Johnson finishes up return trip to ECU

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Britt Johnson coaches during Appalachian State's game at East Carolina from the dugout Sunday in Greenville.


Sports Writer

Monday, March 6, 2017

GREENVILLE — Don Johnson perched against a railing and looked straight ahead.

At the top of the last section of seats on the first-base line at Clark-LeClair Stadium, he flagged down family members that spilled through the main entrance before East Carolina’s game on Sunday. With 10 minutes until first pitch, the 1980 ECU graduate did the weirdest thing he’s done as a Pirates fan: he put the opposing team’s hat on.

He seemed unfazed by it a few minutes later, though, when he slid up to the protective netting to snap a quick photo. His son and Appalachian State assistant coach Britt Johnson, also a fellow Pirate, exchanged lineups for the final game of the Keith LeClair Classic.

It’s amazing the kind of situations kids can put their parents in.

“This morning, before we went to church, I said that today was such an unusual day,” Don said. “I will be rooting against East Carolina for the first time in my life.

“But I am here, and it doesn’t feel wrong because I am pulling for my team — my son’s team.”

The Johnson fan section watched the Mountaineers fall to East Carolina, 4-0. Appalachian State had only two hits, and Britt didn't see a runner reach second base until the top of the ninth.

Britt had many emotions coming into the weekend. He realized it wasn't going to be as bad when he stepped onto the field.

“What Coach LeClair and the Classic meant, coming home to East Carolina, having fans talking to you all weekend and yelling at you today – I really didn't know what it was going to be like,” Britt said. “Coming into today, all leading up to this, I am thinking there is going to be a lot of emotion – how am I going to handle it and not let the players see me?

“But when I got here today, it was about winning the weekend. It was just another game.”

The Johnson family-to-ECU pipeline almost didn’t happen. When Don graduated from Rocky Mount High in 1975, he didn't want to come to Greenville. He wanted to go to Wake Forest, but he said he couldn’t get in. His backup was Appalachian State, but Don’s father pointed out it was too far away.

East Carolina was a place close to home, and a school that Don's father endorsed.

“I loved it,” Don said. “They were the greatest five years of my life.

“Was supposed to be four, but it turned out to be five.”

Eventually, ECU became habitual with all the football and baseball trips. Britt went there and long snapped for the football team. Then his younger brothers, Will and Grant, did too. Will, the middle child, played baseball at Barton College in undergrad before becoming a Pirate in his graduate years.

“Our dad said we could go anywhere we wanted to,” Grant said. “It just had to be in Greenville between 5th and 14th streets.”

Jokes aside, Don and and his wife, Wanda, wanted to always support their children, whether it was in attending a different school or pursuing a difficult career path. At a young age, Don thought Britt was destined to be a baseball scout. Don watched his son hang out with scouts and coaches at college games. When Britt took the dive into unpaid coaching at Lander (S.C.) University, they, along with Britt’s two brothers, supported him however they could. According to his father, Britt would have been OK, regardless.

“My mother has always said that whatever he decides to do, he is going to land on his feet,” Don said. “He knows too many people and knows how to talk to people.

“. . . And right now, he has a job he likes, working with people he loves and doing something he loves to do.”

While he was standing around the bleachers between innings, Don waved to people he's cheered with annually. He leaned over the ledge to call out to his wife's cousin during the third. He was told he didn’t look normal in a black-and-gold cap.

He wore the grief of new fandom naturally. Don begged for a two-run homer when the Mountaineers trailed by one in the sixth. And when ECU scored three in the seventh, Don looked around at his family and chuckled.

“Yeah, it doesn't bother me at all that I'm sitting here cheering for App,” Don said, beaming.

Don waited for Britt after the game, along with the rest of the family. The Mountaineers went 1-2 this weekend, and they are currently 5-6. Their overall record won't matter to a small cluster of new fans in the Rocky Mount area.

Don won't be the only one breaking in a new hat.

“I put out a Facebook post today, just about all the people that were a part of this,” Britt said of his career so far. “It hasn't just been me moving up. It has been teammates, coaches, family members, a wife (Samantha) that supports the heck out of me.

“. . . We probably had about 100 or so people here today. And it was really cool to see them after the game. I wish we could have seen them with a win, but it was good to see them.”