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.”
Tyler Spitzer, a Star-News All-Area baseball and football player at San Marino, has accepted an offer to play at Harvard next season.
Spitzer, a senior, is one of the top defensive back, receivers and kick returners in the Valley. He’s also the lead-off hitter on the Titans’ league champion baseball team. And needless to say, he’s also got grades.
Spitzer had 510 yards and eight touchdowns on offense and eight interceptions in 2013.
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Quarterback Steven Nava, who left Rosemead for Bishop Amat earlier this summer has checked out of Amat.
Nava was in a three-way battle to be the starting quarterback for the Lancers, a position he held last season at Rosemead as a sophomore. Nava had fallen behind juniors Damian Garcia and Ryder Ruiz in the competition.
No word on whether Nava will return to Rosemead, but it seems that would be his only choice this season due to CIF rules. Nava would still have eligibility at his last school of varsity competition.
“Do I want him back? Of course, I want him back,” Paramo said. “Is he welcome back? Yeah, he’s welcome back. Obviously, the seniors want him back. They kind of felt hurt that he left.”
“I don’t know what happened over there. I don’t know the story, if it’s football-related, personal or financial.”
Nava threw for 1,199 and 13 touchdowns in eight games last season. With him, Rosemead would go back to being the Mission Valley League favorite thanks to a bevy of returning starters highlighted by a defense that has all but two regulars back.
Aram’s Take: I can just see Nava’s phone blowing up right now with calls from Cathedral. Anyway, as I said all along, I have NO CLUE why Nava would ever leave Rosemead. With him, they’re the MVL favorite and he would have an excellent season playing with that team around him and lots of success in terms of Ws and Ls. Hopefully, he can just resume his career with the Panthers as if none of this ever happened. I REALLY like this Rosemead team with Nava at QB.
Nobody will ever know for sure just how close the Bassett High School football program came to going the way of the dinosaur in 2011.
But with just 16 players on the varsity roster at the end of a 1-9 campaign, it doesn’t take a genius to realize things were about as bleak as they could get.
Enter Hector Spathias.
Today, thanks to Spathias, the Olympians are a thriving program, one that was a coin flip away from making the playoffs last season. The roster now has 50 players between varsity and junior varsity and although the stunning turnaround hasn’t come easily, things are clearly looking up.
“I’m a teacher on campus and they knew I had coached football before,” Spathias thinking back to how he took on the challenge of turning things around. “They would call me in and say ‘You know the kids here, you can relate to them, can you coach the football team?’
“And I would say there’s no way I’m going to coach here, there’s no support here. But when you have these kids in your class, you feel bad. You want to give them a fair shot on the football field.”
Spathias took the job and despite being offered a situation where he would be allowed to attend only a few practices a week because he had kids of his own playing sports in high school, he declined to do anything less than attack the challenge with less than the 100 percent he demands of his players.
The improvement in Bassett’s fortunes were almost immediate. Spathias took advantage of being on campus as a teacher and began rounding up the school’s top athletes. The varsity roster soon grew to 25-30 players in time for the 2012 season.
Bassett went from 1-9 to 3-7 in Spathias’ first year. The record may not look like much, but Spathias was laying the groundwork for what was ahead. That even meant simple things away from the football field that other schools take for granted.
Spathias instituted a policy that his players do not go home from school on game days. They arrive for school in the morning and don’t leave until after the game. Spathias cut deals with local restaurants to provide team meals before the games and made sure the players stayed hydrated throughout the day.
“We have a lot of guys who play both ways, so they would cramp if we didn’t keep them hydrated on game day and feed them a good meal before the game,” said Spathias, a 1981 graduate of Mountain View where he played football, basketball and baseball. “There’s no money in the budget, so I would pay for the meals myself or make arrangements with the restaurants. We go to Subway and order a sandwich tray or a local chicken place and get them rotisserie chicken, something they can play on.
“Many of the players don’t have money for cleats or food, so you arrange deals. They come from really good families. They just don’t have very much money.”
On the field, Bassett keeps things simple. Spathias has built his team around its offensive and defensive lines because. Last season, the Olympians bruised their way to a 5-5 record by being well-schooled fundamentally and playing with a chip on their shoulder after Spathias constantly reminded his team that they’re every opponent’s homecoming game when they play on the road.
The highlight of the season was a 27-13 win over nearby La Puente. The Olympians even had a shot at the league championship but a 21-20 fourth-quarter lead over Azusa turned into a 26-21 loss that ultimately kept them home for the playoffs despite a 5-2 record in league.
“We had to change the culture of the kids who are playing football at Bassett High School,” Spathias said. “When you’re getting beat down, you have to work on a lot of mental toughness. There are some plays where you’re going to get beat, like missed tackles. But it’s what you do after that. In the past, they’d put their head down but we didn’t want that to happen.
“In any of our games, no matter how bad we’re getting beat or how good we’re playing, we never quit.”
Spathias focuses on having top-notch line play, because as he puts it “We’re never going to have the fastest players on the field.” By design, no offensive linemen at Bassett play both ways. This season four of the starters are seniors and the other is a junior.
Although there’s a bevy of players back, the same cannot be said for the coaches. Spathias’ staff, which he gives a lot of the credit to, is in limbo as he waits to see if he’ll actually the money to pay them. In the meantime, Spathias has turned to freshly graduated players from last year’s team to help out as assistant coaches.
