HIGHLAND SPRINGS, Va. -- Before any player gets to step on the field at Highland Springs, they have to show they are willing to overcome what their coach calls the speed bumps and hurdles of life... on the field and off.
"We want to see a commitment to that," said Highland Springs football coach Loren Johnson. "See a commitment to working, and not necessarily working out physically, but mentally. Putting the time in academically in school and showing effort."
Effort and commitment are what brought Loren Johnson from his hometown in South Florida to Blacksburg where he was a standout defensive back for Frank Beamer in the late 90s. It was in Blacksburg where part of his future was set without him realizing it.
"His first interview was not the day of his first interview" said former Highland Springs Athletic Director Rudy Ward, who hired Johnson back in 2007. "It was at a Tech game where both teams came to the middle of the field after a game. One of the players stood up and gave a prayer for safe passage."
"That player was Loren Johnson."
Ward kept that memory in the back of his mind, and when he had an opening for a football coach, sought out Johnson. Ten years and over 90 wins later, Johnson has changed the culture in his part of the East End
"He's brough a new sense of ownership, of pride, of excitement for being a Springer and a part of Springer nation" said Sybil Pemberton, the College and Career Advisor at Highland Springs.
"He just cares about the kids. It's just genuine. It's not 'I'm trying to get you to do something for me.' He really cares about his kids."
And by 'his kids' Pemberton doesn't just mean the football team. It's anyone in the halls and classrooms at Highland Springs.
"I want to encourage them to smile" said Johnson. "Coming here gives me life. It breathes life into me so I want to share that with them."
"Him having an affect on that many people just proves that he's not just a great coach, but a great mentor in general" said junior Springers linebacker Christian White Jr. "He can be a father figure to not only his football players but also to a regular student."
By Johnson's own estimation, well more than half of his players come from a single family household, most of them without a father. The application for football coach didn't include being a parental figure, but for Johnson, it didn't have to.
"We want to fill the void. We want to fill the role. We want to be present in everything that they do."
"I'm a parent," Johnson continued. "I think about them all the time. Where they at? What are they doing? With technology the way it is, I'm able to send messages. A lot of times I get responses. Sometimes I get phone calls at 3 a.m. My wife encourages me to take those."
Johnson has three children of his own. It is a priority of his to be a visible father and husband. But with all the time devoted to his family and football team, something has to give. For Johnson, it's time spent with his extended family, especially his father in Florida, from whom Johnson developed his work ethic and his priorities.
"Spending time with my dad" Johnson said. "That's my hero. I just don't see him enough and I miss him a lot. I tell him that and we talk on a regular basis. Anytime I get a chance to share what we're doing here, I'm appreciative of it."
"We want them to transcend our community, build our community, and get it where everyone wants it to be and expects it to be."
Last year, Highland Springs had 22 senior football players accept scholarships to attend college and play football, which is thought to be a record for any one school in Central Virginia.
Johnson admits the Springers won't come close to that number this year, but only because they have just 15 seniors on this year's roster.
But don't be surprised if most of them move on to the next level also.
If you have a suggestion or idea, nominate someone by emailing Beyondtheroster@wtvr.com