Jimmy Johnson says Survivor saved his life. The two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach spoke to critics Thursday on a CBS conference call and explained how a routine, pre-show medical turned up evidence of heart disease.
Johnson, 67, is the oldest of 16 new participants in the 21st edition of Survivor, which premieres Wednesday (not Thursday), Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. on CBS and Global. The former Dallas Cowboys head coach told critics he first tried to get on his favourite show six years ago and then gave it a second try in 2007. That’s when he was alerted to his medical condition.
Johnson was told one artery was 100% blocked and another was 70%. He saw his cardiologist a week later, had a stint put in, was put on a strict diet and lost 30 lbs. His cholesterol dropped from 220 to 100. “Survivor made me a survivor, it probably saved my life,” he says.
Given a clean bill of health, Johnson made a third attempt to get on the series early this year and succeeded. The edition was shot earlier this summer in Nicaragua. Johnson said it is way harder then he imagined, with lack of sleep being an even greater challenge than lack of food.
Johnson said it was worse than three-a-day practices. “There’s no soft bed at night,” he said. “It’s physically draining, you don’t have any food, sometimes eating less than 100 calories a day.” As for luxuries like a shower, forget it, says Coach Johnson. “What, you think there’s a Ritz Carlton down the street?”
The challenges weren’t too bad, he says, suggesting viewers may see a lot of puzzle events this season. One curve he didn’t see coming was that contestants were divided into old vs. young. “I was counting on some of those young kids to carry me!” he says. He ended up the oldest player on the older team.
The other castaways treated him fair, says Johnson, who had a game plan going in. He told them right away he did not expect any jury to award a wealthy guy like him a million dollar prize. That’s why, he tried to suggest, he’d be the perfect guy to take to the final three.
At night, he says, the football stories came out. Johnson was happy to share.
His colleagues over at Fox NFL Sunday thought Johnson was nuts. “Terry Bradshaw told me I’d be eating a bunch of bugs and stuff,” he says. I asked him how long Bradshaw would last on Survivor. “One minute,” said the coach. “He’s too pampered.”
Johnson, of course, did not say how deep he went into the season but it must have been a while. While he couldn’t say how much weight he lost, he admitted it was “a significant amount” and that he’s gained about half of it back since the series wrapped.
As for past players, Johnson says he “couldn’t stand” watching Russell dominate play the last two Survivors but nonetheless admired him for getting to the final three twice in a row. Colby and Parvati are two of his other all-time Survivor favourites.
As for his famous helmet hair, Johnson said he cut it shorter than it had been since high school going into the game and then never combed it once.
He says he’s had plenty of offers to be on other reality shows but Survivor was the only one he was ever interested in playing. “I didn’t get in it to win a million dollars, I did it for the adventure,” he says.
Asked if there were any other NFLers who might be up to the challenge Johnson suggested Brett Farve might have fun with it. “He’s an outdoors guy, has a tremendous passion for the game and could do well if he wanted to, but with that $20 million deal he has with Minnesota, I think he’s probably tied up for a while.”

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