Every once and a while, someone born and raised in the Gila Valley makes it to the national pro ranks in sports. Some stay for a short time; others have a lengthy career. Right now, there is one who is proving his longevity in Major League baseball.
He is Thatcher's own Elliot Johnson of the Tampa Bay Rays.
In a well-appointed office tastefully decorated with her son's Major League memorabilia at the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center, Julie Johnson spoke with pride about her children.
“They came from a broken home; they grew up without a dad,” she said. She has six children: five boys and one girl.
Julie spoke with pride about all of her children, Leon, Cedric, Lucas, Issaac, Lisa and, of course, Elliot.
All five boys were drafted into pro baseball.
Leon went in the 10th round to the Chicago Cubs. Issaac was drafted by the Seattle Mariners, and Elliot went to the the Tampa Bay Rays, where he has been his whole career.
“There was a time I making $5 an hour working at Sonic and raising six kids with the help of programs like Food Stamps and AHCCCS,” Julie said. She praised those assistance programs and was thankful they were available to a struggling mother.
Twenty-one years ago, Julie had the opportunity to work at the hospital. “I started part-time at 16 hours a week,” she said. Now she is the director of health information management.
Nothing was too hard or took too much time when it came to her children. “It was my goal to get those kids through high school, and, from there, it was up to them,” she said.
Elliot said he never really noticed that his family was poorer than any of those around him. "I guess you really don't know any difference; most of your friends are in the same arena that you're in. It's not that big of deal.
"I guess as long as we had a little something to eat, it's really not a big deal when you're a little boy growing up. I guess now that I am older I can understand how little we had," Elliot said.
Growing up in Thatcher was mixture of fun and boredom, the latter of which may have contributed to his success in baseball.
Elliot, his brothers and his friends had to find something to do in late part of the '90s, and they quickly figured out that playing sports was a good way to pass the time.
"We spent a ton of time playing basketball," Elliot said.
Nothing was more important than playing basketball to Elliot and his friends, and their devotion to the sport landed them in hot water a couple of times.
"I can still remember when I was in seventh grade, I had the last hour of PE in the old gym that has now been torn down. It was my job to put a piece of paper in the door lock so we could come in after school was over and play. We could play night games when nobody was in there," he said.
They were eventually caught. "They were trying to see if we were doing something wrong, and we were in there all sweaty — shirts and skins," he said.
"We were never really trying to get in trouble. We were just trying to find a better place to play because the concrete court there at the college was not up to par, and I guess we got a little snobby as to where we played," Johnson said.
High school sports
Elliot was a wide receiver on his high school football team, and he only weighed 140-150 pounds.
"That was always my problem when I first started playing pro ball, they told me to put on weight. It was the hardest thing in the history of me to do, but I was always really fast,” he said.
“Playing football, we really didn't have to (stand out) because we had Sean, Mark and Mike and Leon, when he was healthy, running the ball. We had so much talent. You can imagine me and Leon, who both play professional baseball, and we weren't even the best players on the team. You still had Romney and Hinton and Levi Mack ended up playing for BYU, a pretty talented guy, too,” Elliot said.
Don Conrad, former Thatcher high school football coach, now athletic director and assistant principal, echoed Elliot's sentiments when asked about the football team.
A scout who visited to time Romney, Leon and Elliot as they ran told Conrad that he'd been to a lot of small schools, but he had never been to a school with so many fast kids.
Boy, was he red!
Coach Conrad, assistant coach Danny Battraw and Levi Mack related their favorite Elliot Johnson high school football stories, and they all contributed to the telling of Elliot’s most embarrassing night.
The story goes like this. Elliot was Conrad’s designated crack back.
“He was a hammer in the tail back sweep. It didn’t matter who it was (he was hitting) he took a lot of pride it,” said Conrad.
Battraw said Elliot was keying in on a particular player in the kick-offs and "really smacking him good."
When the teams went to shake hands and the helmets came off, it was a girl!,” said a laughing Battraw.
“We were all rolling on the ground laughing,” Mack said.
“He was so embarrassed and took a lot ribbing from teammates,” said Battraw, who is still an assistant football coach for Thatcher.
Getting to the Major Leagues
Elliot is one of the few boys who dreams about playing in the Major Leagues and then gets to live that dream.
"Ever since I can remember I wanted to play Major League baseball. Not really just for the money but because that's what I really wanted to do," he said.
He and his brothers watched the Cubs play every day, and his dad's goal was for his boys to lead the Cubs to the World Series.
"Leon got drafted by the Cubs and played with them for a little while, and I have been with the Rays my entire career. I never (had) my opportunity to make my way over to Chicago, but I am completely happy here,” he said.
Conrad and Elliot felt confident that the latter had plenty of ability when he was 18, but he wasn't noticed or scouted by the right people.
“I had only one guy lay eyes on me, but it was a week before the draft. He said his opportunity came up was when he was playing an all-star game at the Bank One ball park where the Diamondbacks play. "The scout assigned to me saw me play and said he knew he wanted to sign me right away, and he did,” Elliot said.
Elliot wasn't noticed by scouts in the Gila Valley, but he had the opportunity to go to Bank One ballpark and play in the all-stars.
"I hit a single off a guy who ended up playing in the big leagues, Doug Mathis, who played with the Rangers for awhile. He was from Show Low High School. I stole second base, and my scout was in the stands. It was the third fastest time he had ever gotten on a stolen base, behind a couple of really famous base stealers,” he said.
“We did a try-out, and I asked him if I could bring Leon along and he said, of course, and then we ran the 60s heat. Leon even beat me in the 60’s time overall. I beat him the first race. He ran us again to be sure, and Leon beat me the on the second one by a couple hundredths of a second. One guy coming from a small town is amazing and, of course, two guys is really incredible. Not only did me and Leon, but Issaac got drafted and Luke and Cedric got drafted as well. It really just doesn't happen like that."
Competition at home
“Growing up in a house with that many boys, everything is a competition, you understand, everything: video games, how much can you eat, who’s the fastest, who's the best at Monopoly, anything.
“Competition is what drove me to try and be better at everything else or work as hard as I could to be better," Elliot said.
A reading room at the St. Petersburg Boys and Girls Club was named after him after he brought competition into the game of literacy. Children were encouraged to read a certain amount of books and win awards.
Elliot did not go straight to college out of high school and is now enrolled in Phoenix University, studying for the day when he retires from MLB.
“The better you are at comprehension skills when it comes to reading, the more valuable you end up becoming in the work environment,” Johnson said.
Career high lights
What was it like to get that first hit off of Andy Pettitte in the old Yankee stadium during his first Major League game?
"It was a dream come true. You imagine what it's going to be like and, of course, it's never what you think its going to be like. Especially off a big name guy, a potential Hall of Fame-type player. It was my first start, second at bat. My first at bat, I flew out deep to center and then my second at bat, I hit a line drive off of him to left.”
His mom was there in the stands to see it all and watch her son on the Jumbo Tron.
She gushed about the experience and sitting there with the wives, moms and girl friends surrounded by security at the game.
What is important to you?
“I’m trying to get my son's college paid for right now. That's one of the most important things for me. Obviously, my mom couldn’t do that sort of stuff raising six kids on her own,” Elliot said.
“What's important for me is right now to try to just stay a Major League baseball player for as long as I can. Then I will be able to have more flexibility to do other things for not just my family, but for my extended family, my brothers, my sister and their kids,” he said.
“Family is always the most important thing to me, and, after that, things will fall into place,” Elliot reiterated.
Go get us a home run in the World Series. “That would be great wouldn’t it?” You could hear him smiling 3,000 miles away.