By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Four years ago Bob Soifer, then an assistant coach for the Holy Spirit High School baseball team and now its head coach, saw a freshman at tryouts who could barely throw a ball from home plate to the pitcher’s mound. Soifer had no way of knowing that four years later that same boy would become a player the grizzled coach likely will be telling future teams about for years to come.
According to whitepages.com, there are 16,582 people named John Johnson living in the United States. Holy Spirit High School senior John Johnson may have a common name, but his dedication to the Spartans’ baseball program is anything but ordinary.
Johnson may never hit a home run or score the winning run in a playoff game. He may never make a diving, highlight-reel catch. Heck, he may never get even a single varsity hit. No matter what his final high school statistics say, however, Johnson will be able to look back years from now and say, “Yes, I played high school baseball.” Which is perhaps the biggest victory of all for a player who got cut from the roster as a junior after two uneventful years as a reserve player with the junior varsity team as a freshman and sophomore. Johnson’s isn’t a story of baseball prowess; rather, it’s a story of determination, drive, hard work, sacrifice and never giving up on a dream.
Johnson didn’t play organized baseball before he entered high school, but always had a passion for the game, passed down by his father, also named John Johnson. The younger Johnson, an 18-year-old from Atlantic City, admits he was far behind the other players entering a program that historically is one of the best in South Jersey. And, by his own admission, he was far from a good player those first two years. Still, he loves baseball, and his goal was to make the varsity team before he graduated.
That goal was seemingly derailed in the spring of 2012, when Johnson found out he was cut after varsity tryouts. Rather than sulk, blame the coaches and give up on baseball, Johnson did something uncommon for a 17-year-old. He took responsibility. He dedicated himself to getting better. He enlisted experienced varsity players to help him improve his skills. He told the coaching staff he wanted to be a student manager, helping the program in any way he could. He got in the weight room. In short, he had a goal and he was not going to be denied.
“I didn’t really want to manage again. I wanted to play. That was my goal,” Johnson said.
Starting catcher Ricky Hopkins, also a senior, said getting cut as a junior fueled Johnson’s desire to make one last push to become a varsity baseball player.
“He was hungry. He wanted to be on this team,” Hopkins said. “It really speaks about his character and that he’s not going to give up. It’s a great story of a kid not giving up on something he loves. It absolutely inspires us. If he can do it, we can do it.”
“John has come a long way. He’s got a passion for the game,” Soifer said. “He showed up freshman year and he didn’t have very many skills at all. Junior year he was our manager, and this year I said, ‘John, are you going to be our manager again?’ He said, ‘No,
coach, I’m making the team.’ He didn’t miss a workout the whole year. He’s been to every offseason workout, and he works as hard, if not harder, than anybody in practice. I don’t want to say he’s a miracle, but that’s a gift that he’s got. The guys on the team love him.”
Hopkins said Johnson is the glue that holds the Spartans together.
“He’s the hardest worker on the team, by far,” Hopkins said. “At tryouts freshman year I think he got hit in the chest by a throw from shortstop. He’s come a long, long way. It’s great to see how hard he works. We push him, and he pushes us to work hard.”
“My mindset was I have to keep on getting better,” Johnson said. “I have to keep on working at it, and that’s what I did. I started to hit a lot, and I started to notice around December that I was hitting the ball really well and I was thinking, ‘This might happen. I might make varsity.”
Coach Soifer has been around the game of baseball for a long time, and he knows how frustrating and humbling a game it can be, even for the best players. He knows how easy it can be for a young player to pack his bags when things don’t go well. That’s why Johnson’s story is so dear to him. Not only is he coaching high school baseball, but Soifer is helping develop young men and give them the guidance and values that will serve them well later in life.
“One thing we teach is, no matter what, we’re not giving up, in baseball or in life,” Soifer said. “And he’s just a prime example. That teaches me and gives me hope. We’re proud of Johnny.”
There were some tense moments early this spring when final cuts were being made and Soifer called Johnson with his roster decision.
“I was at my friends’ (infielders Robert and Anthony Boselli) house and coach called and said, ‘I have good news and I have bad news,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Give me the good news.’ He said, ‘You’re on the team. The bad news is, it’s going to be cold tomorrow, so dress warm.’ I said, ‘Aww, coach, you’re killin’ me here!”
“When his name was on the roster he was really excited about that,” Soifer said. “He’s just as important as any other guy on this team. He’s always focused in practice and if someone isn’t doing the right thing he lets them know about it.”
Johnson credits his teammates, particularly his fellow seniors, with providing the encouragement he needed to keep pushing through the workouts and all the training.
“They’ve been supportive the whole time, especially the senior captains,” Johnson said. “They saw where I was freshman year and how bad I was, and now I’m a decent player.”
Johnson said quitting would have been the easy way out. And, well, he’s just not built that way.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Why would you keep on playing?’” Johnson said. “I love it. I just love being here, it’s great. This is so worth it.
“It’s something I really love and something I needed to do. I definitely felt like I had to prove something to myself. Let’s say I didn’t play. What was the point of doing the things I did to get to this point?”
Soifer said Johnson should be an example to any high school athlete, no matter what their skill level is, and that what he has accomplished during his journey through high school is something he can always be proud of.
“He’ll remember this forever,” Soifer said. “I mean, these are good memories we are making, but when life gets tough he’s not going to quit. That’s the type of attitude he has. And you need that in life when things get rough and you need to get through it. That’s a good attitude to have.”
Soifer gives all the credit for Johnson accomplishing his goal to the player. Soifer simply provided the opportunity, he said.
“I hope when I’m old and in the nursing home he comes and visits me and says, ‘Coach, I’ll never forget the opportunity you gave me,’” Soifer said. “It’s like anything else. You have to give guys a chance. We want to win, but in our program I don’t really stress winning. I just stress how to be successful.”