Week 6: Amity (3-1) at New Milford (0-4), Saturday, Noon
WOODBRIDGE — The Amity High School football team’s next home game is Oct. 26.
If John Johnson sticks to his routine, he will arrive at the field around 3:30 p.m. — three and a half hours before kickoff against Branford — while it is still quiet. There’s a good chance he’ll be there by himself. In that moment of solitude, the memories will come rushing back, memories that will remind him why Amity holds such a special place in his heart.
“I’ll start setting up things. I’ll be able to walk things out. That’ll be my time to just kind of think about things,” Johnson said Wednesday before practice.
After 16 years on Seymour’s staff, Johnson, 50, is now a volunteer assistant under Craig Bruno at Amity. It’s a homecoming for the man who grew up attending games during the program’s heyday in the late 70s, when his father was the coach.
“I graduated from here,” Johnson said. “Even though I coached elsewhere, I’ve always had a great affinity for Amity. It’s always been a special place for me, my father coaching here and winning the only state championship. I always thought it’d be neat to come here and coach.”
When Johnson talks about returning, he smiles. He smiles because he loves Amity football the same way William “Bill” Johnson loved Amity football. He smiles because he knows how much it would’ve meant to his father to see him roaming the school’s sidelines again.
William “Bill’ Johnson died on May 7 at the age of 87. He was a staple of Amity football, having served as the head coach from 1978-86 after spending more than a decade as an assistant. In 1978, Johnson guided the program to its first state championship — a 35-20 victory over Ansonia, which snapped the Chargers’ state record 36-game winning streak — and in 2011 the school named its football field in his honor.
— Doug Bonjour (@DougBonjour) October 10, 2018
“He was an icon here, still is an icon here,” said Paul Mengold, who retired in 2014 after 30 years as the school’s athletic director. “He was well-respected, a gentleman. I miss him tremendously. I know his family misses him. Anybody who was close to him, former football coaches Rick McGowan and Len Marazzi, they miss him as well. He was like a brother to us.”
John Johnson played football at Amity, graduating after the 1986 season. So did his three brothers, Bill, Scott and Craig. His sister, Karen, was a three-sport athlete. It remained a special place for him, even while he grew comfortable at Seymour. Nevertheless, few, if anyone, expected Johnson to return to his alma mater this offseason.
In August, just days before the start of practice, Johnson and multiple other Seymour assistants resigned in support of head coach Tom Lennon, who had been on administrative leave since May for an undisclosed incident within the program.
Johnson, who had also coached track at Seymour, did not have any immediate plans for how to spend his new-found time. He figured he’d hit up a few scrimmages because, after all, he still loved football. But he had no plans to dive back into coaching — that is until Amity’s new coach called.
“Coach Bruno called me on a Sunday night. I thought about it,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to still do it even though Amity holds a high place in my heart. I met with Coach Bruno and we talked. After talking with him, he put a lot of the things I was apprehensive about at ease.”
Johnson had built a lot of strong relationships at Seymour, and he worried that he’d damage them by jumping to another job so soon.
“I still have strong ties to a lot of kids at Seymour,” he said. “I didn’t want it to seem like betrayal where I just stepped out, where I just turned my back on them. That’s not what I’m about.”
Ultimately, he found the opportunity to follow his father’s footsteps at Amity far too enticing to pass up.
Bruno, a former two-time state championship coach at Bunnell, values Johnson’s experience and knowledge of football. Johnson’s responsibilities vary depending on what Bruno needs. For instance, Johnson said he’s spent this week working with the offensive and defensive linemen.
Amity, off to a surprising 3-1 start, will visit New Milford on Saturday for a noon kickoff.
“He’s a good guy. He’s an experienced coach,” Bruno said. “We like him. We like him very much.”
And Johnson very much enjoys being back at home, back at Amity. He knows William “Bill” Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I left to go to Seymour. He never said it, but I could always tell, not that it bothered him, but he wasn’t really happy about it,” Johnson said. “I just know he liked it when I coached at Amity because it was such a special place to him.”