Masters of the Pit: Scottie Johnson
November 22, 2011
Those who aren’t familiar with Scottie Johnson and his CancerSucksChicago.com competition barbecue team certainly should because he is a man who truly puts his heart and soul in to barbecue. We recently caught up with Scottie and here’s what he had to say as part of our ongoing “Masters of the Pit” interview series.
First of all, Scottie, can you give the Grilling.com community some background about how CancerSucksChicago.com came to be?
My wife Corliss was diagnosed with cancer 5 months after our second daughter was born. That was 2001. Corliss was involved in a Clinical Trial at Northwestern University, which has one of the top oncology programs in the US. She went for chemo every Thursday for 1 ½ years. She never let cancer get in her way, as she would go out the day after chemo for our oldest daughters soccer games. She didn’t want her battle to interfere with our family. She never would think about herself first, no matter how hard I tried. She wanted our family to be as normal as it could be. Cancer finally beat her after her 1 ½ year battle on February 2, 2003. Yep groundhogs day… Every Thursday when she went for her chemo treatment, she would wear a Cancer Sucks! button. She was very proud of that button and was not afraid to tell people exactly what she thought of cancer?! To this day, I do not know how she stared death in the face. She truly is my hero.
Because of the age of my girls at the time, 5 and not quite 2 years old, I knew I had to try and make a difference and try to have that bond for my girls with their mommy. She wouldn’t be there physically for them, but she would be there spiritually. Her memory could live on through the foundation for my girls. I knew I didn’t want any other family to have to go through what we did as a family. So one year after dealing with our loss, I set up a 501(c)(3) foundation to raise money for cancer research and to assist those that are fighting cancer. The foundation is the Corliss Johnson Memorial Foundation.
I had taken up backyard BBQing and was starting to take it a little more serious. Corliss was always my biggest fan and we had huge plans for competing and eventually doing something with BBQ as an income. My girls were still so young after her passing so I had to put the competition idea on hold. I had to be there for my girls and they needed their dad to be around. In 2005 I went out and cooked 2 contests under the team name of Corliss Johnson Memorial Foundation. In 2006 I figured I would go out and cook around 8-10 contests. I also realized that if I was going to be able to relate to others I had to change the name. I immediately went back to that button she wore. So in honor of her I named the team cancersuckschicago.com.
As a BBQ team, we donate profits from our BBQ team back to the foundation. It means more to me to give back and pay it forward, than it does to have a thick bank account. Let’s face it, the money that we can win at a contest isn’t going to make me rich or allow me to retire.
Do you feel that having such a serious cause has given you more motivation to win?
I am a very competitive guy and played sports my entire life but my body was starting to break down from the abuse. I had to give up sports and I found that there was a competition BBQ circuit. I knew I had found my new sport!
While some compete for wins, I compete to raise cancer awareness. Don’t get me wrong. Wins, trophies and ribbons are awesome. Ultimately though, my battle is against cancer. That is my biggest competition. I also know that for me to be “in the news” and to get any kind of spotlight, winning in BBQ wouldn’t hurt. I don’t take myself too seriously that I think I am a top cook on the circuit. Over the years I’ve had some fortunate luck and have hit some good tables. I know I can play with the big boys, but I really don’t have the time anymore or the strength to compete 30 times a year. Those guys are dedicated to cooking BBQ. I can’t give that kind of dedication because of me having to be a dad/mom, run a 501(c)(3), work full time and do the things that the girls need to do.
Why did you decide on BBQ as the way for you to support your cause?
I never targeted BBQ as a way to raise money. It just fell in my lap. Let’s face it, cancer effects just about everyone. There really isn’t a “cause” out there in our BBQ community and I think that is one of the reasons that the BBQ community has given us support. We also have other fundraisers from golf outings, teaching classes, dinners, etc., but BBQ is the most enjoyable for me. It is where I am the most comfortable doing what I do.
Who is on your team?
