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Love of football and shaping young lives keep Winters Mill, Westminster coaches in play

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Five miles separate the workplaces of Brad Wilson and Ken Johnson.

In their long and distinguished coaching careers, they've walked a lot further than that distance on their respective sidelines.

Wilson is beginning his ninth year as the head football coach at Westminster High School.

Johnson, the dean of Carroll coaches, is in his 10th season at Winters Mill and his 19th overall in the county.

The two preside over football programs that have become successful largely because of their abiding commitment to the young men they've influenced through the years.

Life of Sport

Brad Wilson prepared for a career in athletics from a young age. A 1978 graduate of Meade High School, he played three sports for the Mustangs. He moved on to Anne Arundel Community College, where he played football, basketball and baseball for two years.

He played another year of football at Frostburg State College, but Wilson's career ended after he tore ligaments in his ankle. When he returned home for Christmas break, his high school coach Butch Young offered him a coaching position.

"He said that if I transferred back here, I could help coach the baseball team," Wilson said. "Coaching was what I wanted to do, so I decided to take the job."

Within the next year, Wilson became an assistant varsity football coach on the staff of his former coach, Jerry Mears, and accepted an offer to serve as the head jayvee basketball coach at Meade. The three-sport athlete had become a three-sport coach.

"There aren't too many people who can say that they coached under their high school coaches," Wilson said. "I ended up staying at Meade for 10 more years."

Coaching three sports was a time-consuming exercise, and Wilson took a hiatus from college. But there was one hitch.

"They called me in during one summer and asked if I was going back to school," Wilson said. "I told them that I eventually would. They said 'yeah, you are.' I had to enroll the next day, or I wouldn't be coaching there anymore."

Wilson immediately enrolled in summer school at Towson State University, and earned his degree in education in 1987.

When Mears died, Arundel's Chuck Markiewicz became the head coach at Meade and promoted Wilson to varsity defensive coordinator. They served together for three years before Markiewicz was hired as the head coach at North County High. Wilson went north with him. In 2000, Wilson got his first head coaching position when he was tabbed to lead the Glen Burnie High program.

"It was tough for me to leave North County and coach Markiewicz, but I wanted to be a head football coach," Wilson said.

He coached the Gophers for four years, and led a losing football program out of the wilderness. Wilson's teams were winless his first two years, then went 7-3 and narrowly missed the playoffs. His final Glen Burnie team, featuring current Kansas City Chiefs' offensive tackle Branden Albert, finished 6-4.

By 2004, Wilson was ready for another challenge. After coaching in Anne Arundel County for 24 years, he decided to apply for the head coaching position at Westminster.

"At that point in my life, I just needed a change," Wilson said. "I wanted to go to a place where there was a football tradition, and where the game was important. That was Westminster."

Under Wilson's leadership, the Owls took flight. After a 5-5 season in 2004, Wilson and his staff guided one of the best teams in county history. The 2005 Owls were the class of the county and the region, completing the regular season with a 9-1 mark and earning the top seed in the Class 3A North playoffs.

A first-round victory over Linganore was followed by a 38-20 pounding of traditional power Seneca Valley in the region final. The Owls routed a good City team in the semifinals to earn Westminster's first spot in a state championship game since 1976.

In a memorable title game at M&T Bank Stadium, Westminster battled Gwynn Park before losing in double overtime. While Wilson enjoys the victories, a photo taken at the conclusion of that crushing loss sits prominently in his office. The photo shows Wilson hugging team captain Ryan Finch just after Gwynn Park scored the title-winning touchdown.

That poignant moment captures why Wilson chose to become a coach, and has stayed in the profession for 32 years.

"It's gratifying to see young men come in as freshmen and mature, inside and outside the classroom," Wilson said. "I love the game of football, because it teaches young men a lot about life. I love being out there Monday through Thursday, teaching the players about self-discipline, self-respect and the importance of respecting your opponents, about taking pride in yourself and the work that you produce.

"I really think that what you do out there (on the football field) carries over to the classroom and into your home life."

After the loss to Gwynn Park, the Owls experienced a couple of trying seasons before returning to the playoffs in 2008, where they fell to a mighty Linganore team.

One of Wilson's toughest moments came in the final game of the 2011 season.

Westminster was battling Perry Hall for the final playoff spot in the Class 4A North Region, and the Owls improved to 9-1 and clinched their first county title since 2005 with a victory at South Carroll. But Westminster was forced to forfeit a 57-7 win over Manchester Valley for inadvertently using an ineligible player. The Owls' record dropped to 8-2, and Perry Hall clinched the final spot.

Wilson, who deeply values relationships with coaches and players, told his team the bad news after the game. Although he was hurting, Wilson consoled every player before they boarded the team bus. His response to the situation got the program through a difficult time.

