By A. STACY LONG, Montgomery Advertiser
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The phrasing is similar, right after a small smile creeps across their face with maybe an emotional stare mixed in.
Tyler Price did it, and so did Catholic teammates C.J. Person, Charlie Ryan and Greg Ellis, all independent of each other. Shakayla Thomas said the same things, though her words came through the phone, and her reaction wasn’t visible.
Price: “He’s like a dad.” Ellis: “He’s like a dad, and he’s always there for you.” Person: “He’s really like a dad to me.” Ryan: “He’s the father I’ve never had.”
Thomas: “Everybody needs somebody like that.”
The reverent tones are reserved for someone not terribly older than they are, who has both chided and cajoled each of them, who has taught them games and taught them about life.
Kirk Johnson may be a simple assistant football coach at Catholic, but the pictures he and his wife carefully save at home, on his phone and in his Catholic office belie something more.
They are of the 24 players — so far in a seven-year coaching career — that he’s helped land college athletic scholarships.
“There’s nothing like a Saturday on the couch grading film when one of those kids makes a play on TV,” said Johnson. “It just gives me a thrill.”
It goes beyond football.
Thomas was one of his first. The former Miss Basketball from Sylacauga just ended her college career at Florida State — she’s No. 2 on the school’s all-time scoring list — and went to the Los Angeles Sparks in the second round of Thursday’s WNBA draft.
Sure, the majority are in football, from T.J. Green, who Johnson talked into playing football his senior year of high school.
Green signed with Clemson and is now in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
There have been many more at Catholic, down to Price, Ryan and Ellis. For Person, check back in a year.
“My goal is to get these kids up and out of here,” Johnson said.
They tell about Johnson teaching them about life, disciplining them harshly and smothering them with love. They tell about Johnson’s commitment to them, from something as small as answering late-night phone calls to driving them hundreds of miles to visit colleges.
“He means everything to me,” Ryan said.
Ryan credits Johnson with helping him change his life. Ryan has signed with Georgia Military College, though he’ll spend just one season at the junior college. The NCAA, after signing day, said Ryan would meet its academic requirements.
Person just recently spent days in a car with Johnson, who drove Person to visit both Indiana and Purdue last week during Catholic’s spring break. They’re expecting to take another trip soon to Tobacco Road — Wake Forest, North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State.
“His motivation and drive were always deep,” said Central-Hayneville coach Quinn Hambrite, who played linebacker alongside Johnson at Huntingdon College.
“We both went to small (high) schools but, having played college football, we know how important it is to see those campuses,” Hambrite said. “Some of us didn’t have people in our lives like we are.”
Johnson finished high school at Cornerstone, an AISA school in Columbiana, and said his background motivates him to help kids today in similar situations.
He was one of six children and raised by a single mother.
“My mom was the engine that kept everything running,” Johnson said. “She cooked. She cleaned. She washed. She was there on Mother’s Day. She was there on Father’s Day.”
Johnson was recruited by Samford and, without experience at recruiting, quickly committed. But he didn’t have the typical size and speed to be a linebacker at that level.
Samford later pulled the offer and caught Johnson by surprise. He was unprepared to find another college.
“They couldn’t measure his heart,” said Tim Smith, Johnson’s coach at Cornerstone who is now at Evangel-Alabaster.
Huntingdon coach Mike Turk remembers that Huntingdon had always been interested in Johnson, but it wasn’t until April — well later than usual — before they could get him to visit campus.
Johnson played in every game for four years and was a two-year starter. He remains one of the school’s all-time leading tacklers.
“He was always a hard worker and always wanted to be the strongest, but he was too big to be the fastest,” Hambrite teased. “We always had our battles in practice, but he was such a good guy.”
It showed quickly after Johnson took his history degree from Huntingdon and got his first job in Sylacauga.
Thomas said she thought he’d be “just another football coach” when she walked into his class, thinking he’d be interested in the football players and little else.
“He was involved with everybody, no matter if you were black, white, Puerto Rican, a senior or 12 years old,” Thomas said. “That first year, you’d have thought he had been there forever.”
That first year, Johnson and Green “butted heads like crazy,” Johnson said, because Green (a 6-foot-3 center) thought his future was in basketball.
“T.J. wasn’t even going to play football,” Johnson said, “but we talked him into it.”
He pushed both Thomas and Green over their recruiting and their grades. Johnson was at Sylacauga for two years before coming to Catholic in 2014, but his style didn’t change.
A year ago, 56 schools came calling at Catholic, many to woo offensive lineman Brian Anderson, who signed with North Carolina. Johnson handled them all.
Over the last four years at Catholic, he’s gone to Florida State six times, Kentucky four times and Clemson and Vanderbilt three times each. There have been camps as far away as Texas, too.
“A lot of people don’t understand how many phone calls he’s made or how many trips he’s taken on his time — and we can’t pay him for it,” Catholic head coach Aubrey Blackwell said.
“His true passion is to see kids succeed.”
Thomas and Johnson still talk often and remain close enough that Johnson went to Thomas’ senior day last month. Green and Johnson remain close enough that Johnson and Person stayed at Green’s house on their Purdue/Indiana trip.
Thomas said that Johnson, more than many others, fits the Sylacauga High motto: We Are Family.
“He’s been there for me through thick and thin,” Catholic’s Price said. “He’s a guy who really stepped up, and what he does for me he does with everybody else.
“He’s hard on you, but he cares.”
Johnson said his wife deserves credit, too. He and Meghan met while taking graduate classes at Auburn and married last summer.
“She lets me take these three-day weekends, and she’s always on board,” Johnson said. “She’s as invested as I am.”
They have no children. Of their own.
“No, I have enough,” Johnson quipped. “I have 99 of them.”
And Johnson is working to get as many of them as possible to the right college for each.
He’s just 28 years old — “a young 28, a young, athletic 28,” he boasts.
Johnson laughs. A few minutes later, he’s charging into Catholic’s weight room to supervise a workout. He teases one player for a recent weak showing, drawing smiles from everyone, including the target.
The Knights take it in stride and understand the intention. To motivate.
In the end, it’s all for them.
“Kirk has a background where someone could make a lot of excuses and take life in a lot of directions,” longtime Huntingdon strength and conditioning coach Charlie Goodyear said.
“In high school and college, he had a lot of coaches invest in him. Now, he’s doing the same,” Goodyear said. “He didn’t take lightly what people did for him.”
Whatever the future holds, and “God has a plan,” Johnson says, those pictures of his past players will remain family treasures.
So many already think of him the same way.
“I would hire him today,” Smith said. “I would hire him, step down and do whatever he’d want me to do.”
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com