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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL LOS ANGELES 1991 : Johnson Making Change on Past : Decathlon: One of the top decathletes in the world has made an about-face from his boyhood in Missoula, Mont.

July 18, 1991|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boredom begets beer.

That's pretty much how it works in Missoula, Mont., and that's how it came to pass that this country's great hope for an Olympic medal in the decathlon found the key to his life.

Dave Johnson, who lives in Pomona but grew up in Missoula, will compete today in the two-day decathlon at the U.S. Olympic Festival track competition at UCLA. He was ranked No. 2 in the world last season and has a best of 8,600 points. Together with Dan O'Brien of Idaho, who has the best score in the world this season, Johnson hopes to finish in the top three at the track and field World Championships next month at Tokyo.

There exist in track and field lore many stories about Johnson, most of them in some way making reference to his "up from the streets" life. But the fact is that Johnson was a restless kid in a small town with nothing to do and with no one paying any attention to him. His 'crimes' were hardly worse than the trouble many teen-agers find in their path to adulthood.

What makes these stories resonate is that Johnson is today such a different person. Johnson, a born-again Christian, will be talking about his past, then, without apparent transition, will reveal that it is 'Vitamin G, for God' that makes him go.

Johnson is gracious to talk about his teen-age years, for surely his sponsors view this talk as just the wrong sort of publicity.

On Wednesday Johnson submitted himself to it again, sitting with reporters to tell the stories again. He laughs often when he tells them.

How did it all begin?

"Basically, I just didn't have a lot to do. I just got into trouble," Johnson said. "There were 10 of us who did things together a lot. We called ourselves the West Side Gang. We didn't know what we doing. We just wanted to call ourselves something. We had nothing to do."

The Gang was big into small crime and petty mischief, roaming Missoula with their apple cheeks and straight teeth. They wished they had facial scars.

Johnson's career of small crime broadened to encompass burglary. He would break into homes and head--not for the safe--but for the refrigerator. "We were looking for beer," he said.

Now, Johnson may have goals today that revolve around performance, excellence and service to community, but when he was a hyped-up 16-year-old, his idea of achievement was to be locked into the back of a beer-delivery truck with the driver headed to Alaska.

This quest led to the Big Bonanza. Johnson tells this story with the same teen-age relish with which he must have lived it. It was a caper that would land Johnson and the entire soon-to-be-terribly-popular West Side Gang high school in party heaven for months.

It had to do with a ring of keys sitting on the seat of his neighbor's car. One thing Johnson knew about this particular neighbor was that he worked for a local beer distributor.

One day this ring of keys fell out of the neighbor's pocket onto the seat of his car. Johnson spotted the keys and took them.

The West Side Gang called a meeting that night at the beer warehouse. Johnson ran through the key ring, trying each key until he found the right one.

"Just about every weekend we would go in there and grab kegs and cases of wine, whatever they had there, and had parties every weekend. All of a sudden, I was a pretty popular guy," he said.

After about eight months, the beer distributor noticed that dozens of cases of his product were missing and changed the locks.

The West Side Club had, in the meantime, been thrown into quite the social whirl. Kids piled into overflowing pick-up trucks from Tiltzville, Bonner, Milltown, Evaro and Lolo. The Gang had, in fact, become the social directors for most of the teen-agers in western Montana. As luck would have it, a particularly lavish party was planned for the very weekend that the locks were changed.

"I stuck the key in, and it broke off," Johnson said, who even today shakes his head in disbelief. "We really needed the beer. So we broke in through a window."

The good news was that the party was a success. The bad news is that the long-suffering distributor called the Missoula police. The police also attended the West Side Gang party, armed with the serial numbers to the stolen beer kegs. To no one's surprise, the numbers at the party matched those from the stolen kegs.

This, apparently, was not the biggest bust in Montana history. Johnson's punishment was to pull weeds from the front of the warehouse and cut the beer distributor's lawn. Happily for Johnson, this was enough to set him on the path of clean living and honest work.

That, plus the fact that his family moved to Corvallis, Ore., soon after the party broke up.

Once in Oregon, Johnson went out for football and track. He went to class, he studied and raised his grade-point average from 1.7 to 2.3.

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