“Baseball is the most boring sport—of all. It’s amazing that I chose it, but I think I chose it because I was fascinated by the amount of failure that’s in it,” said assistant coach Kevin Johnson, 44, in an interview Monday at Lake Park High School in Roselle, Ill.
“That’s why I think I was attracted to it. I loved the other sports—like football and wrestling—because you can take your aggression out and just unleash it on the field, but in baseball you can’t do that,” Johnson said. “You have to have your head leveled. That was always a challenge for me as a kid.”
Growing up in Michigan, Johnson was an active kid who loved challenges. “Obviously the whole ADHD thing has kept me busy my whole life,” he said as he sat there, swiftly shuffling his legs around. “When I was younger, I played every sport you could imagine.”
Johnson played hockey, golf, cross-country, soccer, baseball, football, wrestling, and just about anything that involved him staying in motion.
His high school allowed students to participate in multiple sports during the same season. Johnson didn’t pass up that opportunity. He played hockey up until about the eighth grade. His high school didn’t have hockey so he switched over and played wrestling. In the fall, he ran cross-country and also played Friday night football. In the winter, he was in diving and wrestling. He just pretty much played baseball in the spring.
“I always dreamt of being paid to play when I was younger,” he said. “What’s funny is—here I am today—getting paid to play. I just didn’t think it was going to be in this way, but here I am coaching and being around sports still—and I get paid to do that.”
Johnson started coaching baseball and teaching physical education in 1998 at Lake Park alongside his friend and colleague, Dan Colucci, the head coach of the varsity baseball team.
Colucci described himself as passionate, whereas Johnson described himself as energetic.
Colucci drives. Johnson ignites.
“[Colucci] and I always joked through the years that it’s like good cop, bad cop,” said Johnson.
Colucci gets to deal with all the stuff that Johnson doesn’t want to touch. Whether it’s parents, or kids skipping out on them. He said, “I just get to be the fun uncle that shows up and comes up with wacky, intense games and stuff like that.”
“We work so well together, because I can read when the team’s losing it,” Johnson said. “He’s so driven. He’s driving the boat and he knows where we got to be. And there are times where I see the sailors on the ship are kind of drifting and not doing their job. While he is so focused on the goal, that’s where I think I have a pretty good pulse on how they feel in that moment. So it’s my job to reel them in.”
Each coach brings forward certain strengths to the team’s dynamic, but Johnson admitted that he has some weaknesses.
“My weakness by far is my ability to focus,” he said. “But that’s where [Colucci] is great. He has that goal and he knows how to get there. I could lose directions on how to bake a cake in five minutes. But I know we have to make the cake somehow, and I may scrape together some ingredients last second to figure it out.”
“But my strength as a coach is I have that ability to give a crazy amount of intensity in one moment or duration. I will not give up on something,” said Johnson. He doesn’t believe in quitting. That’s from years of sports but also his parents’ upbringing.
Intensity is essential to his coaching philosophy. He pushes players to do more than what they think they can do. He wants them to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
When the players get into strained mental spaces, Johnson switches up the dynamic with personal and communal strategies to loosen them up.
“The other day I spoke to you briefly about the fine line between joking around and working hard. I have a pretty good sense of that,” he said. “I can mess around with these guys today and they can get a little loose cause at the end of the day this is still a kid’s game and they should have fun.”
He teaches them how to switch the on and off buttons to differentiate when it’s time to be serious and loose.
“One thing you learn as a coach is that every player, just like every student, has their own learning style,” Johnson said. “ Some kids you can yell at, and they’ll respond. Some kids you can’t—I mean if you yell at them and raise your voice they’ll shut down,” he said.
Johnson takes pride in emphasizing the importance of communication, especially in the outfield.
Johnson said, “If you’re talking in the outfield—I’m happy. I don’t care if you drop the ball or not—at least you’re communicating. If guys aren’t talking, they’re going to collide and get hurt.”
Suddenly, a flashback struck him.
“Years ago, I had this kid who was an unbelievable athlete. Imposing figure. 6-foot-4 inches tall, 225 pounds—great athlete. There was this one fly ball to the outfield and he was running in and he didn’t say a word. The second baseman missed him by inches and he made the catch. As he was running in I just started yelling. I never called him names but I was bolting the moment. Then all of a sudden I looked—and that imposing athlete was crying. Just tears coming out. Couldn’t stop. And it caught me off guard like what?”
In that moment Johnson realized that each player needed to be approached differently, by building a relationship with them and knowing their personalities.
In his first year coaching the sophomore team at Lake Park, Johnson learned that there are situations where a coach needs to separate the sport from the relationships with the players or parents.
He said, “If there was ever a year where kids had an honest chance of making the team, it was that year because I didn’t know anybody. I judged them on their baseball talent and I saw what I saw. I didn’t have a history.”
“So I cut this one kid and as I was in the locker room after cuts were over, some man came to the door shaking and crying. It was his father. His voice was quivering and he was crying that I cut his son. I had no idea who he was in that moment,” Johnson said. “He had a bat in his hand or something, and I remember I grabbed a fungo bat ‘cause I didn’t know what was going down—like what was happening here. He was pointing his finger at me and said ‘you’ve got people breaking Lancer code right now in the parking lot and you cut my son.’ And I responded like ‘sir I have no idea who you are.’ Then I found out who he was. He didn’t come at me or anything like that. But that was an awkward moment as far as coaching and dealing with cuts.”
Even at the high school level, players must get cut if they don’t match up to the athletic capabilities of the team.
Communication, chemistry, and dependence are imperative in team sports, as opposed to individual sports.
“I always tell young players that are out there, that if they ever get a chance to play a team sport—they must,” Johnson said. “We’re a car—one guy is the engine, one guy is the tire, one guy is the steering wheel. Without them we’re not getting anywhere, but together we can. And baseball—it’s truly a team sport. If the pitcher is off one day, see what happens. If hitters aren’t hitting, someone else has got to do the job.”
Johnson’s intense workouts and conditioning sessions with his players consist of strong team-building activities to highlight the team’s sense of harmony and brotherhood during the hustle.
“Every year I ever played a sport, I was voted the hustle award winner. That’s not God-given ability, that’s just you and how you work. I think that I’m truly most proud of that achievement in my entire career,” Johnson said. “I was all-state in sports in high school, but that doesn’t matter. The hustle one does because that was what my team voted me.”
In his high school yearbook, Johnson was voted two things: most athletic and class clown. He said, “That’s my personality. Athletic clown.”
By Bella Michaels