The main players on the CSC BBQ Team are my daughters, Zoe (age 14), Lexi (age 10) and my sister, LizAnne. I also have a couple of my buddies, Glenn and Jim who come out and help out as much as they can. Glenn is my designated driver for long contests. Honestly, while I have won contests competing on my own, we are a team. I tell people that I am the Head Dishwasher for our team. We all have roles on the team. My girls have been building boxes and running for a few years now. Other teams even pay them to build their boxes?!
And do your daughters still enjoy going to contests with you now that they’re getting older?
My girls love going out on the circuit. They have BBQ family all over the country from the BBQ contests that we have attended. They don’t look at Johnny & Trish Trigg or Rod Gray as BBQ teams. They are their BBQ family. Now if they will only shig for me on Johnny and Rod?! They also have their little friends from New England to Wyoming. We go to some fun places and contests, which makes it even more fun for the girls.
Now I have never had the honor, but perhaps you can explain the CancerSucksChicago.com tagging?
We have some of our CSC stickers that I guess my girls have become fond of tagging other teams RV’s, trailers, etc… I retired from tagging after getting in trouble for tagging someone. Fortunately for me, Mr. Gray has forgiven me (I think…). I know he will get me back some day though… Another one of their favorite tags is on the KCBS trailer. Folks actually ask them if they could tag their trailers. Pretty funny if you ask me. Our stickers are everywhere. And don’t worry, if they haven’t hit you, just ask them?! Mike Peters call them the little ninja’s…
How many titles have you won as team CancerSucksChicago.com?
OK, you got me. Honestly, I don’t keep track. Doesn’t mean I don’t cherish them, but numbers like that don’t mean anything to me. I’d guess around 20 GC’s? That would be a few grilling/non-sanctioned contests included.
Any one in particular that really stands out?
The “I Love BBQ Fest” in Lake Placid, NY when we were the Grilling Champion in 2010. Those boys out in NEBS (New England BBQ Society) land are all chefs?! I had to retire and not try to repeat this year, just out of respect and knowing I’d never be able to do that again… Winning the Grand Championship at the Taste of Grand Rapids, Michigan contest 3 years in a row is quite an honor. We will see if we can make it 4 years in a row next summer!
But in all seriousness, winning the Grand Championship at the 2006 Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue is a dream come true for any competition BBQ’er. I was able to do it after finding out my dad had passed away from cancer when I was on my way to the cooks meeting the Friday at the Jack. Before I had left for Lynchburg, he told me to go and follow my dream and to bring home the hardware. I decided to stay and cook the contest and my sister went home to take care of arrangements. I dedicated the weekend to my dad and to try to do the best that I could. He and Corliss were definitely watching down on us that day, that’s for sure! I did bring home the trophy for my dad and I was able to bring it and share it with him in a spiritual moment. I know that Corliss and my dad are proud of what we have accomplished.
And what about this goal to cook in all 50 states? Where’d that come from and how’re you doing?
I knew that I had to make it fun for my girls going out in the BBQ world. To try and accomplish that and for my girls to see our great country, I decided to try and cook in as many states as we could. So far we have competed in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Only 18 more to go?! We’ve put a lot of miles on the RV and try to get 4-5 new states a year now. We got to go out to Wyoming this year and we went out a week early and went to Yellowstone. That was so worth the drive. Just an amazing place in our great country!
How much have you raised in donations?
After this year, which will be 8th year as a 501(c)(3), we will have donated over $250,000 as a foundation for cancer research and to assist those fighting cancer.
Finally, how can members of the Grilling.com community help this worthwhile cause?
Our websites are cancersuckschicago.com and corlissfoundation.com. We have a donate page on our website and we also take donations by check as well. My girls also sell t-shirts with our Cancer Sucks! logo on them at BBQ contests.
Great stuff for a great cause. Thank you again for your time, Scottie, and best of luck on your quest to conquer 50 states in the name of fighting cancer.
- Clint Cantwell, Grilling.com Guest Editor