In order to keep the momentum going as Bassett enters the Miramonte League, Spathias is going to need an assist from yet another new administration at Bassett. Money to pay assistant coaches and fund team meals and equipment appears to be the biggest struggle the program faces today. That’s because on the field Spathias has everything covered.
“This year we have guys who have been in the program for a few years,” Spathias said. “We don’t have guys who have never played coming out for football in their junior or senior years just to try it. These guys have already gone through it mentally and physically.
“You want the kids to do well. You want them to have a little confidence in themselves before they go on to the next thing in their lives. This is one of the most satisfying coaching jobs I’ve ever had. We’d like to stay here as long as I’m getting administration support. But if I can’t pay my coaches, it’s going to be tough.”
There was a time when Greg Gano cared about where his next CIF championship ring was going to come from.
When you win four, it can be addicting. Those days have quickly gone, though. Gano, whether by choice or error, has been rapidly adding chapters to his career in recent years. And that’s not always a good sign for a coach.
The latest and perhaps final chapter for Gano is at Wilson High School. Yes, the same Wilson that’s just down the road from where Gano cemented his name with some of the industry’s best coaches at Los Altos.
Gano’s arrival at the Hacienda Heights campus is a culmination of events that has led the Valley legend to become reflective and less hell bent on wins and losses at a time when most his coaches his age would trying to salt their legacy.
“The only thing I can say is that I’m the same guy I was in 2002,” Gano said before practice on Monday afternoon. “But it’s not about me anymore. I want our kids to feel that I care about them. That is the main focus that I had coming into this year, is that the kids know I care about them and what they’re doing on and off the football field.”
Gano’s career has hit several speed bumps since he resigned his position at Los Altos following the 2007 season. After taking a year off, he was hired at Damien in a move that many thought would make the Spartans an area power and maybe more.
It didn’t happen. Following a 20-22 record in four seasons, Gano resigned and promised he wouldn’t be out of coaching long. He wasn’t. Gano was soon the head coach at Tustin. But that was over soon after it got started and Gano was out at Tustin after an 0-4 start in 2013.
“It didn’t work at Damien,” Gano said. “I was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. So be it. We did some good things over there. We played some good people. Tustin was an unfortunate situation. Again, wrong place at the wrong time.”
The bitter endings at his past two stops have led some to wonder whether Gano should have ever left Los Altos after he was so successful following in the footsteps of another legend Dwayne DeSpain.
“Do I regret it?” Gano said. “There are times when I’ve thought I shouldn’t have left LA. Yeah, that thought’s crossed my mind. You always think the grass is greener on the other side and it’s not. But it was a year where I was really tired and I wanted to spend more time with my daughter Courtney.”
It’s in his daughter Courtney, a former area softball standout who now plays at Washington, that Gano finds most of his inspiration from these days. And it’s through an unfortunate health issue that Courtney has recently encountered that Gano has gained perspective about what’s really important.
While running the bases during practice in March, Courtney Gano collapsed unable to feel her feet. She was rushed to the hospital and later given the diagnosis of Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP. It’s a condition in which there’s progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms.
“It took its toll,” Gano said. “When you get a phone call from the head coach that your daughter is in the emergency room and they don’t know what’s wrong, but she can’t walk and can’t throw a ball five feet, yeah, it takes its toll. It’s kind of frightening.”
After undergoing treatment, Courtney Gano is on the path to recovery. She has one more round of treatment but is already rehabbing and on track to play this season for Washington. Meanwhile, her father is on track to hopefully rebuild a once-proud program that’s gone dormant. But it won’t be easy.
The struggles Los Altos incurred after Gano left are now a distant memory. Although the Conquerors haven’t added another CIF championship since Gano left, they’re back to being one of the area’s top programs. That’s going to make things very difficult at Wilson in terms of securing the school district’s top talent.
While Gano isn’t as bent on winning as he once was, his fuse is clearly still lit. The first challenge will be improving the program’s numbers, which sit at around 60 players between varsity and junior varsity, and about 40 at the freshmen level.
The next step will be improving the talent level, which Gano admits is considerably lighter than what he’s used to, but hopefully enough to compete in the Valle Vista League where defending CIF Mid-Valley Division champion San Dimas rules the roost.
Wilson ran a Wing-T offense under previous coach Nick Christos. Gano is switching the program to his pro-style attack. He’s doing so with a smallish coaching staff, but longtime defensive coordinator Lee Fair is back at Gano’s side.
Mark Sept. 12 on your calendars. That’s the night when Gano will play Los Altos for the first time since he left. And to add to the intrigue, the game is at Los Altos.
“I’ll say what I said when I took this job, Greg Gano doesn’t have the magic wand,” Gano said. “We’re going to coach the kids up and we’re going to have at it. We have to change the culture back to have the kids think highly of football at Wilson High School.
“I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need rings. I don’t need to win 500 games in the next five years and that’s okay. I need to coach kids and watch my daughter grow up.”
UPDATE: The Fresno Bee reports that Kurt Scoby will miss two weeks with a concussion.
Former Monrovia running back Kurt Scoby was having a dazzling scrimmage for the Fresno St. Bulldogs before suffering a serious head injury following a jarring hit during a carry.
Scoby had just ripped off a 68-yard run and on his next play was hit hard by a linebacker. He suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital. Scoby finished with 94 yards on five carries.
Aram’s take: Our hopes and prayers are with Scoby for a speedy recover.