In the same breath, Craig Johnson can explain the Pythagorean theorem, dance the Charleston, and bring a 220-pound senior right guard to tears.
The easy going math teacher and head football coach for the Crosby-Ironton Rangers would never actually make one of his players cry, until the final game of the season.
With about 40 players kneeling in the middle of John Davies Field after a hard-fought game, he would simply say it was an honor to have coached every single one of them.
Like a rain shower, tears would pour down the faces of each player. Those tears, some hidden by a helmet, some wiped away by a muddy sleeve, were the victories Johnson appreciated most. For each tear-stained face represented mutual respect. It was as if each player replied, "We wished we could have done more to spend one more week with you, 'Johns.'"
Johnson doesn't own the best winning percentage in Ranger football history, but there was never a doubt who the C-I football coach would be next year.
Johnson will take his 20 years of teaching and coaching experience, all at C-I, to Watertown-Mayer next fall.
"It's terribly hard to leave," said Johnson, who was hired by former principal Jerry Ecklund in 1985 to increase interest and participation in higher math classes.
"You spend 20 years in one area, and my wife, Lisa, is a Crosby graduate so it will be very hard. We still have family here. That's the big thing. We're leaving those lifelong friendships. My friends now are my former students. That's a big deal, as it is with my own children leaving their friends."
Johnson made many friends as a teacher and coach. He was either an assistant or head football coach for 19 years and head baseball coach for 17. He was head of the math department since 1989 and Knowledge Bowl adviser since 1996.
High school: Robbinsdale Cooper 1981
College: Bemidji State University 1981-85
Teaching position: Head of math department at Crosby-Ironton
Coaching position: Head football coach 10 years; assistant football coach nine years; head baseball coach 17 years
Children: Nate, Megan, Jenna, Brett
Next: Math teacher at Watertown-Mayer
Mike Gindorff, Johnson's assistant coach for five years and former C-I player, will be the head football coach next year. Gindorff admitted it will be a difficult transition next fall.
"He was a great teacher and understood the game," said Gindorff. "He's a great friend. His classroom presence is second to none. He is a good man to be around. He taught me just how important it is to know your students and your players and to connect with them."
From 1992-94, Rob Williams played guard on Johnson's offense. Now Williams is an elementary teacher and assistant football coach at Aitkin. It is because of Johnson that Williams is teaching.
"His ability to relate to his players as a coach and his students as a teacher is uncanny," said Williams. "He got along with just about anybody he came in contact with. When I had to make a decision with what I was going to do with my life, I thought of him. I wanted to influence people the way he influenced so many in a positive way."
Johnson worked hard to build relationships with his students. That was the key to his success.
"People would ask how I could teach math and I would tell them I teach students," said Johnson. "If I can entertain them a little bit and take an interest in what they're doing outside of the classroom, whether that's athletics, choir, band or whatever, you can bridge that gap.
"I like kids. That's my gimmick. If they like you and respect you and have fun, then more kids are going to take more math because of that."
Teaching was where Johnson received most of his accolades. He was a teacher first and a coach second. But even in the classroom he had to deal with strategy and conflict.
For example, each spring Johnson found himself in the middle of two conflicts.
On one side the low and constant sound of helicopters combing North Vietnamese jungles, combined with machine gun fire, stormed his south flank. To the north was the high-pitched sting of dive bombers accompanied by the thump of TBD-1 torpedo planes leaving the deck of the USS Yorktown.
All Johnson could do was bang on his walls. But that only triggered his neighbors to increase their infliction upon him.
Strategically, Johnson was in a valley surrounded by cliffs. He could only grin and bear it. His room was stuck between Joe Simons, a "vindictive" U.S. government teacher who taught about the Vietnam War, and Gordie Sharp, a "sinister" world history teacher, who taught the Battle of Midway at the same time.
"We were just rolling," said Simons. "There he was in the middle of both of us and he wanted to kill both of us. I would be playing Vietnam movies and every time the helicopters would come on he would bang on my wall. Well, of course, I had to turn it up."
Johnson inflicted his own pain, too, like heckling the cross country team as it ran by the football practice field. Most of the stories concerning Johnson and his shenanigans aren't fit to fill these pages.
But soon those stories will end.
Johnson applied for the position at Watertown-Mayer before the C-I teachers' strike. He said the two-month ordeal didn't play a part in his decision to leave. It was simply a matter of what was best for his family.
With every difficult decision comes a harsh reality. Johnson is the epitome of what it means to be a C-I Ranger and he will be missed.
"We're going to miss him a lot," said Simons. "He was a great teacher. It's going to be tough to replace that one. He loved kids.
"He was just a good guy."
JEREMY MILLSOP can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.
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