WHITMIRE — Former Whitmire coach William “Lefty” Johnson is known just as much for his pep talks and encouragement as he is for 17 years of coaching football and baseball at Whitmire High School.
Johnson was born in Winnsboro in 1934 and went to school in Clinton, but Whitmire is the place he calls home. He moved with his parents, Ralph and Nell Johnson, to Whitmire when he was in second grade.
“It’s my home and I wouldn’t leave it for anything. The good Lord’s been good to me here,” said Johnson.
Johnson played baseball at Presbyterian College for four years and played for the state championship his senior year. One highlight during his college career was pitching a no hitter against Blacksburg.
Johnson, a left-handed pitcher who got his nickname when he was 12, said he loved playing baseball but when it came to coaching, football was his favorite sport to coach.
Johnson began his coaching career in Winnsboro where he coached junior varsity baseball for a year before coming to Whitmire where he coached for 16 years before retiring in 1978.
Johnson credits the winning to the athletes.
“We won state (championships) because of the great athletes,” said Johnson, who was also Whitmire High’s athletic director from 1968-78 and principal of Whitmire High from 1978-88. He was also inducted into the Whitmire High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
In football, Johnson has a 47-13 record for conference wins and an overall record of 80-46. He has won plenty of championships and has been awarded numerous accolades on the state level.
In baseball, Johnson led Whitmire High to a state championship and a conference championships four times. He has also coached girls basketball and golf but his baseball and football records are the most recognized career achievements.
His wife, Kitcy Johnson, said she knows what set her husband apart from others: He took a personal interest in the athletes.
“He tried to guide them in their life achievements. He treated them as people,” said Kitcy.
Johnson recalled chatting with his athletes off the field, particularly when they stopped by his home or when he hosted Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
“I was really close to my athletes. I used to have an event (FCA) on Thursday afternoons and I would get a guy from Presbyterian College to talk to the athletes about the Bible. We had fellowship,” said Johnson.
“One of my ball players told me what he missed most after high school was the fellowship at my house,” he added. “Sometimes I felt like I preached more than coached. I wouldn’t change one thing of my life for coaching. I loved it.”
Johnson’s former players include Mickey Crocker, who coaches in Greenville; James Howard, who coached in North Carolina; David Maness, who coached in North Carolina; Cary Johnson, who coaches in Aiken; Clarence Sanders, who coaches at Union; and Donnie Shell, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
One former athlete wrote Johnson a letter last year, thanking the retired coach for the many life lessons taught along the way.
“The first is my memory of Coach Johnson hosting Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings in his home while I was in high school,” wrote Sam Lake, a member of the Class of 1977. “One reason this sticks out is this was the first time I can remember formally worshipping with African-American students. This took place in the mid 1970’s. It may seem trivial to some now but that act was a bridge in bringing the first wave of integrated students together in harmony and helping us in understanding our similarities. It was also an opportunity for everyone on the team to have an identity off the playing field as well as on.
“Great athletes are born with skills superior to their classmates,” Lake wrote. “Being a good person does not require such good fortune or good genetics. We learned each of us has it in us to be a good human being… Those nights at his house were filled with a balance of spiritual growth, team bonding and fellowship.”