“Coach” has always been a term of deep respect to me. It means teacher, mentor, trail boss and, in rare instances, friend. Bob Johnson was my wrestling coach at Rawlins High School, and he was all that and more.
I got my growth spurt early and outgrew my coordination. My football coach noticed my ungainliness and suggested that I try out for the Outlaw wrestling team. Wrestling was introduced at RHS my sophomore year and I thought it was worth a shot.
Bob Johnson was hired to coach the fledgling wrestling program and, at our first team meeting, asked us all why we wanted to try out for the team. I told him that I was there because my football coach, John Maffoni (and we’ll doff our Stetsons when that name is mentioned) told me that I couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time and thought wrestling might help.
I remember how hard Coach Johnson belly-laughed at my answer. It was the first time I had seen a coach really laugh. Normally, they are a pretty stoic and staid bunch. But this guy was different.
Coach Johnson wasn’t that much older than his wrestlers, and he liked rock & roll. We all immediately liked him.
Since wrestling was a new sport at RHS, and our equipment and uniforms hadn’t yet arrived. For the first weeks of practice and for our first match, we worked out and wrestled in practice togs which were little more than longjohns and t-shirts. I recall Coach Johnson saying that we looked like hillbillies.
I pinned a guy from Rock Springs my first match and thought I was a stud. Next practice, Coach Johnson took me out on the mat – I outweighed him by thirty pounds – and showed me how I could just as easily have lost that match if I hadn’t been lucky.
Wrestling is an intensely individual sport and nobody can cover for you if you make a mistake. Coach Johnson taught a bunch of baseball, football and basketball players that crucial lesson. He taught us to compete as gladiators, as bronc riders, relying upon ourselves alone.
The Outlaws had some leather-tough alley fighters on the wrestling team. Jess Manzanares and Darrell “Bull” Cartmill jump to mind. Coach Johnson was able to harness their aggression and violence and turned ‘em both into disciplined wrestlers.
They respected and listened to him because they both knew that he could twist them like pretzels on the mat. Coach Johnson never screamed or ranted, he’d just chuckle while he pinned you.
He had a couple of little sons, Howie and Guy, who often came to practice with him. They delighted in wrestling on the mat with each other and, from time to time, would jump on one of Coach Johnson’s wrestlers when said wrestler wasn’t paying attention, and yell “gotcha!”.
It felt like family, wrestling for Bob Johnson.
On road trips in our wheezing old bus nicknamed Big Red, Coach Johnson mother-henned his wrestlers, making ten o’clock bed checks to make sure we hadn’t snuck beer or cheerleaders into our rooms. He was, for the most part, successful.
But we generally toed the line, not out of fear of retribution but because we didn’t want to disappoint our coach. That’s how the good coaches instill loyalty, through love not fear.
I heard the sad news this morning that Bob Johnson passed away a few days ago. Young Outlaws that he coached are in their golden years now, and will be in his debt for the rest of our lives.
Especially one overgrown ranch kid who Coach Johnson taught that yes, he can chew gum and walk at the same time.
Rod Miller can be reached at: email@example.com