On Father's Day, Buckeyes 'juniors' celebrate bonds with the dads whose names they share
Growing up, future Ohio State men’s basketball player Meechie Johnson Jr. knew his father had been a highly regarded prospect who was friends with LeBron James and had his eye on an NBA career. But the sacrifices made to get Meechie Jr. to this point weren’t immediately evident to him.
What he didn’t understand until much later, roughly around middle school, was why his father's dream hadn't materialized and how his entrance into the world changed his dad’s life entirely. When Johnson Jr. was born, his dad put his basketball career on hold to focus on being a father. Now, preparing for his first full season with the Buckeyes and on the cusp of a tryout for the United States U-19 World Cup team alongside teammate Zed Key Jr., the younger Johnson said none of his success has been achieved on his own.
It’s his dad’s story as much as it is his, a bond strengthened by the name they share.
“Every time I hear my name or think of it, it’s like my dad is always with me,” Meechie Jr. said. “He’s always in my head, like he’s next to me. I can feel him all the time with me. I tell him, ‘Everything I do, everything I accomplish or get done, I want you to treat it like it’s yours because it’s your name and I’m just living it out.’ ”
That bond is familiar to multiple other members on the Ohio State roster who share names with their fathers. Johnson Jr. is joined by Zed Key Jr., Gene Brown III and, should they return next season, E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr.
Although they both go by the nickname Meechie, the Johnsons actually share the given name Demetrius. The Keys share a love of cars (together, they could build an engine) and basketball, in addition to a unique name that, the dad said, was always a given for his first-born son.
“I love my name ‘cause it’s unique,” Key Sr. said. “You don’t know any others. I knew that was it. We’re having a boy? OK, his name is Zed. That’s it. Nothing else to discuss.”
Key Sr. said he got the name from his father. Willie Key was given the nickname “Zedwood” in homage to the cartoon character Dagwood for reasons that have been obfuscated by time, making Key Jr. the third generation to unofficially have Zed in his name.
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Otherwise, there are officially two Zed Keys.
“My name is six letters,” Key Jr. said. “It’s a cool feeling, to walk in somewhere and your name’s never going to be on the list because you’re the only Zed.”
It’s a feeling shared by both Browns, who have the full name of Eugene. Growing up, Brown II said the name Eugene didn’t carry very strong connotations, citing Eugene Felsnic in "Grease" as a prime example. He embraced the name, drew motivation from it and, like Key Sr., had no doubts what he wanted to name his first-born son someday.
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After they had two girls, Gene Brown III came along. The two men are similar in temperament, both said, and even share a spot on the right side of their heads where a patch of hair starts to grow in a different direction to create a natural part.
“I don’t know if it comes with the name being the same or what, but man, me and Gene got so many things in common,” said the elder Brown, who is a basketball coach. “It’s not just the basketball part of it. He’s a good, young kid, man. He’s respectful of people, respectful of women, he tries to be thoughtful in what he’s doing.”
Brown III said his father’s ability to see strengths in him that he can’t helped when he suffered a broken leg during his junior year of high school.
“He was right by my side,” he said. “I was holding his foot, looking up at him and he just bent down and said, ‘You’re gonna get through this. You’re gonna be fine. All your dreams are gonna get accomplished.’ I just went with that, kept that through my whole rehab, and now here I am still pushing.”
While Brown II waited for a son, the Liddell family named their firstborn — a daughter — Erica in case Eric Liddell wouldn’t get a chance to pass down his name. When their son was born, he was named Eric — E.J., as a nickname, for Eric Jr. As the two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball prepared to leave for Ohio State, he asked his dad: Do you want me to go by Eric as I start my career?
“I told him, ‘Man, you’ve got your own identity,’ ” Eric Liddell said. "To have someone like that, it’s awesome to have a kid who represents your name the way he does. There’s a lot of kids out here who could go one way or another. E.J. has always been a great kid.”
Johnson Sr. likewise praises his son. After all, to say anything otherwise about his younger namesake would seem like a personal insult. The two Meechies are so similar, he said, that his mother has a good-natured saying about the two of them: “Babies having babies.”
“It’s a blessing, man, to have my son carry on my name and be able to do better things than I did,” Johnson Sr. said. “A lot of people knew me as Meechie the basketball player, but to have my son carrying on my name and taking it to a whole ‘nother level, man, it’s something I don’t take for granted.”
This Father’s Day, each duo said there are no special plans in place, no longstanding family traditions to uphold to mark the day. They’ll talk, they’ll celebrate however possible and they’ll do their best to make Dad feel special.
For the Buckeyes who carry their dad's names with them, it’s a daily blessing.
“He’ll be telling me something in a workout and I’ll be like, ‘OK dad, I got you,’ ” Johnson Jr. said. "He always be like, ‘No, you ain’t got me, you got you. You got yourself. You go get it done.’ I can feel it right now, like he’s with me all the time.”