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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The night Rob Johnson took control

Wednesday, October 24, 1990, was a long day for me at the Observer.

My day started in the afternoon at Central Regional High School, covering the Shore Conference Tournament field hockey semifinal match between Central and Middletown North. The game went into overtime and in the extra session, Maria Merlucci, the team's top scorer, knocked in a pass from Jean Gardner to win the game for the Golden Eagles, 3-2, and send them on their way to the championship game on Friday night against Wall at Ocean Township High School.

Meanwhile, that was only scratching the service of my day. I had to hurry back to the Observer building to write the game story, leading off with, of all things, the sight on the hills next to the hockey field that Central played on. It was after I got done with my interviews with Gardner and coach Madeline Dutton that Dutton spotted something and made her senior midfielder turn around. There were three deer walking along the ridge of the hill overlooking the field. I'll never forget that sight whatsoever.

"I think that's an omen," Dutton said to Gardner and me. Turns out two nights later it wasn't as Wall won the SCT title, 3-1.

Meanwhile, I finished my story and my boss then wanted me to head to Brick Memorial High School to cover the second half of the Shore Conference Boys Soccer Tournament. Chris Christopher, who was our boys soccer writer, got to cover the first semifinal between Brick Township High and Middletown North. I got the nightcap, which started at 8 p.m., between two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial and Toms River East, a pair of Shore Conference Class A South rivals who were now going to mix it up for the right to move on to the final.

But this game was something more than just a winner and a loser on a cool night in the northern end of Brick Township. No, there was more to this story.

This was the night that Jackson Memorial's best player and Ocean County's best athlete, Rob Johnson, was returning to the Jaguars lineup. Was he injured? No. Was he out for personal reasons? Hardly.

Johnson was coming back to the Jaguars' lineup on this night after sitting out a two-game suspension mandated by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association after an ugly incident that had taken place just nine days earlier. On that Monday the 15th, the Jaguars were in Hazlet to face off with Raritan High School's squad. Now, Raritan had this reputation of being rough and tumble, hardly a picnic to play. They also had a predominantly white team.

You can see where this is heading. They were also marking Johnson, the team's talented center-midfielder, very tight the entire game. But he found ways to frustrate them and get free. Still, he was also paying a price by getting tripped up and having his body banged around. Again, far from a picnic.

It was somewhere in the second half when it happened. The young man who was frustrated having to follow Rob Johnson all over the field finally snapped. In one motion, he reportedly fouled him and called him the word.

Oh, did I mention that Rob Johnson is African-American? Sorry.

Within one second, that young man who dared to "go there" went there. And when I mean there, I mean to the ground in a crumpled mess. One shot ... that's all it took. One damaged jaw. Apparently, that was what was needed for Jackson's amazingly talented senior to supposedly snap. Personally, I wouldn't have condoned the behavior, but believe me, I certainly would've understood him doing what he did.

No one deserves the "name" calling.

However, things got very complicated. The game was stopped for good, a near riot broke out and in the end, both Johnson and teammate Ashley Eure, another African-American who also took offense to what the kid said, got two-game suspensions. Jackson coach Mike Costa was suspended by his school for two games, but he went further than that, and suspended himself for the entire Shore Conference Tournament.

So the SCT began with Jackson Memorial defending a championship without its best player, a major supporting player and its coach. Turns out they didn't need them as they won both games. Now the Jaguars, the Class A South champions and tournament top seed, were about to face off with the Raiders of coach John Crowley, the fourth seed and a fairly talented club in its own right. But the Raiders hadn't beaten the Jaguars yet this season and was 10-1-1 against everyone else leading into the game.

And doing the coaching for the Jaguars was again, not Costa, but his assistant coach Martin Smith. Here's all you had to know about the man in charge: He was quite vocal and he was quite vocal in a British accent. Yes, he was a huge football fan (soccer over there). And if you didn't get to where you were supposed to get, he'd let not just you know, but he'd let the entire complex know! 

In other words, he was a perfect fit to be Costa's assistant coach. As for Costa, he's one of the most enjoyable people I've ever been around in terms of coaches. He also had a way to -- how do I say this -- be direct about his opinions. Let's just say he was not the most liked guy out there.

However, I enjoyed him and knew him from coaching the Jackson Memorial girls soccer team in the spring season. By now, though, he was just looking to talk to anyone but Chris. Understandably, Costa got tired of reading about the fight, the punch, the aftermath, and soon, the legal fees that were about to be paid because of this fracas.

Let's just say he saw me when I got onto the field and couldn't wait to unload his anger and frustration about Chris on me while he was leaning against the fence, nothing more than a spectator while his assistant was in charge.

Let's also say it was a tenuous time for the program and the relationship our paper had with them.

In other words: I had to be the go-between and play Switzerland.

So as I wrote down lineups for both teams and wished both coaches Crowley and Smith well, I noticed something immediately ... Rob Johnson was not in the starting lineup, but Ashley Eure was. I remember asking Smith if this was continual punishment against Johnson and he simply said, "No."

East and Jackson kicked it off on this cool evening, knowing the winner was going to face Brick in the final after the Green Dragons had dispatched of Middletown North in the first semifinal, 3-1. To East's credit, it held firm defensively as Eure and teammate Carlos Vasco were doing their darndest to keep the ball down at the Raider end. Goalie Scott Bennert, though, was frustrating the Jaguars' front line by either taking the ball away from a dangerous moment or making the save to stop any threats.

This went on for a good amount of the first quarter as the teams played to a scoreless tie. And still no sign of Rob Johnson, who was sitting on the bench awaiting his moment to come into the game.

