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February 24, 2013

Marshall Johnson: The Man, The Legacy

Editor's note: The following article was written five years ago by the AP's Hank Kurz, Jr. and appeared in a Virginia High School League program. It is being reprinted today in honor of Marshall Johnson who passed away on Wednesday. Both Mr. Kurz and the VHLS graciously granted permission to reprint this piece.

He never made a basket or scored a touchdown, and he never gave his team a halftime speech that made it believe it could do what no one else thought possible.

But chances are, if you have done any of the above in a championship game in the Virginia High School League, he knows your name and can probably tell you the date.

The VHSL's state basketball tournament will attract greats from the past, present and surely the future this week at VCU, and if the participants had any idea of what Marshall Johnson has meant to high school sports in the state, they'd all keep an eye out for the 87-year-old shuffling by this week hoping for chance to say "thank you."

For the better part of six decades, Johnson has been solely responsible for compiling VHSL football and basketball record. His football records go back to well before the Great Depression; his basketball work chronicles the game into the 1930s.

The work he has essentially created a record of history where none existed has enhanced the coverage prep writers give the games immeasurably, allowing them to know, for example, that Takeem Hedgeman's three touchdowns in the state championship game for Monticello this year made him the VHSL single-season record holder with 51, one more than current University of Virginia back Cedric Peerman had for William Campbell.

Bill Millsaps, a sports columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when Johnson retired, described Johnson's dedication to prep sports as a "passionate avocation."

"People today would probably have a hard time believing that one individual in The Associated Press office in Richmond logged every final score and every point scored in every high school football and basketball game throughout the commonwealth," he said. "Not just part of it. All of it. And for a very long time, he did it on his own."

Johnson started innocently enough while working as a night editor at the AP in Richmond. Co-workers more interested in college sports gladly left preps to him, and when Johnson found himself with spare time, he compiled scoring and coaching records.

"I got interested in it and I guess it took me over," Johnson said.

Since his retirement in 1983, Johnson has spent hundreds of mornings at the State Library using microfilm to research team and coaching records back to 1910 in football.

Need to know Hampton's football record in 1913? He can tell you.

Wonder what Terry Kirby's career statistics were in football and basketball? Or Allen Iverson's? Or Bryan Randall's? He can probably find those for you, too.

And here's the kicker: Much of the information is kept on yellow legal pads.

"I haven't got a computer big enough, probably, to handle it all," he said.

Many would disagree. Over the years, legions of sports writers have to come rely not only on Johnson's records, but on his computerlike internal recall system.

"He remembers everything, or knows where to go to find it," said Arthur Utley, who has been covering preps and golf for the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 1996. "I have a lengthy, unalphabetized list of telephone numbers. Marshall's at the top. I'll touch base any time to pick his brain, ask for guidance, ask for confirmation. He's always willing to help. He's the consummate sports writer who has touched a lot of lives."

Johnson's retirement brought Joe Macenka to Richmond as the state's AP sports writer, and he quickly discovered that the shoes he'd been hired to fill were huge.

"I must admit I was a little intimidated," Macenka, now a reporter for the Times-Dispatch, said. "All I heard were these stories about the vast legend of Marshall. He seemed larger than life. Alas, he turned out to be friendly, professional and completely dedicated to his craft. If only there were more like him."

Johnson has continued to make weekly visits to the AP office, often to pore over out of town newspapers for information, and sometimes just to visit with old friends and drop off a gorgeous bundle of the fragrant fruits of another of his passions.

"The best gardenias in Richmond," Macenka said.

Johnson's larger than life reputation was confirmed time and again during Macenka's 11 years with the Richmond AP.

Shortly after his retirement, the Virginia High School Coaches Association named its annual media award for him, and the VHSL began presenting the Marshall Johnson Sportsmanship Award to teams in each basketball classification.

Most years since, Johnson has been there to present the award himself. Ever the sports writer first, he uses the occasion as a chance to get a leg up on the competition.

"I always get a kick out of the way he manages to get player and coach interviews quickly after basketball championship games," Utley said. "He presents the Marshall Johnson Sportsmanship Award, then starts asking questions while the rest of us wait for the ceremonies to end. That's Marshall. Get it done. Get it in."

In 1990, Johnson became a charter inductee of the Virginia High School Hall of Fame, and when the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame began enshrining media members in 1997, Johnson's name was at the top of the list of seven state media giants inducted.

It was fitting, too, for Johnson to be so recognized, because many of those who also have been inducted have Johnson to thank for chronicling their storied careers.

In retirement, he has served on the screening committee that chooses the finalists and the Honors Court that selects the inductees to the Virginia Sports hall, and advocated for candidates he deems worthy of induction into the high school hall.

Both organizations know the importance of Johnson's stamp of approval.

"Marshall has long been recognized as the most reliable source available for Virginia high school sports," said Eddie Webb, president of the Virginia Sports hall.

