Brown Coach Johnson Opted To Listen To His Heart

By Bill Reynolds
Updated: June 24, 2005


Robert Johnson

PROVIDENCE — He is a head coach of a prestigious Division I school, a 43-year-old black male who came of age as one of 10 kids in a small East Texas town, back in an America where prejudice was as much a part of the landscape as the endless plains. A man who overcame a lot of odds to to become the track coach at Brown.

So why is he walking away from it?

Robert Johnson laughs.

“That’s what my brother wants to know,” he says. “He says I’m crazy. That I worked too hard to get a Division I job.”

So why is he doing this, why is he walking away from a job that he had spent years striving for? Especially when he knows he’s walking away from a job that very few African-Americans have, a job that so many young coaches only dream about?

“You have to follow your own path,” he says.

And that goes back to Texas.

Specifically, to high school football in Texas.

Because before he became a track star, one of the top college hurdlers in the country, back there when he was at small college in Texas known as Waylon Baptist, he was a high school football star in Texas.

“I knew as a senior in high school that oneday I wanted to come back and coach this game,” Johnson says.

But for the longest time that was just a pipe dream, one of those roads not taken, an adolescent fantasy. Not surprising. He had a wife and two children, bills to pay. And he was a track coach, first at Waylon Baptist, then at Missouri Baptist College, then an assistant at Brown before becoming the head coach five years ago. And he knew how far he’d come, no question about that.

He knew that his father had learned early that when you were a black man in the Texas of his youth and you were walking down a dirt road and saw a car full of white people drive by, it was best to jump into a ditch by the side of the road. He knew that once upon a time in East Texas black kids went into the fields and picked cotton and that was just the way it was. He knew that his family had been the first black family to move into Canyon, Texas. He saw how his father worked three jobs most of his life, how his mother worked in the maintenance department at West Texas State. He learned early that life is not always easy, and that sometimes it can be cruel.

He also learned other lessons back then, ones he’s taken with him every step of the way. Lessons about hard work and determination, about having a goal and letting nothing get in your way. Like the lesson his father taught him, the one that said people don’t have to like you, but if you work hard they have to respect you. A lesson he took with him from the East Texas of his youth all the way to ivy-colored buildings of Brown.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” he says. “I know how hard things are to come by.”

So this is not a decision he’s made rashly.

Four years ago, his son began playing Pop Warner football in Cranston and Johnson became one of the assistant coaches. And you know what? He loved it. And the more he did it the more he liked it. And the more he liked it the more he thought that in a perfect world he would love to be a football coach.

But it’s not a perfect world, and truth be told, he liked coaching track at Brown. He knew how fortunate he was to be a head coach. Twice he’s been named the Division I regional track coach of the year. Life was good.

Then in the last year, two of his siblings died, one of lung cancer, another from colon cancer.

“It made me realize how short life is,” he says, “and that if you want to do do something you better do it.”

So he is going back to Texas to coach high school football. To also be home, back to San Antonio, his wife’s hometown. It also is coaching his son, who will be a freshman quarterback next fall. Most of all, it is a major life change — teaching high school chemistry, going from a Division I head coach to a high school assistant coach.

He says he can’t wait.

Can’t wait to run out onto the field the first night of the season in front of the 8,000 fans, a scene right out of Friday Night Lights. Can’t wait to coach a game that always has been his first love. Can’t wait to go home and coach high school football. Can’t wait to finally put his hands around a dream.

“I could stay at Brown forever and be very happy,” says Robert Johnson, “but if you are going to follow your passion you have to do it.”

Even if it takes you from the Ivy League to the sidelines of a Texas high school football game.