The second quarter was nothing more than a repeat of the first quarter. But almost six minutes into the quarter ... and I can still remember the time without reading the story I did on the game ... Smith glared at Johnson. Johnson took his warmup hoodie off. He began to jog on the sideline in preparation of the first out-of-bounds ball that East hit last.

So with 13:42 left before halftime, Johnson had finally stepped onto the field, his first action since the unfortunate incident at Raritan High School. Immediately, the pace of Jackson's game got faster. Johnson was not afraid to get the ball and roam where he wanted to, but he had East players trailing him wherever he went. Some of his passes were just missing the mark and Bennert was at the other end covering up and sending the ball back.

The Raiders had done a tremendous job in holding the fort down. And at halftime, the game was scoreless. But I could see the look on Crowley's face -- it wasn't good. He knew there was still another half of soccer left and he knew Johnson was getting warmer as the night wore on.

Costa and I talked along the fence at halftime. He told me he was fortunate enough to have a coach like Smith to take over the team while he was in exile over the incident. He had that much confidence in this very vocal Englishman. Oh, he was also still steaming over the coverage in our paper over an incident none of us witnessed in person.

I smiled. I didn't know exactly what to tell him at that point, but he understood my quandary of having to take his ration and me telling him a lot of times, "Yeah ... yeah ... uh-huh." I just didn't know where else to turn at this point.

The second half began and once again, to East's credit, it did everything it could defensively to bottle up Vasco, Eure and Johnson, the three main threats the Jaguars had offensively. But one pass was about to change the complexion of the game.

In the game of soccer, it takes a player just a split second to leave his defender and get to a ball and not be called for off-sides. If Eure and Johnson had worked this play out over and over and over again, I wouldn't have been surprised. Eure had the ball at about the Raider 30-yard line. He tapped a pass by two defenders who were on Johnson. The ball landed perfectly on Johnson's feet and the only person left in the way was Bennert.

Somehow, Bennert figured he was about to be posterized, soccer-style. Before Bennert could even commit to a direction to go, Johnson had already made his mind up and ripped a 15-yarder past the goalie to give Memorial a 1-0 lead.

The seal was open and the Raiders were now in trouble because they needed to become more offensive just to tie the game up. They had played defense for a good amount of this game whether Johnson was in there or not. Now he broke through and Crowley and his team had no choice.

And after chasing the Jaguars all around the field for three quarters, the Raiders were looking like a tired team going into the fourth. That's when the Jaguars decided to put the hammer down. Yada Carew, another talented midfielder, fed Johnson on the right side of the field with a pass. He slipped past his defender and then started coming on toward Bennert. Again, before the Raider goalie could react, Johnson fired a left-footed shot past the keeper to make it 2-0 with 5:48 left in the game.

Two minutes later, Johnson scored maybe his prettiest goal of the night. Another talented midfielder, Damon Richvalsky, found Johnson streaking down the middle and fed him. Johnson once again beat his defenders and went to the right of the goal. When Bennert came out to take on Johnson, the Jaguar star floated a right-foot kick over the goalie's head and into the back of the net to finish out the natural hat trick and a 3-0 lead with four minutes to go.

East pushed up to make something happen, but it was all too late. And when Vasco got a hold of the ball, he found himself streaking down the left side of the field with no one in front of him and two Raiders trailing him. Once again, Bennert felt awfully alone. He beat Bennert to finish out the 4-0 victory.

And the Jaguars were on their way to the SCT final again, this time to face Brick in the first all-Ocean County final since Jackson Memorial beat East in the 1986 championship.

So I approached Smith first and I asked him why he started Eure, but didn't start his superstar center-midfielder.

"Whatever the rights and wrongs, you shouldn't hit someone," Smith started, sounding like he was still punishing Johnson for what happened over a week earlier. Then he changed tone. "I think a more important reason (not to start Johnson) was because (midfielder) Sean Donnelly kept him out. He's played the last two games. Even if it was an injury or whatever reason, I don't think you throw someone straight in."

Then he added about Eure starting, "Ashley was different because I actually thought we missed him more than Rob."

I stood there almost jaw-dropped. I'm thinking, "Really? This game was scoreless until you put Rob Johnson into the game and then he broke down East's defense."

To this day, I'm still struggling with that rationale. Sean Donnelly was a nice player, but he simply wasn't Rob Johnson, period. I hated to burst ol' Martin's bubble there, but Rob Johnson was an exceptional player.

I then approached Johnson, who was doing his first interview with anyone since the incident. He was cool with me.

"I wasn't really frustrated," he started. "I felt like I let the team down (not being on the field those two other games). I get nervous about my conditioning sometimes. But after I got in, I was just working hard."

This was when I knew I was talking to someone very, very special. At 17 years old, Rob Johnson was not thinking about himself or whatever he did. He was thinking about what he could do for his team. He was being the consummate team leader coaches dream of and can't coach up themselves.

And things changed in an exciting way for the Jaguars after that game. They went on to win the SCT title three nights later against the Green Dragons, then went from there to win the state Group IV championship. And Johnson finished out a brilliant winter by winning his second straight individual wrestling championship. In the spring, he went on to win the county 100-meter dash championship.

He was, easily, the best male athlete in this county. To this day, he's still the best male athlete I've covered in 30 years. Johnson went on to a very successful soccer career at Rutgers University, helping the Scarlet Knights to a Final Four in 1994. He went on to play for the New York Metrostars in Major League Soccer before moving on to a coaching career in the sport.

Rob Johnson accomplished quite a lot. But it was at his most vulnerable he stood up and took charge when his Jackson Memorial soccer team needed him. And it was a thing of beauty when he did.

It made that long day at the newspaper well worth it.

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