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RIP Jamal Johnson, New London's flawed superhero

New London — Fittingly, he wore No. 1. He was our tragic hero. Our flawed superhero. He was an athletic savant, an imperfectly perfect young man, able to outrun everything except his demons.

"He was the first larger than life person I was ever around," his high school friend Casey O'Neill was saying the other day.

And this was Jamal Johnson, the greatest of them all in New London High's estimable lore and legend. Jamal: The everlasting paradox, larger than life yet eminently human. Casey and many others have spent the last few days mourning Johnson's recent death. He was barely 50.

"I'm on the air with Keith a lot," O'Neill was saying, alluding to GameDay broadcast partner Keith O'Brien, "and I say all the time, 'Keith, it's a New London thing. You wouldn't understand.' Nobody represented that better than Jamal.

"If you're a Whaler you loved him unconditionally and accepted the flaws of one of our original superheroes. If you were a kid in the late 80s, you wanted to be Jamal. You wanted to wear No. 1. Kids would fight in youth football over who got to wear No. 1."

References to Johnson remain reverential even 30 years later. Nobody else had the moves, the cachet, the je-ne-sais-quoi. He was so effortlessly cool playing three sports at New London in the late 1980s, highlighted by a Sunday afternoon in October 1988, when he set the state record at the time with 427 rushing yards against Ledyard.

O'Neill: "He kicked off in that game. He punted. He kicked extra points. He literally didn't leave the field. He returned kicks. He returned punts. Also intercepted a pass. ... He punched me in the shoulder once because I beat him in the school ping pong championship. The point is he got to the finals without ever playing before."

It was hard to pinpoint Johnson's primary sport. Two months after his day against Ledyard, he was starting on what would become the greatest single-season basketball team in the region's history. The Whalers finished unbeaten in 1989, throwing every opponent down a flight of stairs.

"The bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the better he played," said Ralph Roggero, his basketball coach. "He relished those moments. I had a lot of players who were Div. I caliber but when it came to that moment, they didn't have what Jamal had.

"I remember we were playing a state tournament game against (St. Thomas) Aquinas at H-K. Sold out. Jamal hit this huge shot in the fourth quarter after Leo Clinton got an offensive rebound and threw it to him at top of the key. The place erupted. (Aquinas coach Bill) Cardarelli calls timeout. In the chaos of everything, somebody pulled me from behind by both shoulders into the huddle and kissed me on the cheek. It was Jamal."

More Roggero: "After that year, I was in the locker room for the last time and all the kids were leaving. I was the last one to leave, gathering all the stuff up. All of a sudden, Jamal comes walking in. I go, 'what's up Mally?' He says 'Coach. Thank you.'"

Roggero's voice is cracking now at the memory of the kid he threw off the team as a sophomore. Johnson waited out all his teammates simply to express appreciation to his coach for not giving up on him.

"I get emotional even now thinking about that moment," Roggero said. "I've never told anybody about it until now. We embraced. I know what he was saying. His way of saying 'thank you.' He waited till everybody left. I'll never forget that."

And yet for all of Jamal Johnson's positive spirit, his demons never could leave the room permanently.

"When Jamal was good, he was really, really good," said Gemma Brennan, who had two children with him: daughter, Mia, and son, J.J. "He'd give you the shirt off his back. He just had that addiction. It wasn't a very good side of him. When he was clean and sober, he was just so good. I see all of his good to this day in J.J., even down to the way he eats his food. Just like his dad."

J.J. Brennan's athletic accomplishments were dad-like as well. He was The Day's 2019 Boys' Basketball Player of the Year, leading Waterford to its second straight state title. Brennan, much like Johnson, embodied Roggero's words, "The bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the better he played."

Mia, too, was an all-stater at Waterford. In a three-day span (Dec. 18-20, 2019), the Brennan siblings each eclipsed 40 points. J.J. scored 42 for the Lancers in a game at Brien McMahon before Mia scored 49 for UConn-Avery Point.

They were quite Jamal-esque.

And now they get to spend the rest of their lives missing him. We all will. Jamal Johnson did superhuman things. But was very human. As are we all.

"Because I was his friend, I know he didn't have an easy upbringing," O'Neill said. "He was probably failed by certain systems. Trouble found him. But this is where the 'New London thing' comes in. We accepted 'Mally' for who he was.

"If you knew him, you loved him. It's easy on his death to memorialize him to make him seem perfect. He was nowhere near perfect. But he was ours. We accepted him. All of it. That's what happens when you are in a close knit community like we are. My heart really hurts on this one."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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