Even before the drugs came, people in Ballymena were terrified of Noel Johnston.
But it wasn’t like he was going around the place a la Tony Montana in Scarface, exacting retribution on anyone who dared looked sideways at him.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
The young Noel Johnston I grew up with was shy and reserved — the antithesis of his older, gregarious brother Sean — and considerate with it too.
I remember seeing him patiently helping an elderly woman across the busy Parkway in Ballymena one afternoon — Kitty Neeson, mother of Hollywood star Liam.
It was almost touching to witness this powerfully-built young man, who struck fear into so many other locals, taking time to help a pensioner.
Noel and Liam had both been amateur boxers at the All Saints club under the tutelage of Fr Alex Darragh in the 1970s.
Needless to say, their later ‘careers’ would take them in vastly different directions.
A joiner by trade, Noel worked for the Enterprise Ulster alongside my older brother Gerry, who found him methodical and meticulous in everything he did.
He had acquaintances, many of them in awe of his hard-man reputation, but only one really close friend — a boy called Bosco Norris, who later moved away to live in England.
The Noel Johnston I knew never invited trouble, but woe betide anyone who attempted to visit it upon him.
A former pupil of All Saints Catholic Boys Primary and St Patrick’s Secondary schools, Noel was one of five children to meat processor Jackie (now deceased) and his wife Annie (nee Sweeney) Johnston.
Sean, Elaine (deceased), Yolanda and Lisa were the other siblings.
He’d no interest in religion or the sectarian street-gang culture that blighted a deeply-divided Ballymena back then.
That was disappointing news for the nationalist ‘Broadway Boot Boys’ from the top end of the town, who would have loved to recruit this monster of a man to help them fight the loyalists from Harryville and Ballykeel.
In those days, Mill Street was the unofficial demarcation line. No Catholic youth would dare venture south of that, but Noel — whose family once lived in predominantly loyalist Harryville — could go anywhere he wanted.
As a teenager who was three years younger than him, I always felt completely safe in his company.
After all, he was Noel Johnston; who on Earth was going to bother the hardest of the hard?
One night, outside a bar in William Street, a row broke out, during which a large knife was produced, seemingly heading in Noel’s direction.
He just looked witheringly at the would-be assailant, saying: “I really hope you’ve brought that out to put it in the bin. Trust me, mate, the alternative for you is not worth thinking about.”
The advice was promptly taken.
Back then, Noel moonlighted as a bouncer in several Ballymena hostelries and would later introduce his large muscular frame — fastidiously honed in the old Health Studio gym on Ballymena’s Church Street — to the front entrances of larger Belfast nightclubs.
It was there, I believe, that the first seeds of an easier, if highly illegal, path towards making money were being sown.
I didn’t see much of him after we reached our twenties, apart from hearing he’d married, had two children and was living in the Greenmount Terrace area. It was a still shock to hear, some 25 years ago, that he’d become a major figure in the underworld.
He was such a health freak as a kid; I’d have thought being involved in something that destroyed people’s lives was actually beneath him.
I last bumped into my late former friend a few years ago, newly unmarried and strolling down Broughshane Street with his new partner.
“What about you, Noel?” I enquired. “Ah, you know me John. Just moseying along, keeping out of trouble…”
Not long after hearing about the death of the notorious ‘Cocaine King’ on Friday night, I studied a large black and while group picture of the All Saints primary school pupils, which was taken in the late 1960s.
I vividly recall Noel being there the day that photograph was taken — yet couldn’t find him anywhere in it.
This was a boy destined to live in the shadows.