But Wilson has put last season's ending behind him. He knows a new season is about to begin, and he can't wait.

"There's nothing better than Friday nights at 7 o'clock, and everybody that's involved with high school football understands that feeling," Wilson said. "I'm very happy with what I'm doing, and I love it here at Westminster High School."

Making Memories

Ken Johnson is entering his 29th season as a high school head football coach. He began his head coaching career by making history where he grew up. In 1984, Johnson became the first coach to lead a Baltimore County school to a state title when he guided Randallstown High to the Class AA (now 4A) championship.

"That was almost surreal," Johnson said. "I can still remember the kids' faces when we were riding home (from Byrd Stadium), and how good it felt."

But Johnson received his indoctrination to football long before that moment. Like many of his generation, he was introduced to the game by his father.

"My dad was a high school football coach, and he had a big impact on me," Johnson said. "When he went into the ninth grade, his school had just hired a new coach whose name was Rip Engle, the man who eventually wound up putting Penn State on the map. Engle had such an impact on my dad that football became a big part of his life, and the game got in my blood, too."

Johnson first played organized football in the Randallstown Rams' youth program. A 1970 graduate of Woodlawn High, he was a player for the Warriors, who made it to the Baltimore County championship game against Towson High in Johnson's senior year. The current Winters Mill mentor was influenced by several of his Woodlawn coaches, including Carroll Giese, George Goudy and Dick Estes.

"They had a big impact," Johnson said. "I was fortunate to have a lot of good personalities that affected me. But the coach that might have made the biggest difference, not just as a coach but as a mentor, was Jim Higgins at Randallstown."

Johnson was student teaching during his senior year of college when he joined the Randallstown staff as an assistant coach. After graduating from college, he was on the coaching staff at Mount St. Joseph for two years before Higgins hired him to be a full-time assistant at Randallstown.

In 1979, he took the job as jayvee head coach at the brand-new Owings Mills High. In his first two seasons, Johnson's teams didn't win a game. The Eagles' breakthrough happened during a game at Hereford.

"It was the second game of our third season, and in came a thunderstorm," Johnson recalled. "We won 6-0. I don't remember much about the game, but I do remember that on the bus ride home the kids thought they had just won the Super Bowl."

Soon, it was on to Randallstown for Johnson's first head coaching position. After six successful years at Randallstown, Johnson moved to Chesapeake (Baltimore County), where he took a struggling program to the playoffs twice. Johnson left Chesapeake to come to Carroll County, where he built a strong program over the course of nine seasons at Liberty High. His impact was felt almost immediately, as the Lions improved from 1-9 in Johnson's first year to 8-2 in his third campaign. The Lions came close to making the state playoffs twice.

"In those days, you had to win your region to get to the playoffs," said Johnson of the then 32-team playoff field that has since been expanded to 64. "It's funny, but I actually had some teams that were as good as the (title-winning) Randallstown team that didn't even make the playoffs."

It wasn't until he came to the brand-new Winters Mill High in 2002 that Johnson found his way back to the postseason. The Falcons reached the playoffs in 2005, their third varsity season, and repeated the following fall.

"Coming to Winters Mill had a lot to do with who I worked with," Johnson said. "Courtney Vaughn (Winters Mill girls' lacrosse coach) and I taught (physical education) together at Liberty, and we became good friends. The idea was to come in and start from scratch, and we did an unbelievable amount of work that first year. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure to do things right, and nearly every coach that came to Winters Mill was very successful."

While he has built strong programs at several different schools, Johnson remains motivated by the opportunity to impact the lives of his players.

"There are two things I really like about coaching," Johnson said. "Football is like chess, except that all of the pieces move. That's the technical aspect of the game, which is mentally challenging. And I really enjoy coaching at the high school level. The kids change so much from ninth grade to senior year, and it's great to watch them grow up and mature."

A Healthy Rivalry

For nine years, Wilson and Johnson have been in the same town. But Westminster and Winters Mill didn't start playing football until 2005. While Westminster has won six of the seven previous meetings, most of the games have been close and hard-fought. The rivalry is high-spirited, but the schools have been civil opponents. And the coaches like it that way.

"I knew Brad before he got the job at Westminster, and we're friends," Johnson said. "The fact that we like each other helps, because you have coaches who are modeling good behavior to their players and fans. Plus, the kids from both schools know each other. It's a community-based rivalry. Beyond this community, it's not that big of a deal. But it does matter here, and that's a neat thing. It's something for people to be passionate about."

The rivalry resumes on Oct. 12, when the Owls make the short trip to Winters Mill. A full-throated capacity crowd will greet the teams, and the winner will take a huge step toward a playoff berth.

But it won't be the biggest game in the coaching careers of Brad Wilson and Ken Johnson. They've already taken their teams to state championship games, and their dedication to others has made a difference at their schools and in their communities.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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