Jimmy Johnson rebuilds paradise, says of Upper Keys, 'We're back'

Credit: Taimy Alvarez

Credit: Taimy Alvarez

The electricity returned in a week. The sand filling the pool was hand-shoveled out in three weeks. The docks, destroyed by Hurricane Irma's seven-foot storm surge, were rebuilt within two months.

"I still have to be careful (boating) out of the marina, because the water hasn't been cleared of everything," Jimmy Johnson says.

The seven doors destroyed by the surge were replaced. The salt-water pond filled in. The big tiki hut, its thick poles shattered by Irma, was junked.

"We had to go get a new one," the former Hurricanes and Dolphins coach says.

Here we are, approaching six months after Irma, and life has returned to a functional state of normal for Jimmy at his six-acre, ocean-side paradise in Tavernier, meaning the same can also be said for most of the Upper Keys.

"I know I'm one of the lucky ones," he says. "I could afford it. But the Keys — the Upper Keys — are mostly doing fine now, I know, because it's February and March and there's bumper-to-bumper traffic."

Added proof of Irma's fading aftermath comes with his $1.5 million fishing tournament, the seventh annual, "Quest for the Ring," next week that brought him to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood for a kick-off party.

He talked of the Dolphins trade talk with Jarvis Landry ("He's one of my favorites — I'd keep him") and new addition, defensive end Robert Quinn ("He's a good one"). He talked of the charity component of the tournament going in part to Tranquil Shores, a rehabilitation clinic run by his son, Chad, a recovered addict.

He also talked of these past months of rebuilding the slice of paradise he bought in 1997 while the Dolphins coach. That was where he got married in a bathing-suit ceremony. It's where college and NFL coaches and owners visit each offseason to pick his mind.

It's where he's spent the past months rebuilding in a manner so many have in the Keys. His Key Largo restaurant, Jimmy Johnson's Big Chill, made complimentary pizza each night of the aftermath for first responders. He joined in a series of fund-raisers to help those needing it, especially in the Middle Keys.

"They got the worst of it, as everyone knows," he said. "There's still a lot of property and people needing help."

A crane and two Bobcat trucks were brought to resurrect his property. He took more hour-long drives in a pick-up truck to Home Depot for palm trees and other needs these months since Irma than he did his beloved fishing trips.

"I've only been able to fish three times since Irma," he said.

The ground-floor room where he keeps all his football memorabilia, which was destroyed by Irma, hasn't been redone. But help has come. The College Football Hall of Fame, hearing his induction plaque was ruined, sent a new one. The University of Miami re-sent another damaged plaque.

San Antonio general manger R.C. Buford re-sent a framed quote he'd given Jimmy on a visit after reading the original was destroyed. Friends like former team chaplain Leo Armbrust showed up to help him dig out of the immediate aftermath.

Life has progressed to the point Jimmy's immediate problem isn't from Irma. It's from wrist surgery he needed after the cartilage wore down to the point it was bone-on-bone. A steel plate was put in. His right hand and wrist remain in a cast.

"When I get this off, I'll be OK," he said.

Nearly six months ago, he was the face of the Keys as he stood on his property, tears in his eyes over the destruction, and said, "The happiest I've ever been in my life is right here. And it will be that way again."

Now it's that way again for him. His property is rebuilt. His fishing tournament is here. His smile is in place.

"We're back," he says.