When I first saw him, I thought, 'Oh, this is gonna be tough!' But it turns out, he's really nice. —Sabestian Midkirk, Defensive end
"Did you have fun? If you didn't have fun, we don't need to be doing this!" — Coach Don Johnson.
When you first meet him, Don Johnson strikes you as more of a biker-type than a football coach. Arm tattoos, stocky build, grey, flowing hair swept back into a braided ponytail, and the ever-present biker shirts all help build that impression.
In the beginning, his players thought the same thing. "Just look at him," says lineman Nate Casey. "He looks like a mean biker guy. But when you get to know him, he's awesome!" Defensive end Sabestian Midkirk agrees with the assessment: "When I first saw him, I thought, 'Oh, this is gonna be tough!' But it turns out, he's really nice."
Johnson started coaching football for the West Panthers in the Ute Conference about 20 years ago, when his kids from his first marriage started playing. He worked with them through their little league days and then saw them enter and have success in the West High football program. Along the way, he coached at least one of local football's well-known Ngata brothers among the dozens of kids he's helped out.
But coach Johnson isn't just concerned with his kids succeeding on the field. His philosophy is simple: "You can't play football for me and miss school. I prefer scholastics over sports."
So, he faithfully calls the schools where his players attend, and makes sure they are all in class and getting good grades. If he has concerns, he talks to parents.
The players know there will be consequences for off the field slip-ups. "He worries about us outside of football," says safety Moises Ruiz. "He wants us to have the right priorities. We know he's going to talk to us and bench us if we have bad grades."
That's not to say he doesn't coach his kids to succeed on the field as well.
About four years ago, his boys from a second marriage hit football playing age. He had thought his football coaching days were over, but the West football program was short on volunteers. "They called me the afternoon of sign ups and asked me to coach," said Johnson. "I said 'Sure.'"
The group of kids he started with weren't the stars of the program. In fact, they were the "C" team. "These were the kids that none of the other coaches picked," said Johnson. "So I said, 'Send 'em to me. I'll take 'em.'" And he began to teach and work with the boys.
Boys like Nate Casey. His mom literally tricked him into going to football sign-ups. "I wasn't sure about football at the start," he said. "But Coach got me into it, and taught me everything."
"When Nate came," Johnson recalls, "he couldn't walk from the car to the field without stopping to catch his breath. Now, we call him 'Wheels.'"
And, there's the kid everyone calls "Moose." Coach Johnson talks about him with pride. "He came to America from Liberia. It's his first time ever playing football." But Johnson views Moose's situation not as a challenge, but as a team-building exercise. "We have to tell him where to go, and what to do, but he's really catching on." Johnson predicts Moose will play at the college level when he finishes his high school career.
With a lot of teaching and work, and with the help of what Johnson calls "a really great coaching staff," this group of C-team cast-offs has lost only one game over the past four years.
Along the way, he's made sure any boy that wanted to play was able to enjoy being a part of the team, even if his family couldn't afford it. He won't really admit that he's helped out, saying only "I've been blessed." But the boys know. "He's kind of like a dad," says Nate Casey. "He'll take care of you, help you pay for stuff. He treats you like a son."
Johnson will say he's been "blessed," but his blessings really sound a lot more like hard work. He started his adult life as a Navy hospital corpsman, serving on the U.S.S. Oriskany during the Vietnam War era. Nowadays, he runs his own carpet installation company, where he and his wife Misty work their tails off every day to get finished in time to get to practices.
That phone call he received from the Ute Conference four years ago was not the only challenge that arose that summer. About four months before he accepted the coaching invitation, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. His wife Misty says, "This coaching job got him up off the couch. It's hard for anyone to work when they don't feel good, but he does it."
Johnson doesn't complain. In fact, he is thankful. "I go in for chemo at the V.A. every four months or so. I can't remember how many surgeries I've had, but they've always taken really good care of me at the V.A." So devoted to coaching his boys is Johnson that he will consult with his doctors, and schedule any necessary procedures for after the football season ends.
He's thankful to his boys as well. "Whatever these boys have got from me, you can take that and multiply it by a hundred, and that's what I've got from them."
Some procedures can't wait until the end of the season. "Sometimes I go in for these scope procedures where they scrape the walls" of his bladder. He schedules the procedure for Thursday, takes a day off, and he's back to work, and coaching by Monday.
Misty credits his health and vigor to the coaching opportunity that came at almost the same time as his cancer diagnosis. "He's better because he is coaching," she said. She added, "He's not just an amazing coach, he's an amazing dad to our three kids."
However, like most good things, Johnson's coaching days are about to come to an end. In fact, last Saturday's dominating victory was his last home game. "It was a little emotional," he said after the game. "But moving forward, I know I'll get to see the kids" as they enter the football program at West High School. He added, "There's only so much you can learn from one person. It's time for them to go learn from somebody else."
Johnson is OK with retiring from coaching. You see, he is, in fact, a biker. "It's time for me to go ride my Harley," he says with a smile. "I belong to a motorcycle club, and I want to go ride with them and do some service projects." But he'll be there next fall, somewhere in the stands at West High football games, cheering on his group of young men.Comment on this story
And, who knows, he may even check with a parent or two just to make sure the grades and attendance are where they are supposed to be. "Even after football is done, you need education," says Johnson. "You can't take learning out of your head."
Johnson says he always tells his boys, "You can be anything you want at this age. It's all ahead of you right now."
And coach Johnson has them heading in the right direction.
Chris is a graduate of the University of Utah and Santa Clara Law School and practices law in Heber. He is a father of four, an avid fly-fisherman, and announcer at many Morgan High School sports events. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.