Jimmy John­son in pain over Irma’s dam­age.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Dave Hyde:

TAVERNIER – The dock is list­ing. The wa­ter main is broke. The big tiki hut sits on the ground, its thick poles shat­tered.

“That’s where we’d sit and talk about all the fish we caught,” Jimmy John­son says.

The pool has six feet of sand in it. A car has sand up to its fender. And that shovel by the front door?

“Had to dig out the sand to get in the house,” he says.

The for­mer Miami Dol­phins and Univer­sity of Miami foot­ball coach looks around Thurs­day morn­ing at his slice of par­adise, six wooded acres in Tavernier that dead-end into the At­lantic Ocean. And he sees Hur­ri­cane Irma ev­ery­where.

The salt­wa­ter pond? It’s de­stroyed, a mo­ray eel float­ing dead in it. The ice ma­chine that sat on the docks? It’s 200 feet up the drive­way.

Elec­tric lines are down, a small boat sits in the woods, and clumps of sea­weed are strewn across the prop­erty like dirty laun­dry in a teenager’s room.

“I spent 20 years get­ting this place just how we dreamed it,” he says. “And for it all to be gone in a day …”

He stops for the third time this morn­ing and turns away, wip­ing his eyes.

“Give me a minute,” he says.

His wife, Rhonda, burst into tears when they drove home Wed­nes­day night upon re­turn­ing from Los An­ge­les. And the tears haven’t stopped, for ei­ther of them — nor for any­one who loves the Keys, re­ally.

This is what awaits the first view­ing af­ter Irma. These tears. This pain. Jimmy’s voice is the voice of a re­gion as he stands here and says, “I can’t live here for quite some time. I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do.”

Jimmy, 74, knows he’s one of the lucky ones. No one’s hurt. The struc­ture of his house and guest house are fine. His two power­boats were moved 35 miles away to safety. He also has a place to stay in a room above his res­tau­rant in Key Largo, Jimmy John­son's Big Chill, which was un­dam­aged.

Four­teen miles south of his home, the real dam­age starts. Author­i­ties don’t con­sider it safe to let peo­ple be­low Mile Marker 74.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Jimmy says. “I can re­build. I have the money. I feel bad for peo­ple who lost their house and don’t know what to do. Those are the ones to feel sorry for, the ones who need help right now.”

Still, this isn’t just Jimmy’s home that got punched by Irma. This is who he is. This is the dream he cre­ated. This is the ocean­side heaven he bought in 1997 and made in his im­age. It’s where he fishes most morn­ings. It’s where he brings NFL ex­ec­u­tives and coaches who want his ad­vice.

This is where as Dol­phins coach he mar­ried Rhonda — right up there in the house as a bus­load of Dol­phins play­ers and friends who came by boat thought he was just throw­ing a party. The cer­e­mony was per­formed qui­etly, with bride and groom in bathing suits, by the Dol­phins’ di­rec­tor of se­cu­rity, Stu We­in­stein.

They re­turned to the party, and Jimmy told ev­ery­one, “By the way, Rhonda and I just got mar­ried — let’s party.”

Now he has tons of sand to clear. Now he’s say­ing he won’t re­build the salt­wa­ter pond. Now he can only get in his ground-floor mem­o­ra­bilia room through the door Irma shat­tered. The room is cov­ered in sand. There’s a water­mark two feet up the wall. Framed pic­tures and mag­a­zine cov­ers, mostly from his foot­ball days, were knocked to the floor.

He picks up one. It was a gift from San An­to­nio Spurs gen­eral man­ager R.C. Bu­ford when he vis­ited — a framed quote from the writer Ja­cob Riis: “When noth­ing seems to help, I go and look at a stone­cut­ter ham­mer­ing away at a rock per­haps a hun­dred times …”

He lets that sit a mo­ment. But this isn’t a day for phi­los­o­phy. It’s a day of mea­sur­ing the pain. Up the drive­way comes a truck with the sign “Dis­as­ter Re­lief Team.” This is Joe Palazzo, an elec­tri­cian, called be­cause the big gen­er­a­tor Jimmy bought years ago isn’t work­ing.

“Is it out of propane?” Palazzo says.

“No, we got other prob­lems,” Jimmy says.

A minute later, Palazzo opens the home’s elec­tri­cal box that sits out­side. A rat has been burned to death inside it. A two-foot black snake is alive in it.

“Ev­ery­one was look­ing for some place to ride out the storm,” Palazzo says.

Jimmy rode it out in Los An­ge­les do­ing Fox’s foot­ball show on Sun­day. He ar­rived at the stu­dio at 3:30 a.m. to watch hur­ri­cane cov­er­age. He then had pho­tos of his prop­erty sent. That was enough for him to say he had to re­turn home right away.

“But to get here, to see it, to…”

He turns again, wip­ing his eyes.

He won’t be back for Sun­day’s TV show. There’s a home to start re­build­ing.

“The hap­pi­est I’ve ever been in my life is right here,” John­son says. “And it will be that way again.”


For­mer Dol­phins and UM coach Jimmy John­son stands in his dam­aged mem­o­ra­bilia room af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma.

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