sports (2006-01)

Loyalty Bought

The spirit of charity settled the price

Loyalty Bought

by Tony Basilio

I wrote about fan loyalty two weeks ago and how a disgruntled UT fan auctioned his recently on eBay. Offering himself and his rooting services to the highest bidder was, by Steve Johnson’s admission, a joke. It sort of reminds me of the time we played a prank on a friend of mine’s sister. We set her up with a guy we knew she would loathe. He was a geek. She was beautiful. Two kids and great marriage close to 10 years later means the joke was on us. Which brings me back to Steve Johnson: What started as fun and games has turned into a life-changing experience.

When he heard that David Cutcliffe was hired as UT’s offensive coordinator last month, he became irate. So much so that he decided to do something about it. Johnson, in a half-hearted attempt to amuse himself and a friend who’s a Notre Dame fan, got the idea for the eBay listing. “I was sitting around one day just thinking about how I could stir it up and have a little fun,” Johnson says.

He never dreamt the impact his little prank would have. “All of a sudden, I was the talk in different chat rooms all over the country. When I first put the auction up, I thought one of my buddies would bid maybe $20, and that would be it. I knew a couple of days into it that it was becoming much bigger than I ever dreamed,” he says.

My buddy may have gotten his sister married with his gag, but he didn’t get himself on ESPN2’s Cold Pizza as Johnson did. “I appeared there after being on Channel 8 (WVLT) locally. Those Channel 8 guys did a great job of helping me get the word out,” he says.

Three days into the seven-day bid cycle, Steve knew he was in rare air. “When the bidding reached several hundred dollars at mid-week, it dawned on me that we could do something bigger than this,” Johnson says.

Something bigger is making a difference. Johnson is the proud father of Will, a 6-year old autistic child. He saw the burgeoning auction as an opportunity to pay for the regular treatments for his son Will’s condition. Then, something clicked. “I was sitting around thinking, ‘I’m not a person of great wealth. It’s definitely a struggle to pay for my son’s treatment. I wonder how many other folks are out there in my financial shape who could use help,’” he says.

So, out of a harmless prank, Johnson’s lark helped birth The Loyalty Fund ( www.theloyaltyfund.com ), a non-profit designed to help those in financial need for treatment of autistic children. With Johnson’s auction streaking, he promulgated his vision to the eBay/Internet community. The response was overwhelming.

The bidding had shot up to $1,500-plus with two hours remaining on a Saturday morning, when it was unceremoniously ended by eBay. “They said I was in violation because I had several links to media outlets who had interviewed me in my item description. eBay also told me that my auction was listed under an improper category,” he says.

So, with the auction ending prematurely, it seemed that Johnson’s newfound dream of a foundation would end as quickly as it began. Then Steve received an e-mail from Mike Moity, a Louisiana-based attorney who was the high bidder in the auction. “I couldn’t believe it when Mike told me that he planned to honor his $1,500 bid. We had become friends during the week, and I believe the fact that Mike had a nephew with a more severe form of my son’s condition (Angleman’s Syndrome) had something to do with his generosity toward us,” he says.

Moity could’ve stopped there, but he even decided to treat Steve and Will Johnson with tickets to the Peach Bowl. The Johnsons got to cheer on their new favorite team in two brand new jerseys, furnished by Moity, as LSU rolled 40-3 over Miami Dec. 30in Atlanta. “It was a great experience. We had a lot of people coming up to us laughing about it. Will was like a celebrity, and he ate it up. People were coming up to him and offering him beads and were really nice. I probably watched him more than the game,” Johnson says. “It was so gratifying watching him interact with all those people. We got to see the band, meet the LSU Tiger. He was thrilled.”

Moity’s philanthropy aside, Johnson has seen an outpouring for his Loyalty Fund. “I’ve just opened an account. We have already collected over $7,000! We are going to be able to help a lot of families with that,” Johnson says.

Now that he’s on a roll, Johnson has no designs on slowing down heading into ’06. “I’m looking for a PR firm and a sponsor that will allow me to travel and help raise awareness for autism and the families who are struggling to pay for treatments. I want to take this to the next level,” Johnson says.

Listen up! Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM.