Willow Johnson talks about her dad in the way someone might talk about, say, a successful insurance salesman or a local TV weatherman.
“I definitely just look at him as my dad,” she said. “Obviously he was very successful in his field of work. I get why he’s this big star, but to me he’s just my dad.”
OK, but in this case the fields of work included Chase Field in Phoenix, the Kingdome in Seattle and Yankee Stadium in New York. When your dad is possibly the most intimidating man ever to stare down a hitter from a pitching mound, it’s a given that your childhood is going to be different from most.
That was true for Willow, who grew up immersed in the game of baseball as the daughter of legendary pitcher Randy Johnson. Not every kid can say they were in Cooperstown to watch their dad enter the MLB Hall of Fame, or that they hung out with Pedro Martinez and his family before the ceremony. For Willow, it felt normal to be part of her dad’s biggest baseball moments.
Now that Willow has an athletic career of her own as a junior outside hitter at Oregon, the roles have been reversed. Randy Johnson was the one sitting in the stands last week at Matthew Knight Arena as the Ducks won their first- and second-round matchups and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, where they will face Minnesota at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
At 6-foot-10, Randy Johnson remains one of the most recognizable sports figures alive, which makes it difficult to blend in with the other fans in the parents’ section.
This was Randy’s second trip to Eugene to watch Willow play. He also traveled from his home in Arizona when the Ducks faced Arizona and Arizona State, and he was in the crowd when Oregon played the Arizona schools on the road.
Though he retired from baseball in 2010, Johnson stays close to the game. He’s a special assistant to the Diamondbacks’ president and CEO and frequently travels overseas on USO tours to visit American military personnel.
Johnson keeps a full schedule but still finds time to follow the volleyball careers of Willow and her younger sister Lexi, a freshman at Indiana.
“He makes sure that he’s supporting us when he’s not there by watching us on TV or following the stats online,” said Willow, who is third in kills for the Ducks with 303. “I’m always getting a text from him before the game. He and my mom both really support me and my sister.”
For as long she can remember, Willow has been living in the aura of her dad’s baseball career. She was born in 1998, just before Randy signed with the Diamondbacks. He would go to win four straight Cy Young awards in Arizona and help the Diamondbacks win the World Series in 2001.
One of Willow’s earliest memories involved riding on a bus in the victory parade. When Randy was traded to the Yankees in 2005, the family moved to New York and Willow was home-schooled for a year. Randy was traded back to Arizona in 2007 and the family settled there for good, traveling back and forth to the Bay Area after Randy signed with the Giants in 2009.
When she wasn’t hanging out with other players’ kids at the stadium, Willow was probably in her family’s backyard, playing catch with her older brother. It wasn’t the same as getting drilled by a Randy Johnson fastball, but Willow did get hit in the head once when her brother threw the ball while she wasn’t paying attention.
“My dad was pretty mad at him,” she said.
For her own sports career, Willow tried out almost every activity you can imagine: gymnastics, karate, ice skating, soccer, softball and basketball. (She also plays the guitar.) She started playing volleyball in the fourth grade and, by high school, decided to make that sport her main focus.
Willow joined an elite club team, the Arizona Storm, and began receiving scholarship offers. As the daughter of a professional athlete, she knew something about the dedication required to compete at a high level.
Still, her first year at Oregon was a shock to the system.
“I didn’t understand how much we’d be practicing and how much time is devoted to your sport when you’re a college athlete,” Johnson said. “My freshman year was a real eye-opener for me. I didn’t know how devoted I would have to be until I got here.”
Three years into her college career, Johnson understands it now. The Ducks are reaping the rewards this year as they play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.
Johnson owes her success to hard work, self-discipline, mental toughness — all traits that helped her father become one of the most dominant players of his era.
But, of course, the genes don’t hurt.
“Now that I’m 20 I can actually understand what a great position my dad was in,” she said. “I just try to make myself happy with my success and try to make him happy, too.”