Ken Johnson never coached his son, Lane, in the game of baseball. But he did provide the South Johnston High standout with his greatest lesson in baseball. It’s a lesson that carries on nearly a year after Ken Johnson’s sudden death.
“’Play hard, play smart,’ that’s what he always told me,” Lane Johnson said. “I think about that every time I step onto the field. It’s always written on my cleats - Play hard, play smart – and it’s always the first thing in my mind.”
It reads like a lesson out of the Sam Narron book of baseball and now the lesson that Ken Johnson left his son has united the Trojans standout and one of the Johnston County’s baseball most famous legends.
Johnson, the son of Trudy Johnson, is the 2013 winner of the Sam Narron Baseball Award, which is presented by the Narron family annually along with a college scholarship, to honor the Emit community native who went onto win multiple World Series rings.
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It was those rings that Narron often wore to area youth league fields and used as his “in” to get young players dreaming not just of reaching the Major Leagues but also dreaming of college educations.
Presenting the award, Rooster Narron says is the family’s way of showing that “he’s still encouraging kids in baseball in Johnston County.” The award honors one senior player annually who shows a love of baseball through their determination, dedication and sacrifice.
“To have your name associated with a guy like Sam Narron is an honor,” Johnson said. “It’s something a lot of people want to win so it’s just a fantastic honor to be that person.”
Johnson went 7-5 with a 1.49 earned-run average and one save for South Johnston as a senior, helping the Trojans reach the state playoffs for the first time in four seasons. He hit .303 at the plate and provided invaluable leadership and an ideal example for younger players to follow, according to South Johnston coach Keith Durham.
During the Johnston County Easter Invitational, Johnson was the winning pitcher in the championship game, helping South Johnston extend its record number of wins in the tournament.
“I’ve watched Lane grow up in the Meadow community, then at South Johnston,” Durham said. “He’s a tremendous ball player and a young man who has endured more than his share of hardships but remained focused on his school work and baseball.
“If I had a son, Lane Johnson is the type of person I’d want my son to be. He is a very hard-working and honest young man.”
Sam Narron’s father did during his formative years when Sam was just a 10-year-old with baseball dreams of his own and not creating dreams for other local players as he did after he won the World Series with the Cardinals in 1942.
Lane Johnson and his brother, Parker, both Red Cross certified lifeguards, performed CPR on their father that fateful night, but the damage from the heart attack Ken Johnson suffered that night was too severe.
His dad’s sudden death only strengthened Lane’s faith.
“It definitely made me think about baseball in a whole new way,” Johnson said. “You realize that if you lose a game, it’s still disappointing but there are a lot of people out there at the same time fighting through something that’s a lot worse than losing a baseball game.”
The Narron family, whose 70-year run in professional baseball includes nine players from the family, presents the award annually to a Johnston County baseball standout to continue the former professional player and coach’s legacy.
The traits that define the Sam Narron award were the same characteristics that drew the attention of Branch Rickey, who always seemed to find a place for the catcher whether it be with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the 1930s to the Dodgers’ teams of the 50s.
Johnson’s days in baseball will continue in college He’s still weighing offers to play at the next level but knows it’ll take the same kind of commitment he’s shown to the game for years.
“If you don’t have the determination to be a good baseball player, you can’t develop that love of the game,” Johnson said. “You have to be dedicated to baseball to succeed at the game. And there’s part of you, you know that you’re sacrificing part of your childhood for baseball.”
Johnson was glad to make those sacrifices. His love of the game hasn’t lessened through his trials over the past year. He thinks of his father before every game.
“It didn’t matter what else I did on the field to him,” Johnson said of his dad. “As long as I played hard and smart, he was happy.”