Starkville native Jay Johnson is thankful for the leadership and teaching of coaches like Chuck Friend, Lou Holtz and Urban Meyer during his days of playing wide receiver at various levels of football.
Now Johnson is getting the chance to pass on what he's learned to the players at Washington High School in South Bend, Ind.
After serving the school as assistant coach for four years under Antwon Jones, Johnson has become the head coach of the Panthers.
Johnson was approved by the South Bend Community School Corporation board earlier this month to replace Jones, who has moved on to be the head coach at Niles High School in Michigan.
Coaching wasn't always on the list of priorities for Johnson, but something that developed once he started to help Jones.
"Growing up, I just wanted to play," said Johnson, who was a wide receiver and defensive back for Friend at Starkville High School in 1994-95. "I wasn't too concerned about coaching at any level.
"When (Jones) called me and wanted me to help his staff with the receivers, I was reluctant at first simply because I wasn't sure what kind of coach I would be. I've seen former players that thought they would be great coaches and it turned out they weren't. I didn't want to be caught up in that whole thing of being considered a good player and then assuming I'd make a good coach.
"I came out (to Washington) and fell in love all over again with the coaching aspect of the game. Since then, it has been great. I can't get out here and play, but I take great pride in seeing my receivers do what they do on a weekly basis and I'm proud to be in this position."
Following his career with the Yellowjackets, Johnson played college football at Notre Dame and that's where he met Jones, a teammate with the Fighting Irish. The highlight of Johnson's college career was catching the game-winning touchdown pass with 16 seconds left in the game to defeat Navy 28-24.
Johnson graduated from Notre Dame in 2000, then played two years of arena football in Indianapolis and another year of arena football in Illinois before settling down in South Bend to start a family.
"My wife is from (South Bend) and she wasn't ready to leave," Johnson said. "We stayed here and I've been blessed to be able to take over the opportunity to become the head coach."
Friend, who is now the head coach at Neshoba Central, was pleased to hear about Johnson's opportunity.
"I'm not shocked," Friend said. "He was a great athlete and a good player. He went on to Notre Dame and was snake bit most of his career with injuries, but played and evidently has done real well. He was extremely intelligent. His mother was a school teacher so sometimes that runs hand in hand."
Johnson credits Friend for helping mold him as a young player and keeping him "on the straight and narrow."
"I'm thankful for everything he did for me in terms of my football career and even just learning how to be a gentleman and man," Johnson said.
At Notre Dame, Johnson said Holtz picked up where Friend left off and benefitted from learning how to improve his wide receiver skills from Meyer, the former Florida head coach and new head coach at Ohio State.
"(Holtz is) one of the best coaches I've ever played for in my career," Johnson said. "He helped me develop more as a man, showed me how to be successful and how to maintain that success.
"Coach Meyer was my receivers coach," Johnson said. "He taught me most of the things I know about playing receiver and how to be a complete receiver as far as catching the ball, blocking and everything that comes along with the responsibility of being a receiver. It's been a great string of coaches I was able to play for and learn from."
Washington HS is coming off a good season where it finished 11-4 and advanced to the Class 4-A State Championship game.
Johnson plans to feed off his association with people like Friend, Holtz and Meyer as he begins the next chapter of his life.
"I'm happy about those opportunities," Johnson said. "I'm looking to be half as good as they are and pass those on to the young men I have a chance to influence here."
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