs, along with deer heads and other hunting and fishing trophies, is getting much attention from TV crews and newspaper photographers.
Pickle and the other family members have numerous memories of the annual summer visits the Bradys — Galynn, Tom Sr., the three older daughters and Little Tommy — made to Browerville.
Pickle is 10 years older than his cousin Tom and did get a laugh at Brady’s recollection after last Sunday’s victory of “milking cows at grandpa’s” during those visits.
“Great guy, from the greatest family [the Bradys] that you could ever get to know … humble, loyal, kind,” Pickle said. “But as a cow milker, all Tommy did was get in the way.”