John Johnson might be 52-years-old, but he often feels like he was born in 1984.
That was the year when Johnson’s life changed completely. Some would say for the worse judging by the wheelchair he now calls home. Most would say for the better judging by the thousands of kids whose lives he has touched.
It was March and Johnson was some place not uncommon for him to be back in those days — in the air over the San Gabriel Valley hang gliding. Johnson’s journey that day started at Mount Wilson went over Glendora and ended tragically on the ground at Royal Oaks Elementary School in Duarte.
“I was in the air for about four hours,” Johnson said. “I had landed at that school a half-dozen times. I was having a little trouble getting down close enough to the ground because it was, I don’t want to say turbulent, but we used to call them poppy days.
“And when I came down, I obviously made a mistake and cartwheeled in. I broke my neck. I don’t remember the last few seconds of the crash. What I remember is that my right wing tip hit the ground and that made me cartwheel and I made contact with my forehead with some part of the glider. Albeit I had all the equipment I should be wearing, I hit the glider so hard with my head that it caused my neck to hyper-extend.”
What happened to Johnson that day would have been the end of most people. As a result of his injuries, Johnson’s new reality became being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. For him, it was a rebirth that saw him go on to earn multiple college degrees, become a foreign languages teacher at Bishop Amat and also a football coach for the past 24 years.
Johnson will be honored with the football program’s prestigious Tradition Award at Friday night’s Lancers Kickoff Dinner at Industry Hills Expo Center. For head coach Steve Hagerty, it’s the least he can for the person who was his best best man at his wedding and one of the top special teams coaches around.
“It’s an award we give to somebody annually at this dinner who has made a significant contribution to the traditions and the prides of the Bishop Amat football program,” Hagerty said. “John’s been an inspiration to so many people. He’s a really unique guy. I love him to death and I miss him.”
The reason Hagerty misses his longtime friend and former Amat classmate is because Johnson has decided to give up coaching. He’s now got his sights set on trying other things. And if it’s possible to make an even bigger impact doing something else beside coaching, Johnson will find a way to do it.
It’s that type of spirit after some dark days following his accident that has propelled Johnson into becoming on of the most popular figures on campus; be it in the class room or on the football field.
It wasn’t easy in the early years following his injury for Johnson to come to grips with his new reality. In high school at Amat, he was a fierce linebacker and fullback. After graduating from Amat in 1980, Johnson parlayed his football prowess into playing at Long Beach St. before a back injury ended his career.
Ever the daredevil, Johnson immersed himself into his other two loves — hang gliding and surfing. The crash in 1984 ended all of that for good, but Johnson soon found himself interested in coaching football.
“Literally, to be keep myself from going stir crazy, I went down to my old alma mater St. Christopher’s catholic school and asked if I could volunteer as a tutor,” said Johnson, who lives in West Covina near the school. “A few days later, I was checking out the flag football practice and a week later I was the defensive coordinator. I spent six years doing that.
“I remember coming home (from the hospital) and there was definitely some lean days. It ran the gamut from suicide to good days. It was one of the toughest things I’ve gone through in my life. In retrospect, people said I was in depression. I remember one day, I just woke up in the morning and decided to go forward, to stop feeling depressed or hating life. I think that’s the time I went down to St. Christopher and decided to make my life something meaningful.”
That decision spawned a coaching career that saw Johnson wind up back at Amat. In 1995, he became the school’s sophomore football head coach, a position he held until 2002. After Hagerty was hired as varsity head coach in 2008, he quickly moved to bring Johnson on to his varsity staff.
For the past six seasons, Johnson was Hagerty’s special teams coach. Because of logistics, it wasn’t easy. There was the time at Los Angeles City College when the security detail didn’t want to let him on the field because of his chair and it’s potentially damaging effects to the turf and track. Or when the coaching staff at Santa Margarita helped carry Johnson in his across an area so he could get to the field.
Then there were the referees. Some of them weren’t always accommodating, often warning Hagerty to get Johnson out of the way or off the sideline at the risk of getting a penalty. It’s something Hagerty used to his rib his friend about during games.
“I’m discovering the things I have to do now that he’s not here,” said Hagerty, who has taken over as special teams coach. “I’ve kind of taken for granted all the things he did. He covered everything with those guys. He just had a real structure to him because he worked really hard, and I, right now, I’m kind of screwing them up. I can already feel the difference.”
Johnson credits his mother Marie and friend Eva Sanchez for being instrumental in helping get ready for games. He’s also thankful for members of the Amat coaching staff who would help by driving his wheelchair accessible van to games so that Johnson wouldn’t miss a thing.
Last season, though, the process started to become a bit overwhelming. After some games, Johnson would ride in his motorized chair up to Francisquito Avenue to catch the bus to get home.
“For whatever reason, in the last year, there were times I didn’t have a ride,” Johnson said. “I wanted to lessen the time that I was asking my mother to pick me up or other people to pick me up.
“Just recently, in the last year, physically I’ve gotten a little bit stiffer. And I’m not getting any younger. Things have started weighing on me. I think most of us know when that feeling comes. One of the big things for me is that it’s not just about me. It’s about my support group.”
Given that Johnson has a desire to try some other things, the decision to stop coaching seemed like the right move. But don’t expect Johnson to be a stranger. He plans on attending Amat games when he can. Before that, though, receiving his award on Friday will be a perfect to start a new season and a new chapter.
“To be honest with you, I’m not too much for the limelight shining on me,” Johnson said. “It’s just not the way I was raised and it’s now how I am. But it’s definitely an honor. It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s nice to be acknowledged, I think all of us like that. I just don’t like the limelight to be on me too long if any at all.
“It’s an honor for me because I bleed blue and gold and always will. Amat is a huge part of my life. To be acknowledged by your peers and your best friend is pretty special. But what I got back from the kids and other coaches was huge.”