Local coaches on the inauguration

Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 12:34 a.m.

As a young child in the early 1960s, Kent Johnson used to watch Lincoln High School football practices through a fence near the field. At that time, all he saw were African-American kids, not too many years older than he was, running through drills in the Florida heat.

"Thinking back, it was just normal to me," said Johnson, now 53 and the football coach at Eastside.

As the next few years passed, normalcy began to change.

First, the Boys Club on Waldo Road started to mix their leagues with integrated all-star teams being chosen at the end of whatever sporting season it was to compete against other Boys Clubs statewide. Not long after, schools integrated and there even was a white Kent Johnson in his class.

Then there was Apr. 4, 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was one of the first times Johnson remembers being outraged.

"That was heartbreaking," Johnson said. "It was a traumatic experience because that was a person fighting for our people that we looked up to.

"I'm not sure where I was exactly, but I recall word began to spread that Dr. Martin Luther King had been killed. I was only around 13 at the time, so I fed off the adults and older kids. I saw them crying and acting with anger and distrust and it upset me."

In a different way than Dr. King, but one no less significant to those he has touched, Johnson has impacted children throughout his adult life.

His first coaching job came as an Eastside assistant when he was a senior at the University of Florida. The next three years saw him return to his alma mater, Gainesville High School, also as an assistant.

Johnson then spent 17 years at Hawthorne as a teacher and a coach before moving over to Eastside seven years ago.

He said he has run into occasions during his career where he has had to win over some of his players.

"There have been instances where non-black athletes on the team had questions about playing for me," Johnson said. "But once they were around me and got to know me, there weren't any kind of issues."

He has the same hopes for new President Barack Obama.

Johnson said he cried tears of joy the November night Obama won the election, looking back on being a child in a divided country.

"That was one of the few things I thought I'd never see in my lifetime," Johnson said. "It shows how far we've come. Anybody can be a leader.

"Up until then everybody pretty much thought the Presidency was an office to be held by a white male. And now, blacks have gone from slavery to being President. It shows this country truly is a melting pot and that the best candidate is going to be hired for the job."

Johnson said the work isn't done, yet.

"When we get to a point where nobody is talking about the first black or first Hispanic, the first female, President, then we absolutely have succeeded," Johnson said. "When the President, the governor, a CEO, a head coach... when we stop having to be happy that a black guy or another minority is hired for a position, then we have gotten there.

"Like Dr. King talked about when he said if a person is qualified and has the resume for a job, no thought of race should be given.

"We've come a long way, and that day might be a long way from coming, but I think it will come."

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