He could do a kick flip, an ollie, a hurricane grind, a wheelie, and a front-side 360. And when Johnny Romano was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at seven years old, his skateboarding career didn’t slow down one bit. The Galvestonian became a member of the Real team, making him the youngest professional skater ever. Boards emblazoned with his name in support of his struggle with leukemia sold out. Johnny Romano shoes and T-shirts followed. Senior editor Michael Hall met with Johnny’s parents and friends to learn about the amazing kid who underwent three years of cancer treatment wrought with chemo, experimental drugs, and surgery and became an inspiration to the world of skaters. Here’s the story behind the story.
Approximately three thousand kids in the United States are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, every year. How did you come across Johnny Romano?
I have tried several times to remember how I came across Johnny’s story, and I can’t recall the specifics. Somehow I found Julie and Mike’s blog about Johnny’s life and death and was just enthralled by the story—at least in part, I think, because I have a six-year-old son who has a skateboard.
How familiar were you with ALL before working on this story? How did you determine what statistics and medical terms to use given the wealth of data on this type of cancer?
I didn’t know anything about it, to be honest. When I first started learning about the disease, I wasn’t sure how much the disease or Texas Children’s Hospital would be a part of the story. At one point I envisioned a much larger role for ALL and TCH, but as the story became a profile of Johnny as a boy and a skater, I realized I had to dial back the science and medicine.
Johnny’s parents, Mike and Julie, want to educate people about ALL, so they are used to sharing their story. But how did you get them to speak so candidly about their feelings and fears during Johnny’s incredibly difficult battle?
It took a couple of trips and several conversations. Both Mike and Julie want to get Johnny’s story out into the world, and when I first called them to talk about a story, we talked about how we would, by necessity, be going into some sad, personal territory. They knew what they would have to do. There were moments, especially talking about Johnny’s last hours, when it got really hard for them. As a reporter, I’ve been a jerk for doing all kinds of things, but I’ve never been a party to making two parents—two really decent, good people—relive the death of their son. It was excruciating for them, but they did it because they knew it was essential to getting his story out.
How much time did you spend with the Romanos reporting this story?
I spent two weekends with them in Galveston and Houston. Afterward, we did several phone interviews.
Johnny touched many lives, including the doctors and nurses who cared for him. Did most of the medical practitioners remember Johnny? As a reporter, how do you help sources remember?
They all remember him. Texas Children’s Hospital deals with hundreds of children every week, but Johnny really affected the doctors and nurses there. I spent a morning with Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, Johnny’s chief oncologist, as she led me, Julie, and Mike on a tour of the fourteenth floor, where Johnny used to go for tests. Two different times a nurse or doctor recognized Mike and Julie and came out and hugged them and said something about Johnny, how special he was. Dreyer got tears in her eyes talking about him. She especially loved how Johnny tried his best to ignore his cancer. She remembered how someone had asked him how ALL had affected his life and he answered, “Well, sometimes it interferes with my skating.” She loved that.
What was it like visiting Texas Children’s Hospital? What was on your mind while you walked the halls?
Walking around the hospital, you can’t help but see the kids—in wheelchairs, with shaved heads and dark circles under their eyes. TCH does its best to make the hospital feel cheery—with toys, games, colorful paintings. And the doctors all have a cheerful, determined look on their faces. I was amazed at the doctors, how sanguine they are, how they can maintain that sense of hope—even as they know how many of these kids won’t survive.
How did the idea to parallel Johnny learning a new trick called the rock and roll with the story of his illness come about?
When his parents told me about that last day at the park, I just knew that scene would play a big part in Johnny’s story, in trying to make sense of him as a person and as a skater. Symbolically it was a lock: here he was on his last day on the board—his whole family was there, his best friend, his dad, who was skating too. Then the more Mike, Julie, and Heath told me about what Johnny did in those minutes, how he spent that whole time learning one trick, which exemplified how determined he was in the rest of his life—as a skater and as a cancer patient—I knew I had to recreate the scene. When Mike and Julie showed me the thirty or so pictures they had of that morning, I knew I could do that.
When you describe scenes, such as Johnny learning a new trick or his time in the hospital, it sounds like you were there. How do you piece together such detailed scenes that you weren’t there to see yourself?
With Johnny learning the rock and roll, I had the benefit of those photos, plus the memories of Mike and Heath. For example, both of them told of how Johnny added his special touch, rolling his foot in, and I knew if I could picture that in my head, I could make it clear to the reader. For the hospital scenes, I had the benefit of Julie’s blog. She is a note taker and took notes all the time on what the doctors said and what Johnny was going through—even conversations. So I used those entries plus her memories and Mike’s—as well as those of Heath, Joey, Jim Thiebaud, and the doctors—to recreate what happened.
What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
Tears on the keyboard. I’ve never cried doing a story before. On this one I had tears in my eyes while interviewing the Romanos and then while actually writing the story. Johnny was such a good, brave little kid.
What did you know about the world of skating before researching this story? Have you ever skated?
I knew a little. I skated when I was a boy in Hawaii, but the boards back then were small and we didn’t do that much on them. I loved the Dogtown and Z Boys documentary, loved the whole subculture of skating. But it was a mystery to me: Why do those boys over at the junior high near my house spend hours and hours trying the same trick over and over?
Do you think the robust network of pro skaters and the skater mentality (“pros don’t cry”) played a part in keeping Johnny strong longer?
Absolutely. He was just a kid and didn’t really know how to act, but he had all these examples from these stoic grownup skaters, many of whom came to visit him, and I think that gave him real-life examples of how to live and deal with the pain he was going through. Though, as his mom and his doctors made abundantly clear, he was pretty stoic too before he became such a skating celebrity.
Were you surprised by the outpouring of support and encouragement from skaters?
No, especially when you think about how close that group is. Skaters are like any other group of outsider weirdos, like punk rockers, and when one of their own is down, they all gather to support him.
How important was Julie’s blog throughout the family’s ordeal? What role did it play in your reporting?
She started the blog as a way to let family and friends know what was going on with Johnny, so she wouldn’t have to keep explaining what happened every day. But the blog grew into something more—a diary for her and Mike to reveal their hopes and fears. It was unbelievably helpful to me as a reporter. Because Julie is so meticulous, I was pretty confident in the accuracy of her reporting, so it was a great place to start. Plus it gave a window into what was going on emotionally for both her and Mike, and of course, Johnny.
Was there anything else you wanted to include in the story that didn’t make it in?
I wish I had been able to show more of how the doctors and nurses at TCH worked with Johnny. He spent so much of his life there, especially the final four months, but I had to trim that part down.
What do you want people to take away from this story?
Johnny was a special kid—mostly from genes and upbringing. But his passion for skateboarding helped him focus on something besides his cancer; it helped him develop a courageous I-can-beat-this attitude that led him to live better and maybe even longer. Other skaters know about this attitude; that’s why Johnny became such a symbol for them. I want regular people to remember that attitude too—that way of living in the face of death.