"He is the ultimate sports encyclopedia."

Millsaps eventually joined Johnson in the Sports hall, and still chuckles at the memories of Johnson and his booming voice on the prowl for missing prep scores.

"He would gripe if, for instance, he had not received the Clifton Forge-Covington football result. Then he'd pick up the phone and call the Covington jail, knowing well that some deputy sheriff, or SOMEBODY there, would know the result," Millsaps said, recalling a time when the AP's office was located in the Times-Dispatch building.

"When he got the score he wanted, Marshall would stride briskly out of the T-D sports department with these words: `Down with 'em all'" Millsaps said.

"Never has a man's positive actions been so at variance with his words."

And those actions on behalf of prep athletes and coaches continue.

Each December, the AP convenes a daylong meeting of as many prep writers as can attend at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Their duty for the day is to select the AP's three all-state football teams, and Johnson is a most vital contributor.

Long before the meeting is held, he sends letters to as many as 40 football coaches in parts of the state that constitute black holes of coverage, giving each coach the chance to inform the panel of players on his team worthy of all-state consideration.

Some comply, and others don't, but his effort is always appreciated by the panel that, first and foremost, hopes to come away with teams representing the state's best.

"To those who cover and love high school sports in Virginia, he is a superstar's superstar," said Lynn Burke, longtime prep editor for the Daily Press in Newport News. "I don't know what we'd do in the Group A and AA all-state meetings without him."

Last summer, Burke was the recipient of the Marshall Johnson Media Award at the VHSCA banquet in Hampton. Johnson was there to present it, as he tries to be each year.

For Burke and many other past recipients, the recognition is nice, but pales in comparison to being linked with the man who redefined prep coverage in Virginia.

"I remember sitting at the table with my then-fiancee and being just delighted when I saw Marshall walk in," Burke said. "And to have Marshall say a few nice things about me, hand me the award and shake my hand made it even more special. It's nice to look at the wall in my home office and see my name inscribed on an award named for Marshall."

That's how Hubert Grim Jr., retired sports editor of The News Leader in Staunton, feels, too. He calls the honor "one of the most treasured awards I received."

Two years ago, Robert Anderson of The Roanoke Times was the recipient.

"It's an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with Marshall Johnson. Period," Anderson said. "No one has more respect among the statewide media than Marshall.

"His hallmarks are what anyone should aspire to: fairness and accuracy."

Attention to getting it right is critical to the viability of any record book, and while Johnson relies heaving on the coverage of the state's sports writers for his information, he also has learned to be creative in the more remote areas of Virginia.

Burke has been consulting with Johnson since 1970.

"He would go to great lengths to run down scores in the days when the football and basketball scorelists were compiled out of the Richmond office," Burke said. "He was probably on a first-name basis with more small town and rural county police, sheriff dispatchers and officers than anybody, because if he couldn't get a score through the school or a newspaper, he would call the sheriff's office."

The letters he sends to coaches in those areas are all part of being thorough, in Johnson's way of thinking, and an effort to ensure that no one stays off the radar.

"Athletes, coaches, fans and the media own Marshall a big debt of gratitude," Anderson said. "Marshall has helped athletes and schools from these (undercovered) parts of the state earn recognition when they might otherwise have been overlooked."

But Johnson's attention to detail doesn't stop there.

He also pores over the weekly scores lists in football, sometimes finding mistakes, tracks down scores that were never reported and calculates the VHSL football ratings.

"Marshall Johnson is the official VHSL Football Ratings guru," said Lora Bickley, who has worked with Johnson on all things VHSL football for more than two decades.

"Before we officially release the first set of ratings to our member schools, the ratings are sent to Marshall for his review. This has been the sequence of events for at least the 20-25 years that I have handled the ratings," she said.

It's also not unusual for Bickley for call Johnson on a Monday morning, wondering if he has a score for a game in a remote part of the state that wasn't called in.

If he doesn't already, she said, he can usually find it quickly.

In recent years, Johnson has shared computer files with the state's newspapers at the start of football season, giving them the updated records they might need during the year. When he season ends, he produces a list of records broken during the year.

In between, his phone rings often as prep writers call with questions.

"I don't know how many times I called him over the years, but the card on my rolodex with his number was in bad shape dog-eared because I called his number so many times," said Bob Teitlebaum, retired prep sports editor at The Roanoke Times.

"Every time I talked to him, you could almost feel his mind clicking off numbers."

These days, Johnson spends less time in the library and more time at home with his wife of 62 years, Shirley. Besides working on his culinary skills, Marshall and Shirley delight in keeping up with the accomplishments of their son and his family, which includes three grandchildren, as well as his beloved alma mater, Washington & Lee.

He does hope to attend and cover some of the basketball games at the Siegel Center, and present the Sportsmanship Award after some of the championship games.

If you see him down there on press row, think about offering a simple "Thank you" for all he's done. You'll be speaking for many people that never knew they should.



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