An Ode to Joe Johnson

I was acquainted with Joe Johnson for one year. A plethora of other folks knew him longer and thus more intimately, but he and I were linked at the digital hip amid the last twelve months. His ideation of how VikingsTerritory and its sister websites would blossom was our enthusiastic focus. 

Joe reached out to me in a Twitter direct message on a July night in 2020. I was writing for a different Vikings-themed entity at the time, my first stop in the writing stratosphere. His offer was simple: Come write with me, and I will blow their pay out of the water. I knew nothing of Joe — other than his ownership of VikingsTerritory. He flung a handsome revenue split in my direction, blasting my current writing compensation to smithereens. Flatly, I did not believe him. In retrospect, he always jokingly chided me for “not believing him” upfront.

We struck a deal — I’d write five articles while he immediately showed me the money to prove his too-good-to-be-true offer.

I finished the fifth article and boom — $500 was wired to my PayPal account.

This is how Joe conducted business. His word and reputation were of the utmost importance to him. 

After he delivered, I affirmed my commitment to VikingsTerritory, explaining to Joe that I would turn on the writing faucet. I wrote three articles per day between his two Vikings websites. He was floored by the production, granting me full and immediate creative control to write anything. This is also unique in the sports-writing industry — Joe sought to foster autonomy to the individual. 

Off to the races we went. My writings tallied about 90-100 articles per month, solidifying our working relationship. 

Along the way, we became friends. Our Zoom calls entered the hours-long realm, text message quantities in the dozens per day. We shared bizarre similarities — age range (37), Vikings ardor, recovery from alcoholism, attendance to the University of Minnesota at the same time with the same major (Political Science), political ideology, and even one mutual, meaningful friend. Upon discovery of these things, he boasted the connections as stuff of the cosmos. 

So, that’s the backstory of us as a unit. Here’s the Joe-centric magic.

In almost four decades, I’ve never met another human so quick-witted. And that wit transferred to humor with the snap of two fingers. I often told my wife, “This guy is absolutely hilarious.” You know how you laugh at Seth Rogen or ‘90s Jim Carrey? Joe did that to me via text message. His analogies were legendary, his brand of sarcasm unrivaled. In every conversational transaction, I closed my phone with at least one giggle. 

That’s the lighthearted side. Inside the sports-content firmament, Joe was a visionary. While many of those he recruited to write were not worthy of ESPN, he fundamentally disagreed that their opinions about the Vikings were invalid. If a man or woman could write at a competent level, he wanted their “takes” on his website. He was often met with “Who? Me? I just tweet stuff” when he recruited. But he motivated them with NASA-like hype, convincing the individual that he/she was worthy of publication.

A spacious net was cast.

Old men, young women, high schoolers, and down-on-their-luck pedestrians were all invited to contribute.

So, they did. 

He called it gonzo journalism. Participants perceived this tactic as self-fulfillment of their dreams. Writers would, in return, give thanks to Joe for the platform. His reply: “For what? You wrote all the stuff. Don’t thank me.” You left the conversation feeling like Bob Woodward. 

His inclusion of regular folks entailed oodles of work on his behalf. Copious amounts of his time were poured into the websites, especially over the last year as traffic to the websites transcended his dreams. Joe often mentioned that it was neat when a dozen readers clicked his material back in 2015. Since last autumn, our traffic was hitting one million reads per month. He loved the numbers side of it, screenshotting them to my inbox with a brag about our ascension. Bravado ensued as the traffic skyrocketed but in a competitive way. 

Competition inspired Joe. A lot of the writers at VikingsTerritory [myself included] were former high school athletes, nurtured to compete and loath losing. Joe, with the stroke of a text message, offered men and women skin in the game to compete once again. He and I kept close tabs on competitor sites to ensure their traffic numbers did not eclipse our work. Of course, in the Vikings orbit, we’re all affiliated — but Joe wanted to be the flagship for Vikings analysis. 

In the most respectful vein imaginable, he wanted to dominate the Vikings sports market. He approached seemingly everyone to write under the VikingsTerritory banner with a pledge of creative control, respect, and unparalleled compensation. The goal was to formulate an “Avengers-like” crew of Vikings journalist personnel. To a degree, the goal was accomplished. 

