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A Call to Greatness

While on the path from wayward son to dedicated family man, Johnny Archer became the player of his generation.

Story by Mike Geffner

Archer will enter the BCA Hall of Fame as the iconic player of his era. (Photo by Lara Rossignol)

THAT FIRST road trip: It’s a coming of age for a pool player, especially one still in his teens.

Johnny Archer was only 16 when he made that debut jaunt, back in the mid-1980s, when he was incredibly raw and painfully gangly, as if a gust of wind could shed his skin and snap him like a twig — all long, thin bones and fat-free flesh, yet possessed with a will so strong it seemed ready to burst from his chest.

He had just quit high school, which didn’t sit too well with his father, George, who fought him on the move every day, right up until Johnny, flexing his independence, bolted home. Just a week later, though, he was already in a heap of trouble, in Albany, Ga., and all but flat broke — his meager $350 bankroll shriveling up to a piddling 10 bucks just like that, most of the money lost not on the pool table but, as he would realize later, in a rigged poker game.

He had nothing to eat, no gas in the car, and not even enough cash to make a decent score.

It was 11 at night when he made that desperate call home, his dad needing to wake up from his sleep to groggily answer the phone.

“Dad,” Johnny said after a brief Hello, how you doin’?, “I need you to send me some money.”

“Send money?” his dad said, as confused as he was annoyed. “Why don’t you have any money? And what’s the money for?”

“I need it to gamble on a pool game. But it’s a game I’m going to win.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone, and for Johnny it seemed to last forever.

“Well, I’ll tell you what you can do,” his dad finally said, his tone so curt it could make an eardrum coil up and hide for cover, “You can just walk your butt home, because you won’t get any money from me. You want to be a man? You want to quit school? You want to be a pool player? Well, you better learn how to take care of yourself.”

And that was that. The click of the receiver wasn’t far behind.

“I was very upset, very hurt,” Johnny says now. “I didn’t understand why he’d do a thing like that to me, and I really resented him for it. It didn’t make any sense, not for a long time. But the older I got, the more I understood.

“My stepmom told me later that the second he hung up the phone he cried like a baby, that he said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. I’ll tell you what, I don’t know if I could do that to one of my children. I don’t know if I could be that strong.”

The call that woke up his father ended up being a wake-up call for Johnny. “I know now that it was the best thing my dad ever did for me,” he says. “I made my choice and I had to live with it. I couldn’t rely on anyone but myself. From that point on, I decided I’d do whatever it takes to make it.”

A quarter of a century later, this past June, Archer, the stick-thin kid from the Georgia sticks, officially made it in the biggest way imaginable: voted into the BCA Hall of Fame his first time on the ballot.

“It’s one of those things,” says Archer, who turns 41 in November, “that you don’t expect to happen until it does.”

He will not only go down as the greatest player of his generation, but someone who dominated the game in an era that no one was supposed to dominate, when the tour had expanded around the globe to include killer players from, among other places, the Philippines, Germany, Taiwan, England, Finland and Japan. He’s won so many major tournaments, in fact — the U.S. Open, the International Challenge of Champions, four World 9-Ball crowns, to name just a sliver — his peers have joked over the years that he “must’ve sold his soul to the devil.” He’s been named the Billiards Digest Player of Year an amazing six times (1992, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2004), the Player of the Decade for the 1990s, and revolutionized 9-ball by perfecting the side-rail break to such a degree it’s become the standard way to break the balls.

“I know I have talent,” he says. “But I never did have the raw talent of a Dennis Hatch or a Mika Immonen or an Earl Strickland. And I never had the strong mind of a Nick Varner. I just think I had a lot of everything. Like I never had the best break, or was the best shotmaker, or had the best safety game, but I was always one of the best at all those things.

“And the one thing, I think, that pushed me above everybody else was that I hated losing so much. Still do. It was never about the money for me, or the winning, as much as it was not having that awful feeling after I lost.”

“Everybody hates to lose,” says Charlie Williams, “but with Johnny it seems to physically pain him. I don’t think it has anything to do with pool. It’s in his nature. Losing just bothers him more than it does all the rest of us. ”


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