NORMAN — Merv Johnson sat in the broadcast booth Saturday, Oct. 5, providing color commentary throughout Oklahoma's 20-17 win over TCU in the familiar, soft voice Sooner fans have grown accustomed to the past 16 seasons.
Judging purely from Johnson's analysis that night of OU's stellar first-half defensive performance; TCU's second-half rally; and Brennan Clay's electric 76-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run, you'd never know the pain he experienced that very morning when his wife of 53 years, Cindy, was removed from life support.
“I didn't notice any difference at all,” said OU play-by-play announcer Toby Rowland. “Delicately (at the beginning of) the broadcast, I wanted him to know that we were happy he was there and that our thoughts were with him. It was a little bit emotional off the top.
“But after that, it was just a football game.”
Cindy Johnson died the next day, and in the nearly two months since, Merv is still feeling his way through day-to-day life without her.
The OU football icon has found that his work as director of football operations and radio color commentator is a helpful coping mechanism.
Johnson joined the OU football family in 1979, when he accepted a position on Barry Switzer's coaching staff. He remained an assistant coach until 1998, when he assumed his current duties, which include on-campus recruiting and coordinating players' daily off-the-field activities.
He first learned about the healthy distraction his work can provide in late August 2000, when his youngest daughter, Jill Foster, was killed in a car accident at the age of 29. Johnson didn't miss the Sooners' season opener against UTEP less than a week later.
“We've been through this kind of shock before,” Johnson said.
Johnson hadn't arrived back in Norman from the Sooners' late-September trip to Notre Dame when Cindy suffered a stroke in their home. She was alone that Sunday morning, and several hours passed before anyone realized what had happened.
Merv Johnson spent virtually the entire week with Cindy, their son and their daughter at the hospital. He didn't want to leave Saturday to broadcast the TCU game, but his children persuaded him to go.
“I felt a little bit guilty about doing it, but they insisted,” Johnson said.
Rowland said the broadcast team had a plan in place if Johnson had decided to skip the game, but that he always expected his partner to be there.
“It had been several straight days in the hospital, and I think whether it was a football game or anything else, just to get out and have some fresh air would've been good for anyone,” Rowland said. “In addition to that, a lot of people got to throw their arms around him, hug him and tell him that they were praying for him and how much he means to them.”
That day and every day since, football has helped keep the 77-year-old going. This week, though, he's relying on family for comfort through his first Thanksgiving without Cindy.
Johnson was talking to his youngest sister, Nancy, on the phone three weeks ago when she asked about his Thanksgiving plans.
“I hadn't thought about it really,” Johnson said. ”I knew we didn't have a game this week, so I said, ‘I might even come and see you.'”
Johnson drove to King City, Mo. — his hometown — to spend Thanksgiving with his brother and two sisters for the first time in more than five decades.
He'll stay in northern Missouri through Sunday before returning to Norman to prepare for Bedlam.
“Going to work every day, there's a lot going on,” Johnson said. “Everybody's talking about the game, whether it's before or after, and all the changes and those kinds of things. It gets your mind off some of your personal issues for a little while, and I think probably that's healthy.”