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Praying for Keeps

Religion plays a central role in the Booty home, and it helped deliver a top quarterback prospect to USC

June 23, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

SHREVEPORT, La — Families that pray together stay together. Johnny Booty, evangelical minister, patriarch of one of Louisiana's leading football families and father of USC-bound quarterback John David Booty, believes that with all his soul.

The Bootys practice what Johnny preaches not only here in their well-appointed home but also with neighbors and a growing number of Web-linked families across the country that huddle weekly for home-based Bible study as part of Johnny's fledgling ministry.

Sometimes, though, even the most spiritually bound extended families splinter.

The Bootys confronted that reality in April when Johnny was fired as quarterback coach and head of school at tight-knit Evangel Christian Academy, where the Bootys helped build a nationally known high school football program from scratch.

John David, regarded as perhaps the nation's top high school player in the class of 2004, announced five days later that he was forgoing his senior year and enrolling at USC in the fall. It is a move thought to be unprecedented in major college football -- and one that might beget a new trend.

Johnny believes he was fired because his Bible study groups and ministerial Web site threatened the school chancellor's influence. John David, who is expected to immediately challenge for playing time at USC, said the firing all but forced his hand.

"I talk to my brothers and they say their senior year was the greatest year of their life," he said. "I'm kind of upset that I don't get to experience that, but I have to move on."

One thing seems clear: In a state where football borders on religion, religion helped deliver John David to USC a year ahead of schedule.

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Johnny Booty can trace his family name to the 1700s and French relatives who worked on boats that made their way up and down the Mississippi River.

"It means a treasure that is taken in battle," he said while steering a black SUV past the Independence Bowl toward downtown Shreveport.

Fortune hunters still make their way to this city, drawn by Vegas-style hotels and riverboat casinos that began lining the historic Red River district near downtown in the mid-1990s.

Shreveport's athletic heritage is as rich as any city's in a state that bills itself as the Sportsman's Paradise. Pro football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw and longtime NFL quarterback Joe Ferguson immediately preceded Johnny Booty as all-state quarterbacks at Shreveport's Woodlawn High. Basketball Hall of Famer Robert Parish, former major league baseball All-Star Albert Belle and golfer Hal Sutton also hail from this city of about 200,000 in the northwest corner of the state, about 280 miles from New Orleans and within 30 of the Texas and Arkansas borders.

Evangel Christian, run by Shreveport's First Assembly of God Church, began etching itself into Louisiana lore not long after senior pastor Denny Duron asked Johnny to leave another Shreveport church and help him open the high school and athletic program in 1989.

Duron, who also is Evangel Christian's chancellor, was quarterback at Louisiana Tech when it won the NCAA Division II title in 1973 and had started Johnny on a spiritual path in college. Johnny played freshman football at Arkansas in 1972 and for the varsity at Mississippi State in 1974-75. Under the duo's stewardship, pass-crazy Evangel Christian won its first state championship in 1993 and seven more since, the last three in the largest division.

The high school campus of the K-12 school of about 600 students is located less than a mile from the Bootys' modern home. Johnny tutored an all-state quarterback at Evangel Christian in each of the last 11 years, including oldest son Josh, who played at Louisiana State; Brock Berlin, who is expected to start at Miami; and Brent Rawls, who is at Oklahoma.

"Johnny has one of those real soothing personalities.... I think that's one reason Evangel quarterbacks have been so good," said Pat Tilley, a former NFL receiver who coached at Evangel Christian last season. "The way he is as a minister translates to the football field."

As a highlight video rolls on the Bootys' small kitchen television, Johnny dissects John David's skills. The quarterback on the screen drops back and checks off two receivers before zipping a 45-yard pinpoint pass to a third in the corner of the end zone. He is poised beyond his years, his footwork impeccable.

"There is a grace [about Evangel quarterbacks], and we work on that day and night," Johnny said. "You want to be efficient and fluid. If we stop the tape, there shouldn't be any movement in the frame that doesn't belong."

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The den in the Booty home provides a detailed history of the achievements of Louisiana's best quarterback family not named Manning.

Jerseys from the Florida Marlins, Cleveland Browns, LSU and Evangel Christian hang on the walls alongside framed photographs and newspaper stories that document the exploits of Johnny and Sonya Booty's four sons.

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