On Thanksgiving evening, Clint Johnson, former University of Notre Dame wide receiver, was offered the head coaching position at Oak Ridge High School, in Orlando, Fla. Johnson takes over as head coach for Kenard Lang, who stepped down from his post on November 7th, due to chronic back problems following a 3-7 season. I had the chance to catch up with Clint Johnson last week to talk about his journey from pickup football games in Paducah, Kentucky, to a head coaching job in Orlando, Florida. This is Clint Johnson’s story!
(Story courtesy of: Sidelines and Pearls)
As a boy growing up in Paducah, Kentucky, Clint Johnson was exposed to football at a very early age. It was a way of life for him, from pickup games at the abandoned fire station lot, to youth football. He lived for the game. The local high school, Paducah Tilghman, was a breeding ground for athletes and became a perennial contender for state championships. It is this environment and culture that was engrained in Johnson and it was all that he wanted to be. Raised by his grandparents and a single mom, his mom would eventually accept a job in Altamonte Springs, Florida (a suburb of Orlando), and they relocated to Orlando when Johnson was just 12-years-old.
Through new friendships and church relationships, Johnson’s mom was told about Pop Warner youth football. She registered him and his football journey began. Immediately he had success, as he was faster than any of the other 13-year-olds in his division. Pop Warner playing restrictions were governed by the players’ weight. Johnson grew rapidly between his 7th and 8th grade year, and so in order to meet his weigh-in for Saturday football games, he recalls taking tuna fish and crackers for lunch during the school week. Then high school coaches started to show up at his Saturday morning games.
Upon completing middle school, Johnson entered Lake Brantley High School. He was the school’s first black quarterback. Johnson had a great freshmen year, which included beating their rival school’s freshmen team for the first time in five years. He was moved to the varsity squad in the spring of his freshmen year, became the varsity quarterback as a sophomore and enjoyed a successful sophomore season until he broke the thumb on his throwing hand.
Expectations were high entering his junior season. Lake Brantley High School had never won a District championship or been to the state playoffs. That year, they won the District and Conference championship, and went to the playoffs. His name started to spread and the recruiting letters and coaches started to show up.
In the spring of his junior year, heading into his senior year, the scouts would line the field to watch him practice. In those days, most families had micro cassette answering machines. Johnson would come home from school to a completely full micro cassette that could no longer record any more messages. Additionally, he would receive recruiting mail daily. Going into his senior season Johnson was ranked, depending on the publication, either the number one or number two option quarterback. Ironically, he had never played cornerback in his high school career, but was also ranked the number nine cornerback in the nation. Recruiting was very hectic for Johnson. A few recruiters, however, stood out. Vinny Cerrato of Notre Dame and Gary Barnett of Colorado.
Vinny Cerrato very quickly rose to the top. Vinny was silky smooth. He won Johnson’s mom over almost instantly. The only recruiter that his mom would allow in the house to take his shoes off. Vinny would flash the 1988 national championship ring around as much as he possibly could. Once he convinced Johnson’s mom that Notre Dame was the best place for her son, the rest was history.
When Johnson came to Notre Dame for his official visit, he didn’t even own a coat and it was January in South Bend. The late great Rodney Culver was his recruiting host. “Rodney was an amazing person, unbelievable host and outstanding leader.” He sold Johnson on Notre Dame his first night there. The next morning was his meeting with Coach Holtz. Johnson recalls being completely in awe and focused on every word Coach Holtz said. “It was almost inconceivable that I was sitting in the office of one the best college coaches at one the most historic college football programs in the nation. I was a kid who was born in Paducah, Kentucky (the middle of nowhere) and now I’m sitting with Lou Holtz. It was surreal.”
“I remember Coach Holtz handing me a very small container with a mustard seed in it and telling me …’if I believed and had faith in him and NOTRE DAME, together we would accomplish GREAT THINGS!’ I was sold! I committed on the spot, despite having an official visit scheduled to the University of Michigan the following week.”
Now 20 plus years later, after practicing law, Johnson has found himself gravitated back to the game that gave him so many unbelievable experiences. “I’ve been blessed in so many ways. Many coaches go their entire career and never become a head coach. I was blessed to be named the head football coach of two high schools in the same year.”
“Working with young men to help them fulfill their dreams is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced. Changing their mind set, their drive, their ambition is my passion.”
“I have the amazing opportunity to give back to NOTRE DAME what it gave to me as a young mind, a blank canvas full of hope, dreams and aspirations. That hope is Jonathan Jones, a linebacker from Orlando’s Oak Ridge High School. Where I was blessed on Thanksgiving night 2016 to be offered the Head Football coaching position. My football life and journey continues to take me on a fairytale adventure that could only be conceived in the mind of Walt Disney.”
“I have this crazy idea that my purpose is bigger than me.”
If you enjoyed this story, please check out my two books on Notre Dame football, that share similar stories of former Notre Dame football players. You can pick up your own signed copy of Vol. I – Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became, or Vol. II – The Men We Became: MORE Echoes From the End Zone, through my website.
Cheers & GO IRISH!