WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
1956 HHS graduate
participated in football,
basketball and baseball
BY TONY CASTRO
It’s been over half a century – 53 years to be exact, or since 1964 – since Hilton Mac Johnson last set foot in Brooksville.
Johnson, 80, and his wife of 58 years, Abbie, will trek from Pavo, Georgia in just over two weeks for the induction ceremony for the Hernando High School Athletic Hall of Fame Class of 2017.
Johnson readily admits this might be his last visit to Hernando County.
The 1956 HHS graduate and father of three, was a three-sport Brooksville standout in football, basketball and baseball
This year’s eight members feature: Johnson, Tara Allen, Mike Hamilton, Tracy Bridges, Allan Leavitt, Kimi Olmstead-O’Connell, Mike Revell and Andrew Williams.
During the Sept. 15 home football game at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium against Lecanto, seven new members (Leavitt will not be present), along with the 1967 HHS Baseball Team and first recipient of Ernie Chatman Legacy Award, Tom Bronson Sr., will also be feted.
Mac was born and raised in Brooks County, Ga. as the only child to Hilton “Shorty” Johnson and Annie Kate Ally.
“Shorty” Johnson, a 5-foot-1 farmer, moved his family to Lakeland before relocating to Brooksville when Mac began third grade.
While his mother was a domestic engineer, Mac’s father had a hand in developing Weeki Wachee.
A broken leg in first grade, which resulted in a top-to-bottom cast, would not allow him to play football until he was medically cleared for his sophomore year at HHS.
The 5-foot-7 Johnson eventually played both sides of the line of scrimmage – as was custom in that era – alternating between right and left half back and defensive back as a starter during his sophomore, junior and seniors campaigns. He also served as the team’s punter and placekicker.
He was practically a fixture during practice, and as a result, his head coach at the time, Hall of Famer Tom Varn, permitted Johnson to call the offensive plays and defensive alignments. Remember in the early 50s, you didn’t have receivers coming in with the next play on each snap.
He also recalls playing four seasons of varsity basketball under three different coaches.
In baseball, he first made the varsity team as an eighth-grader and played left field.
Over the next four varsity season – all under Varn – he played mostly at shortstop and pitcher, but filled in at every position except first base.
On the diamond, Johnson was a right-handed thrower, but a smooth left-handed hitter, who hit over .300.
How adroit was Johnson?
Besides being named Senior Class President, he was named All-West Coast Conference in all three sports as a junior and senior.
Recalling his days in Brooksville, “I practically lived at the ballpark,” grinned Johnson. “I’d call Coach Varn a friend. He always saw me as responsible, that’s why he allowed me call all the plays.
“I had a chance to go to Florida State, but I wanted to see if I could play for the Yankees and it conflicted with my visit,” recalled Johnson. “Instead, I took the 18-hour bus trip to (D-III) Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee.”
Johnson lettered as freshman and sophomore as a member of the Scots’ football team and even played AAA baseball for the Cincinnati Reds.
“I liked baseball the best,” explained Johnson. “Because of my size, I didn’t stay as beat up as much. I’ll never forget my first day of practice at Maryville. I ran the ball on a drill until two 240-pound guys hit me and flipped me to the turf. I don’t remember much after the collision. That was first of seven times that I ever got knocked out.
“But my coach liked my guts. He called me ‘Swamp Rat’. After I took some licks, he came over and told me, ‘You’re big enough to run the ball here. I’m not worried about you making the team.”
He married Abbie Dorminy in 1958.
On Sept. 7, the Johnson’s will celebrate their 59th wedding anniversary.
As the Berlin Wall went up, Johnson was drafted and served in the U.S. Army as a medic from 1960-1962. He was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., Ft. Sam Houston at San Antonio, Tx. and Wertheine, Germany.
Upon his discharge from the armed forces, he returned to Brooksville until 1964. That same year he relocated Pavo, Ga. and has resided there ever since.
For the next 44 years, Johnson ran his own heating and electrical business that served Thomas, Brooks and Colquitt Counties.
Outside of work, Mac was instrumental in starting youth baseball programs in Thomas County. He served as a youth coach for the Thomasville YMCA for many years. He was the founder and coach of the semi-pro team, the Thomasville Tigers.
Under Johnson’s influence, he provided a platform for college-bound players to play ball.
Due his perseverance and persistence, Johnson was instrumental in networking area businesses to start the baseball program from scratch at Thomas University in Thomasville.
Mac and Abbie have three children, eight grand-children, and three great-grandchildren. Currently, Mac’s 6-foot-3 southpaw grandson pitches for Kennesaw State University and a grand daughter golfs for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The Johnson’s are flush with pride that all three of their children have earned college degrees.
Mac was a member of Pavo Baptist Church from 1964-1984 and served many years as a deacon. He moved to Thomasville in 1984 and joined the First Baptist Church of Thomasville.
Mac was giddy when first heard the news that he was tapped for the HHS HOF.
“This was as good a birthday present that I could’ve ever gotten,” beamed Johnson. “When I got the call, I immediately thought of my coach Tom Varn. He wasn’t just a coach. He knew how to work his guys harder. A lot of things he did in practice worked.
“Perhaps the biggest lesson that Coach Varn imparted was when you put on jersey, you’re not just representing yourself, but the whole school and whole community,” stressed Johnson. “Every time we stepped between the lines, the whole community was watching.”
Johnson retains nothing but fond memories of Brooksville.
“Brooksville was a great place to grow up,” noted Johnson. “Thomasville is very similar. I remember having pep rallies in the center of town. They’d block off the traffic for us. The business community always backed us.”
The Johnson legacy
“I’d like to thank the whole Brooksville community for backing us,” added Johnson. “ We felt inspiration from everybody.
“I’d like to tell the next generation of young men and women student/athletes to encourage them to listen to their coaches and prepare themselves to do nothing but their best,“ he said. “Be conscious enough to know that if you mess up, you’ll make everyone else look bad.”
On his life lesson on sports, “You learn to get along with other players in sports,” noted Johnson. “If you stop and think about it, how will one’s individual actions affect me, my family and my team before acting?
“Many years after I stopped coaching, a father came up to me and told me that his son explained that he learned how to handle situations based on what we taught in baseball practice,” shared Johnson. “That what we learned on the field made all the difference in the world later to his son.
“All I can say to that is thank you,” offered the modest Johnson. “I’ve loved working with young people. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. This all came as a result from my experiences in Brooksville under Coach Varn.”
2017 HHS ATHLETIC HOF