In order to achieve this prosperity, it’s tempting to surmise that he must have ruled with a purple iron fist. 

He didn’t. Not one iota of that.

His demeanor toward friends and confidants was the antithesis of dictatorship. Joe craved creativity and open-mindedness. He’d frequently read one of my articles (on his site, no less), instantly writing a counterpoint on PurplePSTD, the primary sister site to VikingsTerritory. I adored it. I’m the Vikings fan that hopes for the best out of sheer desperation; Joe [like many of you] prepared for the worst during games — usually in a cynical sense. You did not have to agree with him whatsoever to pump out digital content. He was jovial and all-welcoming for the Vikings-related stuff that folks wanted to author. 

On the basis of sports media, I learned early on that you “get stiffed” by others at crucial times. Joe encountered that and would normally voice his frustrations to me. Yet, he’d be back to the drawing board soon after, seeking to right that wrong with a new strategy. It was diligence in motion, even though he was unabashedly not afraid to communicate his discouragement to me.

The operations of Uffda Sports — the network of Joe’s websites — were somehow enacted with him in the backdrop. He preferred a Suge Knight-like style rather than “Puff Daddy all up in the music video.” People knew him and what he built, but he scoffed at true-blue poster-boy status. Indeed, he was proud of his creation, but his face was not plastered all over everything as might be tempting for a successful self-made dude. When propped up for his accolades, he commended those writing under his umbrella. Put empowerment as a synonym next to his legacy. 

Would you believe that a man that sought to conquer the Minnesota sports market was a kid at heart? Surprisingly, he was. He chided me ad nauseam for “being behind on the Marvel movies.” It was challenging for him to understand why me — a family man — didn’t have time to binge-watch all Marvel movies on an ordinary Wednesday night. “Stop writing about the damn Vikings and watch them, dude. Geez.” was a statement rendered in my direction.

Yet another goal was to establish a brick-and-mortar office for VikingsTerritory — complete with a full-scale arcade somewhere in the facility. He really wanted that damn arcade — like a prerequisite for anything to do with actually moving into an office.  

Oh, and everything he texted or wrote was laced with self-deprecation. He playfully made fun of himself to make you feel better. He once told me on a Zoom call that he was “pretty damn good at anything if [he] cared about it enough…except losing weight.” And this self-deprecation was all unprovoked. 

One of the final habits that stands out in our one-year friendship is his preference for diversity. We tried repeatedly to find female writers, simply to broaden our scope. Our agreement was that women are smarter than men — so why not mass-recruit them?

Another example: We found Vikings fans outside of the United States to write on his websites. Brazil was a market that caused us excitement. He interacted with Vikings enthusiasts in Europe, tempting them to scribble on the internet with us. Predictably, this fit in beautifully with his “world domination” outlook. 

Our closest bond — outside of the Vikings material — was recovery from alcoholism. Millions of men and women recover from alcoholism, but Joe and I straightway discovered that we still got obsessed with things, just not alcohol anymore. Thankfully, we both got obsessed with writing about the Vikings, channeling our weird brains in more positive ways. If you’re reading this and you are an alcoholic — you know all about obsessing over finding a way to be drunk. Don’t hesitate to send me a message on Twitter to talk about your drinking if you’re at a point where you want to be done. Joe extended this open pipeline to fellow drunks, too. It’s what alcoholics do — we talk about how to change our lives based on experience, strength, and hope.

Regrettably, I do not know Joe’s family. I, therefore, do not have any details as to what happened last weekend. It’s a painstaking mystery for me. Perhaps I will know in time. If not, that’s ok, too.

But I do miss my friend. Each day, I am a little more perplexed. 

As for the future of VikingsTerritory, that is unclear. I write about 90% of the content (aside from Joe) for the site, but I am only “a guy.” I have no stake in ownership or anything remotely like it. Joe was a one-man crew. He did everything from management to marketing. I will keep readers abreast of the site’s future on Twitter. Wherever I end up, I will preserve his vision of empowering Joe Everyman and Joe Everywoman to write. 

Joe was a complex force of a human, filled with outward, unadulterated compassion for his peers. He dragged a small-time Vikings blog website to a local authority on the team he loved. 

Remember him for both of those merits.

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