Legendary football coach Jimmy Johnson may not walk away from Survivor: Nicaragua with the title of Sole Survivor. But he will walk away a survivor.
Now that the cast has been revealed, we can spill what Jimmy told us straight from the set (I was there), about the surprising way in which he may owe everything to Survivor...
"This is my third time here," the celebrated football coach and huge Survivor fan told me before the game started in Nicaragua. "My first time I got turned down. The second time, [for Gabon], I went through the whole process, and the Survivor doctor says, 'Hey, you can't go: You've got [arterial] blockage.' I went to the cardiologist and had a stent the very next week."
Jimmy also lost weight, changed his diet, lowered his cholesterol and "started working out religiously": "I could've very well gone on at the same pace, at the same weight, and six months later—bang!—and been gone," he said.
"In some ways Survivor might have saved my life."
Now he's back and ready to win...
It's no surprise that Jimmy Johnson—the mastermind behind two Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl victories and a Miami Hurricanes national title—appreciates the game of Survivor: "I've seen every second of Survivor since it started," he told me. "Of all the programs, I watch sporting events live and I watch Survivor live. Everything else I TiVo. I don't miss a minute of Survivor."
Even though the challenges in Survivor: Nicaragua will be less physical, Jimmy realizes that at 67, "I've gotta pace myself...There's no way I can stay up with some of these young guys. Hopefully I can help on the puzzles. Hopefully I can contribute in some way. And as I say, I've been preparing myself for quite a while."
For the sake of Jimmy's Espada tribe, let's hope Jeff Probst doesn't tempt the players with treats to opt out of challenges. When I asked what he'd miss most besides his family, Jimmy said, "The necessities: beer and ice cream. My wife, Rhonda, said if they put a cold beer there or a bowl of ice cream, I'll be the fastest guy out of the challenge."
In the end, Jimmy's greatest challenge might be his own celebrity.
"The biggest thing is I can tell them I'm not a threat—the jury's not gonna award me a million bucks. I'm really the safest guy out there as far as an alliance."
At camp, Jimmy says, "I've got to fight my instincts as a coach to say, 'OK, do this, do that. Get off your butt, go get some water.' Try to be Mr. Nice Guy, which I wasn't when I coached. Try to stay under the radar, make sure I don't alienate anybody, Really just try to contribute to the tribe. Try not to assert myself too much. Let them be convinced that the jury won't award me the money—I'm no threat to them.
"Are you buying it?" Jimmy concluded with a giggle.
No! Neither is Jeff Probst. "If I were playing with Jimmy and he told me, 'Listen, I can't win this game, so take me to the end,' I would immediately think, 'OK, so you're a liar, because I know enough about you and your success that you absolutely believe you can win this game.' But I don't think I would vote him out because I'm so enamored by his celebrity and his charm."
[Full disclosure: We too are enraptured by Jimmy Johnson—resistance is futile. We will be inconsolable if he leaves the game early like Boston Rob last season.]
One thing we can guarantee won't be staying put in Survivor: Jimmy's signature lacquered coiffure. "This is the shortest my hair has been in years," he told me before heading to camp. "I still have my part in it. It won't be this made up when we're out there on the beach." (Proof of that can be found in the cast photo.)
Survivor: Nicaragua premieres September 15—just as the NFL regular season is staring. Jimmy's looking forward to the reaction from his fellow Fox Sports analysts. "Terry Bradshaw's liable to give me the business. I'll make it back just in time for Howie Long, Bradshaw and Strahan to give me the business."