Sam Johnson, the head coach of the St. Albert Catholic High School (SACHS) senior football team for the past 25 seasons, is calling it a career.
On Friday, Oct. 8, SACHS staff, Skyhawks alumni, friends, and family packed the stands at Larry Olexiuk Field to celebrate Johnson's final home game, which ended in a Skyhawks' win over Ardrossan, 37-14.
At half-time, Johnson was presented with a t-shirt and two footballs decorated with signatures and well-wishes from former players while the game announcer gave a short speech highlighting the man of the hour's many football accomplishments.
With his booming voice, Johnson gave an emotional, yet short speech from centre field.
“It’s been a wild ride," he said. "I’m lost for words."
"I just appreciate everybody’s support. To my wife and family, thank you for putting up with all my crap for these years."
Johnson had his own football career prior to coaching the Skyhawks. In an interview, Johnson said he started playing the sport at the age of nine and went on to play for the Dickinson State University Blue Hawks in North Dakota on a full ride scholarship between 1988-1991.
Johnson's career as a running back for the Blue Hawks was enough to etch his name in the history books, as he currently holds the third-place record for most career rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns in school history.
After graduating from Dickinson State University, Johnson stayed with the football team in a coaching capacity for a few years before beginning his teaching and coaching career at SACHS. In 1998, Johnson took over as SACHS' head coach.
With the Skyhawks, Johnson coached more than seven teams to provincial finals, and won the Edmonton Metro Athletics football coach of the year award in 2017.
Johnson, 56, said he made the decision to end his quarter-century tenure after the death of friend and SACHS colleague Tom Feehan in Sept. 2021 changed his perspective.
"It really changed my outlook on the way I’m evaluating my life," Johnson said. "He was one of my best friends and it was just his time, and I had a hard time dealing with that."
"It was a life changing event for me.”
Feehan taught at SACHS for 28 years prior to his unexpected death at the age of 61. He also helped coached the Skyhawks football team in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Johnson said.
"My wife and my kids have been super supportive over the years but it’s time to give more back to them than coaching football – there’s maybe a little bit more to life than that,” Johnson said.
Johnson's daughter Jessica, 25, is a teacher with Edmonton Catholic Schools, and his son Daniel, 22, is Skyhawks football alumni who now attends NAIT where he studies graphic design, Johnson said. Jessica played soccer for SACHS, and during that time Johnson also coached the senior girls' soccer team.
To add perspective, Johnson's coaching career with the Skyhawks began before Tom Brady made his NFL debut.
The game of football has changed significantly over the past 25 years, as have the requirements of being a good coach, Johnson explained.
"I think it was a tougher, grittier game back when I started, but I think along with the game changing, the student athletes changed," he said, adding, "being in the high school every day, those changes were more evident to me than maybe a coach that’s not in the school."
"You simply can’t treat athletes the way that you treated them before. They need to be nurtured, they need to be encouraged, they need to be told how well they’re doing, and the negative aspects – the yelling, the screaming, the hard-nose type of coach – is a thing of the past now.”
As much as Johnson was able to share his years of knowledge with his athletes, he said he also learned some valuable lessons from the many hundreds of kids to call him coach.
“The kids taught me that anything is possible," he said in earnest. "The only limitations we put on people and what we’re capable of doing, are the limitations we put on ourselves."
For other high school coaches, Johnson advice is to avoid worrying about wins and losses.
“Coaching high school football can’t be about the wins and the losses because if it becomes about the wins and the losses then it becomes about Sam Johnson. The game is not about me, it’s about the kids and the experience and the things that they can do."
Johnson isn't retiring from teaching however, as he said he still has a few years of classroom time left in him. A "Swiss Army Knife type of guy," Johnson has taught a multitude of subjects over his career. This semester he's teaching science, sports medicine, and career and life management.
With the Skyhawks' win over Ardrossan on Oct. 8, the team has won four of their five regular season games so far, with just two remaining.
Up next is a match against M.E. Lazerte on Thursday, Oct. 13, at Johnny Bright Sports Park starting at 7:30.